Books: The Sherlockologists |
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The Sherlockologists

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote little about Sherlock Holmes compared with what has been written by other people since. Sherlock has always been popular, on a scale never less than world-wide, but the subsidiary literature which has steadily heaped up around him can’t be accounted for merely by referring to his universal appeal. Sherlockology — the adepts call it that, with typical whimsy — is a sort of cult, which has lately become a craze. The temptation to speculate about why this should be is one I don’t propose to resist, but first there is the task of sorting the weighty from the witless in the cairn of Sherlockiana — they say that, too — currently available. What follows is a preliminary classification, done with no claims to vocational, or even avocational, expertise. Most decidedly not: this is a field in which all credentials, and especially impeccable ones, are suspect. To give your life, or any significant part of it, to the study of Sherlock Holmes is to defy reason.

It is also to disparage Doyle, as John Fowles pointed out in his introduction to The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of the four Sherlock Holmes novels handsomely reissued in Britain early last year, each as a single volume. This is an expensive way of doing things, but the books are so good-looking it is hard to quarrel, although the childhood memory of reading all the Sherlock Holmes ‘long stories’ in one volume (and all the short stories in another volume), well printed on thin but opaque paper, dies hard. Still, the new books look splendid all lined up, and the introductions are very interesting. Apart from Fowles, the men on the case are Hugh Greene (A Study in Scarlet), his brother Graham Greene (The Sign of Four). What each man has to say is well worth hearing, even if not always strictly relevant to the novel it introduces. When you add to this four-volume set of the novels the five-volume reissue of the short story collections, it certainly provides a dazzling display.

To follow the order in which Doyle gave them to the world, the short story collections are The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (introduced by Eric Ambler), The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Kingsley Amis), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Angus Wilson), His Last Bow (Julian Symons), and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (C. P. Snow). The dust-wrappers of all nine volumes are carried out in black and gold, a colour combination which in Britain is supposed to put you in mind of John Player Specials, a ritzy line in cigarettes. Doing it this way, it will set you back £21.20 in English money to read the saga though.

A less crippling alternative would be to purchase the Doubleday omnibus introduced by the old-time (in fact, late) Sherlockian Christopher Morley, which reproduces the whole corpus — four novels and fifty-six short stories — on goodish paper for slightly under nine bucks, the contents being as nourishing as in the nine-volume version. The question of just how nourishing that is is one that begs to be shirked, but honour demands I should stretch my neck across the block and confess that Holmes doesn’t seem quite so fascinating to me now as he once did. Perhaps only an adolescent can get the full thrill, and the price of wanting to go on getting it is to remain an adolescent always. This would explain a lot about the Sherlockologists.

The best single book on Doyle is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, l’homme et l’oeuvre, a thoroughgoing monograph by Pierre Nordon which came out in its original language in 1964 and was translated into English as Conan Doyle a couple of years later. By no coincidence, it is also the best thing on Sherlock. In his chapter on ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Reading Public’ Nordon says most of what requires to be said about the bases of Sherlock’s contemporary appeal. On the sociological side our nine introducers can’t do much more than amplify Nordon’s points, but since all of them are working writers of fiction (with the exception of Hugh Greene, who has, however, a profound knowledge of the period’s genre literature) they usually have something of technical moment to add — and disinterested technical analysis is exactly what the Sherlock saga has for so long lacked. The Sherlockologists can’t supply it, partly because most of them are nuts, but mainly because the deficiencies of Doyle’s stories are what they thrive on: lacunae are what they are in business to fill, and they see Doyle’s every awkwardness as a fruitful ambiguity, an irrevocable licence for speculation. The professional scribes, even when they think highly of Doyle, aren’t like that. They haven’t the time.

Hugh Greene reminds us that the Sherlock stories were head and shoulders about the yellow-back norm. This is still an essential point to put: Doyle was the man who made cheap fiction a field for creative work. Greene also says that A Study in Scarlet is broken-backed, which it is. Graham Greene calls one of Doyle’s (brief, as always) descriptive scenes ‘real writing from which we can all draw a lesson’ but doesn’t forget to insist that the subplot of The Sign of Four is far too like The Moonstone for comfort. (He also calls the meeting of Holmes and Watson in A Study in Scarlet unmemorable, an accurate perception denied to the Sherlockians who gravely installed a plaque in St. Bartholomew’s hospital to commemorate it.)

Of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the only successful Sherlock novel, John Fowles gives an unsparing critical analysis, on the sound assumption that anything less would be patronizing. He sees that Doyle’s great technical feat was to resolve ‘the natural incompatibility of dialogue and narration’ but isn’t afraid to call Doyle’s inaccuracy inaccuracy. (He is surely wrong, however, to say that if Doyle had really wanted to kill Holmes he would have thrown Watson off the Reichenbach Falls. It is true that Sherlock couldn’t exist without Watson, but there is no possible question that Doyle was keen to rub Holmes out.)

