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.

"Hope is like honey"

A passage from the actor Terence Stamp’s memoir, Rare Stamps. There are the usual ups and downs of an actor’s life – from being celebrated when he first appeared onscreen, he was broke by 1984 – funny backstage moments, and lots of soul-searching as he travels to India trying to find the answer “out there.” The answers he finds seem to be the answers that are always there.

What can I tell you that I haven’t already told you? Only the essence of what artists finer than myself shared with me.

Engage in what life presents. It has its own reasons. Maybe it isn’t what you’ve hoped for, but hope is like honey. Don’t indulge in it. Just eat it when it’s on your spoon.

Be present and notice when you’re not. This being present and knowing when you’re present usually has its roots in a heightened state of work. Allow it to flow over into your life—anytime. It is the cog that only appears to turn; yet its radiant presence is the foundation for all the atoms in what we call our body.

Aim high; life will support you: It is resonating in your own heart. Have faith in it; be courageous.

Disregard your doubtful thoughts. As William Shakespeare wrote, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.” Let doubts pass like clouds in the sky.

On hearing "Carmina Burana" this afternoon

Many years ago, we had a work friend who was a member of a community chorus; they usually performed popular or light programs of songs.

One year, the director really wanted to flex his muscles so they studied, practiced, and performed Carmina Burana, with key soloists and some instrumentalists hired for the performance.

It was challenging for her – different from the normal “pops” style of concert programming and difficult musically, especially such an odd piece that she was not familiar with before. By the end of it, she was enjoying the musical and theatrical challenge of the piece.

We met with her after the concert and asked what the next concert would be.

“It’ll be a concert of Gershwin music. It’ll be good,” she said. She paused, and added, a little wistfully, “But it won’t be Carmina Burana.”

Loose verse

Loose verse written sitting in an outdoor chair, under an awning of the car repair place, during a warm all-day rain

When did I become my grandfather,

an old man whose only pastime is

sitting in a chair on a sidewalk

watching the weather

looking at people passing by

looking at his thoughts passing by

not distracting himself with a book,

a phone, a game, a podcast,

food, not even coffee (well, apart

from my thermos sitting on the ground beside me)

Sitting waiting on my car to be worked on,

I’m content not feeding my mind with

others’ ideas or imaginations

Just sitting quiet and still

part of the landscape

part of the weather

On today's agenda

Liz just finished weeding a section of the front yard; we’ll see if Home Depot has mulch later.

On today’s agenda: I’ll vacuum the house, we’ll get groceries, order a pizza, watch a movie.

I always thought being an adult would give me a ticket to a glamorous life of non-stop excitement and stimulation. But I find much so pleasure in the day-to-day ordinariness of life that I never noticed how my dreams and vision changed.

Not a good or bad thing, just a thing to notice and wonder at.

Plausible Reality

Liz just came in to tell me today’s Cryptoquote (she does the crypto and Jumble puzzles daily). Something from Mark Twain about how fiction is obliged to be plausible, whereas reality has no such restriction. I’ve used that quote a lot in the last four years.

At 59, do you start counting up or start counting down?

Sunday's Readwise quotes

The Relationship Handbook by George Pransky

Emotions are never a statement about the world around us. They are always a statement about our momentary perspective on life. Emotions are a quality-control device that measures the quality of our thinking. They tell us whether or not we are viewing life dispassionately—and how sound our judgment is. When we experience black emotions like anger and despair, we know that we are taking things too personally and have lost touch with the big picture. When our feelings are positive and light we know we are viewing life with more wisdom and perspective. (Location 883)

The Underground Guide to Success

The Theory of Action as defined by me states that if something is moving, you are getting closer to your goals. This means your mouth is moving while you call prospective employers or clients, your feet are moving as you walk to an appointment you set up, your eyes are moving as you read a book to improve your skills, your fingers are moving as they type up a business plan you will present to investors to attract new capital to a business, your feet are moving as you exercise to lose weight. The corollary to The Theory of Action is equally as important. If something isn’t moving, you probably are not getting closer to your goals. (Location 3,398)

The Arnold Bennett Calendar by Arnold Bennett

A talent never persuades or encourages the owner of it; it drives him with a whip. (Location 1,080)

An Ignorant Highbrow via

So is that what architectural sophistication means – knowing what buildings you’re supposed to like and not like, according to people who know a lot more about the subject than you ever will? I hope not. Architecture merits close study, even if amateurs like me sometimes get it wrong and miss the finer points, for the reasons that all culture merits close study: to take nothing for granted, to resist complacency, to notice things, to be more awake, to be more alive. Close study of skateboarding may well provide the same advantages; I really couldn’t say. Maybe what matters as much as the things we love is the quality of attention we bring to the things we love.

How To Write The Great American Novel by Jim Behrle

And the only thing that’s interesting about most writers is just the tap tap tap of keys. Otherwise they’re just as boring as the rest of us.

