Sunday 25 July 2010

I read the complete Sherlock Holmes this year - here's what I thought of them

At the start of this year I set myself four new year's resolutions.  As is the way with such things, results have been mixed.  One has been a completely failure, another more or less successful thus far, and a third that I've missed so completely I've contrived to forget what it was (actually, I have a vague recollection which, if it's correct, suggests I haven't met it either).  Only one has been a total success and that wasn't really a resolution in the sense of get to work a bit earlier, rather more of a goal: to read the complete Sherlock Holmes.

I've tried this before, a little over a decade ago, and on that occasion I stalled at around The Empty House (at the start of The Return of Sherlock Holmes) and got no further, largely as I hadn't been enjoying them all that much.  It is, therefore, something of a pleasant surprise that not only did I get through the lot in about three months, but for the most part I also enjoyed them tremendously, though some, such as The Empty House, are weaker than others.  (In a side note, I read them on my iPhone, which I've really come round to as an e-reader, provided you tweak the settings right - for those interested, I used the Stanza app.)

If anything, the series is at its weakest towards the start, with A Study in Scarlet.  In some respects the problem is that I don't think Conan Doyle has quite got the measure of writing his characters in the manner he would master it in later years.  The book is also split in two, with an investigation in part one, and part two set in America with Holmes and Watson barely making an appearance.  In fairness, much later in the series Conan Doyle to a large extent recycles the story and structure with The Valley of Fear, in a manner that is massively more successful.

This is not the only time he retreads his steps - in many ways The Six Napoleons and The Blue Carbuncle are the same story, though each has it's own fun touches, such as the way Holmes elicits information from a livestock dealer by contriving to lose a wager in the latter.  Indeed, as you read though all the stories in sequence a number of themes keep cropping up, such that making stab in the dark guesses at what's happened gets a little easier.  Just one example is Conan Doyle's fondness for people hiding in secret rooms (as occurs in at least three of the stories).

A few of the stories suffer from being dated - the initials KKK were probably not well known at the time he wrote The Five Orange Pips, but the moment they appear the modern reader knows more or less exactly what is going on.

Another problem is that as the series goes on one does begin to suspect Conan Doyle's heart is no longer in it.  He wrote at least three final stores, most notably The Final Problem, wherein he famously tried to kill off his creation to ensure an end of things (and which appears surprisingly early in the series); it didn't work.  The title of the collection His Last Bow, rather gives things away in the title, so too the final story, The War Service of Sherlock Holmes, set many years later and reuniting our heroes in a spy story (which suffers from the fact Conan Doyle was not as sure of spy craft as he was of detection and deduction).  At the start of The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle uses a preface to spell out that this really will be it, in some ways just as well as these stories feel the weakest.  There are still gems to be found, such as The Lion's Mane, set after Holmes has officially retired and featuring a nice little twist; The Retired Water Colourist is rather fine too.

One of the things that is especially interesting is the difference between what one finds on the page and what we know from the screen.  You would think Moriarty was in half the stories or more given how often he crops up on screen, yet he makes his first appearance only in The Final Problem.  He appears as a power behind events in The Valley of Fear and is referenced in half a dozen other stories other but that's it.  Watson is a far more youthful and intelligent character than we're used to seeing from Nigel Bruce's influential portrayal alongside Basil Rathbone; indeed, often Holmes will ask Watson his deductions which aren't always a million miles from the mark.  Holmes is actually an excellent violinist (also a boxer, something the recent Guy Ritchie film got right).

The strength of the friendship is one of the great things about the books.  It's very understated and yet incredibly solid.  Yet it shows through in Watson's concern and attempts to wean Holmes off his seven per cent solution (which, given the way it largely fades from the stories, seem to be more or less successful) and the fury with which Holmes reacts in The Adventure of the Three Garridebs when he thinks Watson may have been seriously hurt by the villain - informing him that:

If you had killed Watson, you would not have got out of this room alive.

Watson is genuinely hurt whenever Holmes maligns his chronicles.  There is the loyalty with which he always returns to Holmes' side when called.

