Sherlock Holmes: observations and deductions

I have been listening to the Sherlock Holmes stories read by Stephen Fry.

As one would expect, Fry does a marvelous job of it. He’s a lifelong Sherlockian and his love for the series comes out in some of the personal essays he wrote to accompany each book, and also in his narration.

I’ve long been acquainted with the Holmes stories – I’m sure I read the Adventures and Memoirs volumes in my pre-teen years – but they never quite stuck in my mind and I never progressed much farther. I depended on other media (TV, movies, comics) to fill in the gaps.

The whole realm of Sherlockiana on the other hand – the annotated volumes, the encyclopedias, the books about Sherlock – seemed a bit more fun. And, in fact, I think I absorbed most of what I know about the Sherlock Holmes universe that way.

So it’s interesting to hear the stories as an adult. As a kid, I remember really trudging through the long other story inside A Study in Scarlet and wondering why it was there. I can stand those digressions a little better nowadays.

So far, I’ve heard A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, Adventures, and am about halfway through Memoirs. Here are some stray thoughts I’ve had listening to them:

  • The most interesting bits of a Holmes story happen before the plot gets started. The description of Sherlock’s world, his habits, his table-talk, and so on, are what I find most interesting because Sherlock is typically the most interesting character. Example: the first few pages of “The Greek Interpreter” where Watson meets Mycroft and learns more of Sherlock’s family history. They do not contribute to the story’s plot or theme, but they color in more of Sherlock’s universe, and that’s fascinating.
  • Which underlines that it’s Sherlock we’re really interested in, not the stories.
  • Good lord, but so many of these stories are resolutely undramatic. All tell and no show. This makes the stories feel quite inert despite their sometimes lurid content. “The Engineer’s Thumb,” for example, is a thrilling bit of pulp melodrama as Victor Hatherley finds himself isolated, escapes being killed by a metallic press, and attempts the rescue of a young lady. But we’re not there with him as the action is happening, only being told about it afterward. So I finish the stories feeling rather cool toward them.
  • The Ian Richardson version of “The Sign of Four” actually improves on the original story in a few respects, particularly the boat-chasing climax and the capture of Jonathan Small. Doyle painted himself a rich canvas but did not take advantage of some of the details to make the stories a little tighter and more thrilling.
  • The stories typically bring one-off characters onto the stage where they recount long monologues and deep background information on the characters’ life histories, Sherlock is involved to a minimal degree, and then – poof – story’s done. I’m thinking here of “The Yellow Face” and “The Copper Beeches”: intriguing setups, but Holmes is a secondary player on those stages. Also, these monologues stop the story’s momentum stone dead.
  • Which leads me to wonder whether Doyle really was more interested in telling those stories of thwarted passion and conflict rather than neatly trimmed and tidy mystery stories.
  • There are a few stories where we travel along with Holmes the bloodhound as he investigates the case in real-time, as it were: “The Red-Headed League,” “The Speckled Band,” “Silver Blaze,” and “The Resident Patient,” for example. Those are fun. But there aren’t as many of those as I remembered.
  • There is the wizardry of Holmes’ deductions, of course, but since the reader is rarely given the clues, the reveal is always a bit of a cheat. The hardest thing about writing a detective story is finding a good clue (the creators of both “Sherlock!” and “Columbo” have said as much). So as I listen to the stories, I listen for the clues that Doyle deploys so Holmes can characterize, say, the owner of a hat (“The Blue Carbuncle”):

…That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.

He has, however, retained some degree of self-respect … He is a man who leads a sedentary life, goes out little, is out of training entirely, is middle-aged, has grizzled hair which he has had cut within the last few days, and which he anoints with lime-cream. These are the more patent facts which are to be deduced from his hat. Also, by the way, that it is extremely improbable that he has gas laid on in his house.

  • How did Doyle devise such rich and wonderful names for his characters? Jabez Wilson, Hosmer Angel, Enoch Drebber, Joseph Stangerson, Thaddeus Sholto, Fitzroy Simpson, Hall Pycroft, Neville St. Clair, Jephro Rucastle, and – my favorite – Dr. Grimesby Roylott.
  • Doyle’s vocabulary amps up the thrills because they aren’t really there in the stories. Characters feel forebodings of horror, dread, unease, monstrous, hideous, etc. Doyle was really writing some potboiler stuff: the colorful, lurid, melodramatic, and pulpish back stories of the characters or the culprits are tamed and made presentable in the genteel sitting room of 221B Baker Street.