Len Deighton, a dedicated amateur of technology, assures us that Doyle really did forecast many of the police methods to come — the business with the typewriter in ‘A Case of Identity,’ for example, was years ahead of its time. Since Nordon, eager as always to de-mystify Sherlock, rather downrates him on this point, it is useful to have the balance redressed. Unfortunately Deighton says almost nothing pertaining to The Valley of Fear, the novel which he is introducing. It seems likely that there was no editor to ask him to.

So it goes with the introductions to the short story collections. All of them are informative, but some of them tell you the same things, and only one or two illuminate the actual book. Kingsley Amis, as he did with Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock, gets down to fundamentals and admits that the Sherlock stories, for all their innovations in space and compression, are seldom ‘classical’ in the sense of playing fair with the reader. Eric Ambler talks charmingly about Doyle’s erudition; Angus Wilson pertinently about the plush Nineties (1895-1898, the years of The Return, were Sherlock’s times of triumph); Julian Symons penetratingly about how Doyle shared out his own personality between Holmes and Watson; and C. P. Snow — well, he, of all the nine, it seems to me, is the one who cracks the case.

His personality helps. Lord Snow not only sees but admits the attractions of the high position in society to which Sherlock’s qualities eventually brought him, with Watson striding alongside. It might have been Sherlock’s bohemianism that pulled in the crowds, but it was his conversation that glued them to the bleachers. This was Pierre Nordon’s salient observation on the sleuth’s original appeal, but Lord Snow has outsoared Nordon by realizing that the same come-on is still operating with undiminished force. Sherlock was an eccentrically toothed but essential cog in a society which actually functioned.

The life led by Holmes and Watson in their rooms at 221B Baker Street is a dream of unconventionality, like Act 1 of  La Bohème. (A Sherlockologist would step in here to point out that Henri Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, the book on which the opera was later based, is perused by Watson in A Study in Scarlet.) Although Len Deighton is quite right to say that the busy Sherlock is really running the kind of successful medical consultancy which Doyle never enjoyed, it is equally true to say that Holmes and Watson are living as a pair of Oxbridge undergraduates were popularly thought to — and indeed did — live. Holmes is a maverick scientist who treats science as an art, thereby conflating the glamour of both fields while avoiding the drudgery of either. He is free of all ties; he does what he wants; he is afraid of nothing. He is above the law and dispenses his own justice. As with Baudelaire, boredom is his only enemy. If he can’t escape it through an intellectual challenge, he takes refuge in drugs.

Sherlock in The Sign of Four was fixing cocaine three times a day for three months: if he’d tried to snort it in those quantities, his aquiline septum would have been in considerable danger of dropping off. Morphine gets a mention somewhere too — perhaps he was also shooting speedballs. Certainly he was a natural dope fiend: witness how he makes a cocktail of yesterday’s cigarette roaches in ‘The Speckled Band.’ In The Valley of Fear he is ‘callous from over-stimulation.’ All the signs of an oil-burning habit. Did he quit cold turkey or, or did Watson ease him down? Rich pickings for the ex-Woodstock Sherlockologists of the future. All of this must have been heady wine for the contemporary reader endowed by the Education Act of 1870 with just enough literacy to read the Strand Magazine, helped out by a Sidney Paget illustration on every page.

George Orwell thought Britain needed a boys’ weekly which questioned society, but Sherlock, for all his nonconformity, set no precedent. He fitted in far more than he dropped out. Sherlock was the house hippie. His latter-day chummings-up with crowned heads (including the private sessions with Queen Victoria which drive card-carrying Sherlockologists to paroxysms of conjecture) were merely the confirmation of a love for royalty which was manifest as early as ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’ ‘Your Majesty had not spoken,’ announces Holmes, ‘before I was aware that I was addressing Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and Hereditary King of Bohemia.’ The language, as so often in the Holmes stories, is part-way a put-on, but the relationship is genuine: Sherlock is as eager to serve as any of his cultural descendants. From Sanders of the River and Bulldog Drummond down to Pimpernel Smith and James Bond, all those gifted amateur soldiers can trace their ancestry to Sherlock’s bump of reverence. Physically a virgin, spiritually he spawned children numberless as the dust.

