Mystery Monday: Sherlock Holmes!
Our books today might seem like strange candidates for the category of “summer books,” since we naturally equate all things Sherlock Holmes with fog-bound London rather than sun-brightened Boston, but as I mentioned yesterday, an equally-important element of summer books is their feeling of ease, of being a home rather than a journey. I think that’s why so many of my own summer books are re-reads rather than new titles (although I still try to read everything of any note that’s new); something about the joy of old favorites seems to go well with the warmth and the breezes and the branch-shadows gently waving on the wall.
And when it comes to re-reading, there are few contenders in my own library to equal the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle! In fact, it’s these stories, along with things like The Jungle Books and the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs that have often made me wonder just what re-reading is, cognitively (I got some help in these contemplations by reading – and, yes, re-reading! – Patricia Meyer Spacks’s intensely good 2011 book On Rereading, which I can’t recommend strongly enough if you, like me, do lots of re-reading). Past a certain point, we don’t do it in order to catch details we’d previously missed, and we certainly don’t do it in order to be surprised. In the case of roughly half a dozen of my own favorite re-reading titles, for instance, I pretty much know the contents verbatim – and since that means I can call them to mind any time I like whether or not I have the book in front of me, even the ‘reminder’ function would seem to be invalidated. And yet I go back to them on a regular basis – and love the experience, whatever that experience is.
Few more so than these great canonical Holmes stories, which I love to distraction and have in many required formats! First, of course, you need simple paperbacks for all-purpose use. There have been at least a hundred thousand such paperbacks, but the ones I prefer are the two-volume set of mass markets put out by Bantam and featuring an Introduction by Loren Estleman (who’s no slouch in the genre himself, though mystifyingly few readers seem to know that! His Detroit novels are masterpieces of American crime fiction, and his fantastic novel of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Bloody Season, stands as the single best fictional treatment of that weirdly fascinating event – even better than the great Larry McMurtry’s latest novel, which dealt with the same subject). Here we have the canon – the stories and the novellas, and here we get all the sweet little moments at which Doyle was so adept – including my favorite, the moment in The Red-Headed League when Dr. Watson, surreptitiously watching his friend Sherlock Holmes, has a chilling realization:
The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and, as I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions. Then it was that the lust of the chase would suddenly come upon him, and that his brilliant reasoning power would rise to the level of intuition, until those who were unacquainted with his methods would look askance at him as on a man whose knowledge was not that of other mortals. When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music at St. James’s Hall I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.
Of course, there’s a little more to Doyle’s Holmes canon than short stories – there are also the aforementioned novellas, The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, and my personal favorite, The Hound of the Baskervilles, with its perfect blend of gothic atmosphere and Victorian rationalism. I thrill to this particular novella every summer exactly the same as I did the first summer I read it – despite the fact that an innocent dog is one of the story’s fatalities. I love the opening scene, where the intelligent but fearful young Doctor Mortimer, having acquainted Holmes & Watson with the legend of the Baskervilles, then tells them what he discovered when he examined the death-scene of his old friend Sir Charles Baskerville:
“On the night of Sir Charles’s death Barrymore the butler, who made the discovery, sent Perkins the groom on horseback to me, and as I was sitting up late I was able to reach Baskerville Hall within an hour of the event. I checked and corroborated all the facts which were mentioned at the inquest. I followed the footsteps down the Yew Alley, I saw the spot at the moor-gate where he seemed to have waited, I remarked the change in the shape of the prints after that point, I noted that there were no other footprints save those of Barrymore on the soft gravel, and finally I carefully examined the body, which had not been touched until my arrival. Sir Charles lay on his face, his arms out, his fingers dug into the ground, and his features convulsed with some strong emotion to such an extent that I could hardly have sword to his identity There was certainly no physical injury of any kind. But one false statement was made by Barrymore at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body He did not observe any. But I did – some little distance off, but fresh and clear.”
“A man’s or a woman’s?”
Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: –
“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
As my friend and colleague Rohan Maitzen points out in her wonderful feature in this month’s Open Letters Monthly, when you’ve run through the source material with a vengeance, you can take some enjoyment – maybe a lot of enjoyment – from treatments, adaptations, homages, and pastiches. And the world of Sherlock Holmes has certainly inspired more than its fair share of those! I’ve been faithfully reading Holmes-pastiche fiction for a very long time, and every summer, I pull down one or two examples to supplement my re-reading of the canon. This summer, I fancy I’ll start with Robert Lee Hall’s 1977 novel Exit Sherlock Holmes, which tells a familiar story of Holmes confronting Moriarty and has an easy appreciation of Conan Doyle’s original atmosphere:
It was now about five o’clock and growing dark. Already the streetlamps were lit, spreading their sentinel glow down the thoroughfares. The wind had ceased and the rain fell straight down, hissing on the pavement and on the roof of our hansom. I was surprised that I did not have to endure [Inspector Athelney] Jones’ effusiveness on the journey as I had feared. In fact he was rather morose, and when the lamps of a passing carriage illuminated his face I saw that he was deep in thought, with his lips pressed together firmly.
Exit Sherlock Holmes also has the sweetest ending coda of any pastiche novel I’ve read:
Shadows form upon my wall, shapes of struggle and flight. A lean hawk-nosed profile materializes and I hear the familiar voice: “Come, Watson, the game is afoot!”
In my dream it is 1895. London is wreathed in a dreadful fog through which a criminal escapes, but Sherlock Holmes is on his trail.
As ever in my dreams, I am by my old friend’s side.
Less elegiac in tone is L. B. Greenwood’s 1988 Sherlock Holes and the Case of Sabina Hall, which tends to sacrifice fast pacing for some pretty spot-on elaborations of character – including the character of its star, which is often so elusive to his chroniclers:
“What you require in a case, then,” I asked slowly, “is evidence of the operation of a truly criminal mind?”
“The criminal mind is as rare as any other form of genius, doctor. Fortunately, or mankind would not enjoy even the small peace that he has. What I require in a case is rather -”
On the street below a group of schoolboys was scampering off to class, one ahead of the rest. From him came that piping challenge of exuberant youth, “You can’t catch me-e-e!”
With that careless call a sudden light had leapt into Holmes’ grey eyes, a light that I was to see on many occasions through the years, that I saw on that morning for the first time. He gestured toward the window. “There is your answer. When I hear that call sounded by the details of a case, then, Watson, then my very soul shouts its reply: ‘Can’t catch you? Oh yes, I can – I will!’”
Holmes pastiche fiction gallops on at a faster pace than ever, fueled in part by the huge success of the character in other media – a popular series of brainless, sacrilegious Hollywood movies and an utterly superb BBC TV series whose glories of intelligence and repartee have been making themselves more and more apparent to me during scattered Netflix sessions (I’ve also enjoyed very much the American version of that BBC show, which is mighty sharp and intelligent in its own right). Holmes is a bigger star than he’s been in decades, and something of that celebrity status has filtered through to the pastiche fiction, where Holmes himself often seems aware of his heightened status. Take, for example, The Lost Casebooks of Sherlock Holmes, the 2012 compilation of Donald Thomas’s three collections of Holmes stories, – The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice from the Crypt, and The Execution of Sherlock Holmes. Thomas’s stories are extremely enjoyable, bringing in so much British history that they often read more like historical fiction than mystery fiction, and in most of these stories, Holmes is already a star, already revered by Scotland Yard and the Powers That Be of the Empire. In one story, Holmes is consulted over security measures for King Edward’s imminent visit to Ireland – and our star makes his demands abundantly clear:
“One thing, Lestrade. Where is His Majesty to be lodged in Dublin?”
“The Viceregal Lodge in Phoenix Park, as I understand.”
“Impossible.” Holmes brought his hand down flat and hard on the desk. “It is the first place that would be made a target. Let him make the crossing on the royal yacht, anchor off Kingstown, and live on board. And let there be a cruiser either side of him. I cannot undertake this business if he multiplies the risks by living ashore.” I confess there had grown about my friend something of the prima donna in such matters. He must have his way. As the world knows, however, King Edward sailed on the Victoria and Albert, anchored off Kingstown, and lived aboard. The cruiser Black Prince was moored on one side, the Antrim on the other.
I confess, however, that whichever pastiches I choose for any given summer never really sustain themselves very long before I revert to the original canon: “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” “The Speckled Band,” “The Empty House,” “The Dancing Men,” “The Sign of Four” – and of course “A Scandal in Bohemia” – and dozens more, all these stories whose worlds and characters I’ve visited so many times. I’ll do it again this summer, because that’s what summer books are for.