Our book today is Sherlock Holmes was Wrong by Pierre Bayard, in which the author engages in a kind of meta-pastiche on the great detective, a meta-pastiche Bayard calls “detective criticism.”

It’s a tongue-in-cheek kind of operation, half-serious in its aims of reclaiming the story from the writer (although since the French are always entirely serious about everything, including – especially – the things they’re half-serious about, we’re never really sure exactly where Bayard’s tongue is at any given point). As our author points out, even the most talented fiction writers give us a world that is at best only partially complete:

Above all, the world that the literary text produces is an incomplete world, even if some works offer more complete worlds than others. It would be more correct to speak of heterogeneous fragments of worlds, made up of parts of characters and dialogues that are never joined together into a coherent whole. And – an essential point – these weaknesses in the world of the work do not stem from a lack of information, one that studious research, as in the field of history, might hope one day to fill, but from a lack of structure: in other words, this world does not suffer from a lost completeness; it was never complete. What we are dealing with in literature is a gapped universe.

(the book is translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, by the way, just in case you were tempted to blame me for what a noticeably bumpy ride that was)

Gapped universe … it’s an intriguing formulation, and when you think about it, it’s the heart of all pastiches – readers filling in what the writer didn’t. What were Vronsky’s teenage years like? How did Kirk finally handle retirement? What was Christopher Robin’s adulthood like, or Mowgli’s? This kind of curiosity even extends to stories and scenes that were explicitly covered by their original authors (‘original authors’ – how’s that for a 21st century phrase?) – we know what was said at the Duke’s first banquet at the beginning of Dune, but not from the viewpoint of the ‘tame’ Fremen waiters serving the food and overhearing everything. We know the key details of so many of Holmes & Watson’s cases – but not from the point of view of Mrs. Hudson, their tireless landlady, or Holmes’ brother Mycroft, or, for that matter, the people in 221a.

Bayard is writing in that long tradition, although he’s taking it a step further, treating the text – in this case Doyle’s wildly successful novel The Hound of the Baskervilles – as a semi-fragmentary set of clues as to what really happened. And although he might be a little fussy and high-handed about it (I mentioned that he was French?), the technique itself yields endless amounts of good solid literary fun.

Because on one level Bayard’s observations are right: why would Stapleton choose such a ludicrously far-fetched means of causing Sir Charles Baskerville’s death? Why wouldn’t the gigantic dog Stapleton trained have attacked Sir Charles, instead of just chasing him (Bayard is right to say the dog wouldn’t have cared – or even noticed – that his intended victim had just that minute suffered a heart attack)? Why would a fleeing Stapleton carry the incriminating shoe with him into the great Grimpen Mire, only to discard it in plain view?

And maybe Bayard is ‘right’ about the real culprit in Hound – he’s certainly sure he is:

In this sense one could say that the murder recounted in The Hound of the Baskervilles is a murder by literature. It is the literary talent of the murderer that allows him to carry out the murder, a murder all the more cunning since the narrative that constructs it is murmured into the ears of dupes. A murder that culminates in a simple sentence, but that could not be perpetrated if it were not supported by the immense storytelling talent of the murderer, who manages to make us steadily see reality as something other than it is.

I won’t spoil his conclusions by revealing them – especially since I can heartily recommend his tiny little book to anybody who’s read Hound of the Baskervilles. To those who haven’t, even Bayard’s extensive summaries won’t save his book from being incomprehensible. To those who have, it’ll be a very quick hour’s read, full of eager nodding and sputtering disagreements, just exactly what you want this kind of stuff to do (although Bayard’s arrogant and overblown – did I mention he was French? – claims to be the originator of this kind of game are of course entirely wrong; John Sutherland, among others, has been doing it for years).

And be sure to catch another take on Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, this one by the legendary Irma Heldman, right here in Open Letters.

  • Ben Murphy

    For an earlier example in the same genre, there’s a story by James Thurber in which a devoted Agatha Christie reader turns her attention to Shakespeare. I think its called The MacBeth Murder Mystery.

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