At least 30 per cent of London’s population lived below the poverty line in Sherlock’s heyday, but not very many of them found their way into the stories. Doyle’s criminals come almost exclusively from the income-earning classes. They are clinically, not socially, motivated. There is seldom any suggestion that crime could be a symptom of anything more general than a personal disorder. Doyle’s mind was original but politically blinkered, a condition which his hero reflects. When Watson says (in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’) that Holmes loathes ‘every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul’, it turns out that Watson means socializing. Society itself Holmes never queries. Even when he acts above the law, it is in the law’s spirit that he acts. Nordon is quite right to insist that Sherlock’s London, for all its wide social panorama and multiplicity of nooks and crannies, shouldn’t be allowed to get mixed up with the real London. (He is quite wrong, though, to suppose that Orwell — of all people — mixed them up. Orwell said that Doyle did, but Nordon has taken Orwell’s paraphrase of Doyle’s view for Orwell’s own opinion. He was helped to the error by a misleading French translation. Pan-culturalism has its dangers.)

Holmes was a nonconformist in a conformist age, yet still won all the conformist rewards. It was a double whammy, and for many people probably works the same magic today. I suspect that such reassurance is at the centre of the cosy satisfaction still to be obtained from reading about Sherlock, but of course there are several things it doesn’t explain. The first of these is the incessant activity of the hard-core Sherlockologists, the freaks who are on the Baker Street beat pretty well full time. Most of them seem to be less interested in getting things out of the Sherlock canon than in putting things in. Archness is the keynote: coyly pedantic about imponderables, they write the frolicsome prose of the incorrigibly humourless. The opportunity for recondite tedium knows no limit. This playful racket has been going on without let-up since well before Doyle died. The output of just the last few months is depressing enough to glance through. Multiply it by decades and the mind quails.

Here is Sherlock Holmes Detected, by Ian McQueen. It is composed of hundreds of such pseudo-scholarly points as the contention that ‘A Case of Identity’ might very well be set in September, even though Holmes and Watson are described as sitting on either side of the fire — because their landlady Mrs. Hudson is known to have been conscientious, and would have laid the fire ready for use even before winter. And anyway, Mr. McQueen postulates cunningly, Holmes and Watson would probably sit on either side of the fire even if it were not lit. Apparently this subtle argument puts paid to other Sherlockologists who hold the view that ‘A Case of Identity’ can’t possibly be set in September. Where that view originated is lost in the mists of fatuity: these drainingly inconsequential debates were originally got up by Ronald Knox and Sydney Roberts and formalized as an Oxford vs. Cambridge contest in dead-pan whimsy, which has gradually come to include the less calculated ponderosity of interloping enthusiasts who don’t even realize they are supposed to be joking. Mr. McQueen’s book sounds to me exactly the same as Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which came out in 1933 and seems to have set the pace in this particular branch of the industry.

Two other volumes in the same Snark-hunting vein are the London of Sherlock Holmes and In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes: both written by Michael Harrison, both published recently, and both consisting of roughly the same information and photographs. Both bear the imprint of the same publishing house, which must have an editor whose blindness matches the blurb-writer’s illiteracy. Mr. Harrison goes in for the same brand of bogus precision as Mr. McQueen. We hear a lot about what ‘must have’ happened. We are shown a photograph of the steps which Sherlock’s brother Mycroft ‘must have used’ when going to his job at the Foreign Office. This music hall ‘must have been visited’ by Sherlock. There is the usual interminable speculation about the whereabouts of 221B, coupled with the usual reluctance to consider that Doyle himself obviously didn’t give a damn for the plausibility of its location. The only authentic problem Mr Harrison raises is the question of which of his two books is the sillier.

Messrs McQueen and Harrison are toddling in the giant footsteps of W. S. Baring-Gould, who compiled The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which went into such scholastic minutiae with the determination of mania. Baring-Gould was also the father of yet another branch of the business — fake biographies. In his Sherlock Holmes: A Biography of the World’s First Consulting Detective (1962) Baring-Gould sent Sherlock to Oxford. In her contribution to H. W. Bell’s Baker Street Studies thirty years earlier, Dorothy Sayers sent him to Cambridge. Doyle sent him to neither.

Current biographical efforts are in the same footling tradition. Here is an untiringly industrious novel by John Gardner called The Return of Moriarty, in which the Greatest Schemer of All Time returns alive from the Reichenbach. It doesn’t daunt Mr. Gardner that he is transparently ten times more interested in Moriarty than Doyle ever was. In ‘The Final Problem’ Sherlock tells Watson that the silent struggle to get the goods on Moriarty could be the greatest story of all, but Doyle never wrote it. The reason, as Angus Wilson divines, is that Moriarty was a less employable villain than his side-kick, Moran. Moriarty was merely the Napoleon of Crime, whereas Moran was the ‘best heavy game shot that our Eastern Empire has ever produced’ — which at least sounded less vague.