Today's Readwise quotes

The Relationship Handbook by George Pransky

Michael. We wouldn’t have lasted ten years if our marriage hadn’t turned around. We went to a marriage counselor who knew what he was doing. He helped us to straighten things out. Interviewer. What did he tell you? Michael. He suggested we stop trying to analyze and “work on” the relationship and concentrate on enjoying each other. (Location 2,294)

A Weapon for Readers by Tim Parks

But if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it. Let us resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into. For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed. Wasn’t this what Cervantes was complaining about when he began Don Quixote? Better to read a poor book with alert resistance, than devour a good one in mindless adoration. (Location 77)

Help! by Oliver Burkeman

But Bennett’s insight is that zoning out is tiring, not relaxing; half-hearted semi-focusing causes life to feel like an exhausting blur. (Location 689)

Complete Works of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler

My days run through me as water through a sieve. (Location 86,728)

Seduced by Consciousness by Jack Pransky

I realized being free does not come from being aware of our story; it comes from being aware of our creation of our story. (Location 4,487)

Today's quotes from my Kindle

These are the highlighted Kindle passages sent to me today by Readwise.

How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric

The second question threading its way through this book is: how do we go about changing career and making the best possible decisions along the way? Although I offer no blueprint strategy that will work for everyone, there are three steps we ought to take. A starting point is to understand the sources of our confusions and fears about leaving our old jobs behind us and embarking on a new career. The next step is to reject the myth that there is a single, perfect job out there waiting for us to discover it, and instead identify our ‘multiple selves’ – a range of potential careers that might suit the different sides of our character. Finally, we have to turn the standard model of career change on its head: rather than meticulously planning then taking action, we should act first and reflect later, doing experimental projects that test-run our various selves in the real world. Ever thought of treating yourself to a ‘radical sabbatical’? (Location 142)

Greg Waldmann Reviews the Musical Career of Anthony Burgess (couldn’t find a link!)

One my favorite passages from his writings is at the beginning of Little Wilson and Big God, where he sits in New York’s Plaza Hotel in 1985, watching people go about their lives and thinking back on his own. “One goes on writing,” he says, “partly because it is the only available way of earning a living. It is a hard way and highly competitive… But one pushes on because one has to pay bills. There is also a privier reason for pushing on, and that is the hopeless hope that some day that intractable enemy language will yield to the struggle to control it… When I hear a journalist like Malcolm Muggeridge praising God because he has mastered the craft of writing, I feel a powerful nausea. It is not a thing to be said. Mastery never comes, and one serves a lifelong apprenticeship. The writer cannot retire from the battle; he dies fighting.” (Location 184)

Nuggets of Wisdom by Elsie Spittle

CONTINUE TO “MANUFACTURE” a healthy environment and appreciate the results, without hoping for more. Hoping for more gets in the way of appreciating what you have now. (Location 703)

The Arnold Bennett Calendar by Arnold Bennett

In the cultivation of the mind one of the most important factors is precisely the feeling of strain, of difficulty, of a task which one part of you is anxious to achieve and another part of you is anxious to shirk. (Location 963)

The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer

Ultimately, if you protect yourself perfectly, you will never grow. All your habits and idiosyncrasies will stay the same. Life becomes stagnant when people protect their stored issues. (Location 889)

Reinvent Yourself by James Altucher

Habits. It’s the 5x5 rule. You are not just the average of the five people around you. You’re the average of the five habits you do, the things you eat, the ideas you have, the content you consume, etc.

Today's Readwise quotes

Cobalt Blue by Peggy Payne

To make two paintings, this much of a plan had come to her quickly, her first day in New Orleans, and even before. It hadn’t seemed serious or plausible then, had been simply too daunting. But now she knew where to find in herself what she needed to be able to do it. She’d started to catch on at the fountain at Pat O’Brien’s: that she, like everybody else, was both a reservoir and an outpouring. That she’d been pretty stingy all these years about what she’d poured out. (Location 4,213)

The Arnold Bennett Calendar by Arnold Bennett

The great convenience of masterpieces is that they are so astonishingly lucid. (Location 949)

The Trouble With Bright Girls | Psychology Today

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids – and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not. (Location 1,923)

Gopen’s Reader Expectation Approach to the English Language by George D. Gopen

To see the stories readers perceive in your paragraph, circle all the grammatical subjects and read them in progression. (Location 353)

How to Find Fulfilling Work by Roman Krznaric

The art of career change requires turning the conventional approach on its head. We should wean ourselves off the rational-planning mentality and replace it with a philosophy of ‘act first, reflect later’. Ruminating in an armchair or poring through files at a career centre is not what we need. We must enter a more playful and experimental way of being, where we do then think, not think then do. (Location 836)

Discovered a most oddball Windows 10 feature through finger fumbling on the keyboard. I cannot conjure a reason to rotate a display by 90 degrees or upside down, but then I’m a words-and-text boy; when my Word document went all goolally, I nearly had a cow.

Flyer posted at our co-op’s community bulletin board.

Quick-elets? (No)

Used the new silicone muffin pan Liz bought me for Xmas to make some quiche muffins (although we’re trying out different names – “protein pucks”?). I used my standard spinach mushroom bacon recipe, which made two pans of “puckelets” (no).

The nice bit about the silicon muffin tin – no greasing of the cups needed nor paper cups.

Froze most of them. We have found the best way to reheat them is to let them thaw at room temperature, microwave for 40 seconds, and they taste great.

Quiche muffins2 564px