Conan Doyle has a fine sense of humour and there are many nice witty touches, such as Watson's veiled threat at the start of one of his narratives to an unnamed party to cease his attempts to secure Watson's notes or the way Holmes has fun at the expense those who doubt his talents, as Colonel Ross experiences in Silver Blaze.

Amid the dozens of stories there are some inconsistencies.  The Valley of Fear contains an extended discussion of who Moriarty is, yet when Holmes crashes breathless into Watson's surgery in The Final Problem, the latter has never heard of him.  Then there is Watson's second wife, never identified - it almost feels as though it has slipped Conan Doyle's mind that he'd killed the first one (in some ways a good thing as it allows our heroes to resume living together).  Early on in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is furious that the police will get all the credit for his genius (one of the things that prompts Watson to begin his chronicles); later he is often happy for the police to get the credit for his efforts.

Indeed, as the books progress, Holmes and Watson sometimes consent to events being covered up, at times keeping things from the police and remaining more concerned with ensuring natural justice.  Conversely, in The Priory School Holmes allows his silence to be bought.  At times Holmes will turn down a client on moral grounds no matter what they offer, on other occasions he does so simply because they won't tell him the truth.  However, such things are minor niggles among generally superb stories.

What I will do in the remainder of this review is examine a few of my favourite stories and what makes them so fine.  The Red Headed League has long been a favourite.  In the first place because it's one of the stories the reader can actually solve - in many the solution is narrated by Holmes with a revelation that only he can have known.  In addition, the villain's scheme is simultaineously both inspired and ludicrous.

The Speckled Band on the other hand gains both from having a wonderfully malevolent and sinister villain coupled with a means of murder than is genuinely terrifying.  Then there is The Dying Detective.  The central conceit, wherein Holmes fakes a fatal illness, is perhaps a little obvious, and yet it is carried off with such wonderful style that that hardly matters.

The Final Problem was probably my favourite the first time round and remains one of the best.  Interestingly titled, since it doesn't really represent a problem in the detective sense we are used to: Holmes ensnares Moriarty's network, but by means that are never explained.  Rather, it tells the story of his flight from the villain and the latter's single-minded pursuit of him - the moment where they abandon their train, only to see it overtaken almost immediately by Moriarty's special, is thrilling.  It is a classic adventure story and Moriarty has been perfectly crafted with a single purpose - an adversary worthy of ending Holmes.

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton is another favourite, not least because it sees our heroes turning to crime, burglary, for the greater good, leading to a wonderfully tense and dramatic conclusion.  The hillarious coda, wherein Holmes informs Lestrade (who himself appears far less often than one might expect) he can be of no assistance, and that the criminals could be anyone, why, the description of one might even match Watson (principally because it was he), is priceless.

Of the four novels The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the greatest, though for its wonderfully dark second half The Valley of Fear runs it close.  Some of the twists are quite obvious, such as the identity of the man on the moor, yet the identity of the murderer less so.  Conan Doyle also displays a remarkably refreshing range of styles in his narrative, here some letters from Watson to Holmes, at other times Watson quotes from his journal.  Tiny details laid at the start of the book pay off handsomely by the conclusion and other turns of events, such as the villain impersonating Holmes, are very nicely done.

Probably my favourite story is The Adventure of the Yellow Face, which crops up in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.  I like it because it's one of the stories where Holmes gets it wrong, and great characters are often at their most interesting when they make mistakes.  To heighten this, Conan Doyle tells the reader that's what happens right at the outset and, if you're anything like me, the reader thinks to themselves that they'll see if they can't do better.  Of course, by the time the whole mystery had been laid out, I had entirely forgotten this and rushed headlong down the same false alleyway, despite Conan Doyle giving multiple clues to the correct solution.  As with any great twist it is, with hindsight, blindingly obvious, and yet the false solution plays so wonderfully to many of the cliches of the time that crop up in the series.

In short, Conan Doyle provided three months of excellent reading - there is good reason why this character has proved so enduring, such that it is little wonder these characters have endured and remained popular for well over a century.  The latest reboot occurs on BBC1 this evening, moving the characters to the 21st century.  I, for one, can't wait.

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