Sorry this has taken a little longer to write than the “tomorrow” implied in the last part. Like I said there, I have a whole ball of different ideas to untangle, and it’s going to take me a while to sort everything out into individual posts.
Because two weeks ago I saw a lot of different things, all of which seemed to me to be making points about a set of connected ideas, but it’s taking a little time to figure out the connections between them. The first thing I saw, though, was a line in a (surprisingly mostly sensible) article by Helen Lewis in the New Statesman:
Take the story of Sherlock Holmes: stripped of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages, it’s a story about how the world accommodates a difficult genius, and what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice.
This, to me, seems so staggeringly wrongheaded it’s almost hard to know where to begin, but it’s fairly typical of the way that the idea of characterisation before all has distorted the way we look at texts these days. Because if there’s one thing the Sherlock Holmes books aren’t about, it’s any of that stuff.
The Holmes books are, fundamentally, not about Sherlock Holmes at all. Holmes is an excuse to tell the stories, which are often told in flashback by someone narrating them to him, and in which he often barely figures at all, except as a kind of deus ex machina, coming in at the end and tying up the plot threads. He’s not an active detective like a Poirot or any of the other later classic fictional detectives (although he is somewhat like Nero Wolfe in this respect, at least). Holmes never, at any point, changes significantly, and his characteristics are only those which would enable him to solve crimes.
Now, it’s true that he is nonetheless a well-drawn character — Doyle was a good enough writer that he created characters that work rather better than his plots do, and indeed the characters are rather better sketched than Doyle himself realised. Doyle’s own statements about Holmes and Watson often seem to contradict the portrayal of them in the books, but both Holmes and Watson are drawn well enough that one can certainly *place* them into active situations, and imagine their reactions to the kind of situations that turn up in more character-driven stories, but the stories themselves aren’t about that.
The typical form for a Holmes story is, roughly: Holmes says or does something unusual or exasperating because he’s bored, then does something staggeringly impressive with his intellect, at which point a client arrives. The client then tells a complicated story, which makes up the bulk of the narrative. Holmes either immediately solves the problem or does some cursory investigation and then announces the solution. Very occasionally he will confront the miscreant who created the plot he was investigating.
At no point are the stories *ever* about “how the world accomodates a difficult genius” — by the time we get to know Holmes he has already found his perfect niche, in which he remains for the entirety of Doyle’s work — and the bits about “what it means to care about someone who refuses to listen to good advice” tend to consist of about two sentences per story, along the lines of:
“Dash it all, Holmes,” I expostulated, “is it really necessary for you to inject cocaine while lighting your pipe at the same time? It’s dashed distracting, and it can’t be good for you.”
“Oh Watson,” replied the great detective,”what I would not give for a problem worthy of my intellect, so I did not have to distract my mind with cocaine, but sadly the crime pages of the newspapers are full of trivia.”
(That’s not an actual quote, but it might as well be).
These scenes are not “what the story is about” — they’re there as scene-setting, a way of showing that one of our two characters is a rather conventional medical man, and the other is a bohemian with a great intelligence. To say that these tiny framing sequences are what the story is about is to fundamentally misread the whole structure of the stories. One might as well say that the 60s Batman TV series is about a millionaire persuading his ward to keep up with his studies, or that Right Ho, Jeeves is about whether a white mess-jacket is acceptable evening attire.
So what are the Holmes stories actually about? That will have to wait until the next post (possibly tomorrow)…