But the vagueness in Doyle is what the speculators like. And here is The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, pretending to be ‘a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M. D., as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ This time Sherlock and Mycroft turn out to be repressing a shameful, nameless secret. In books like this, speculation is supposed to be veering towards the humorous. The transgression would be funny, if only it made you laugh. Mr. Meyer’s comic invention, however, is thin. But at least he is trying to be silly.

The most foolish book of the bunch, and quite frankly the loopiest stretch of exegesis since John Allegro dug up the sacred mushroom, is Naked is the Best Disguise, by Samuel Rosenberg, which has been welcomed in the United States with reviews I find inexplicable. Mr. Rosenberg’s thesis, briefly, is that Moriarty is Nietzsche and that Doyle is acting out a psycho-drama in which Sherlock is his super-ego suppressing his polymorphous perversity. Even if it had been reached by a convincing show of reasoning, this conclusion would still be far-fetched: fetched, in fact, from halfway across the galaxy. But it has been reached by no kind of reasoning except causistry. Mr. Rosenberg argues in one place that if a Sherlock Holmes adventure is set in a house with two storeys, that means there are two stories — i.e., two levels of meaning. His arguing is of the same standard in every other place.

It seems that Mr. Rosenberg used to work as a legal eagle for a film studio, protecting it from plagiarism suits by finding a common literary ancestor who might have influenced both the plaintiff’s script and the script the studio had in the works. He must have been well worth his salary, because he can see similarities in anything. (His standards of accuracy spring from the same gift: he spells A. J. Ayer’s name wrongly on seven occasions.) It would be overpraising the book to call it negligible, yet both Time and The New York Times, among others, seem to have found it a meaty effort.

Though Naked is the Best Disguise considers itself to be high scholarship, it reveals itself instantly as Sherlockology by worrying over the importance or minor detail in stories whose major action their author could scarcely be bothered to keep believable. The chronology of the Holmes saga is indefinitely debatable because Doyle didn’t care about establishing it. Early on, Sherlock was ignorant of the arts and didn’t know the earth went around the sun: later, he quoted poetry in several languages and had wide scientific knowledge. Sherlock was a minor occupation for Doyle and he was either content to leave such inconsistencies as they were or else he plain forgot about them. Mysteries arising from them are consequently unresolvable, which is doubtless their attraction. Programs for explicating Sherlock are like Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies, which George Eliot said was as endless as a scheme for joining the stars.

Uniquely among recent Sherlockiana, The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, edited by Peter Haining, is actually enjoyable. It reproduces playbills, cartoons, production stills, and - most important — some of the magazine and newspaper articles which set Sherlockology rolling. (One of them is a piece of joky speculation by Doyle himself — a bad mistake. If he wanted to trivialize his incubus, he couldn’t have chosen a worse tactic.) Basil Rathbone easily emerges as the most likely looking movie incarnation of Holmes. Sidney Paget’s drawings are better than anything else then or since. (What we need is a good two-volume complete Sherlock Holmes with all of Paget and none of Baring-Gould.) The whole scrapbook is a great help in seeing how the legend grew, not least because it shows us that legends are of circumscribed interest: too many supernumeraries — belletrist hacks and doodling amateurs with time to burn — contribute to them. As you leaf through these chronologically ordered pages you can see the dingbats swarming aboard the bandwagon.

Doyle’s brainchild could scarcely survive this kind of admiration if it did not possess archetypal attributes. Sherlockology is bastardized academicism, but academicism is one of the forces which Doyle instinctively set out to fight, and Sherlock, his Sunday punch, is not yet drained of strength. Sherlock was the first example of the art Dürrenmatt later dreamed of — the art which would weigh nothing in the scales of respectability. Doyle knew that Sherlock was cheap. What he didn’t guess before it was too late to change his mind was that the cheapness would last. The only coherence in the Holmes saga is a coherence of intensity. The language is disproportionate and therefore vivid. ‘He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.’ The images are unshaded and therefore flagrant. ‘I took a step forward: in an instant his strange headgear began to move, and there reared itself from among his hair the squat diamond-shaped head and puffed neck of a loathsome serpent.’

But Sherlock’s world was all fragments, and no real world could or can be inferred from it. In The Valley of Fear the Scourers work mischief to no conceivable political purpose. Moriarty machinates to no ascertainable end. The Sherlockologists would like to believe that this abstract universe is concrete, and that large questions of good and evil are being worked out. But the concreteness is only in the detail; beyond the detail there is nothing; and the large questions must always lack answers.

Doyle asked and tried to answer the large questions elsewhere, in the spiritualist faith which occupied his full mental effort. Eventually his seriousness went out of date, while his frivolity established itself as an institution. But since his mind at play could scarcely have played so well if it had not been so earnest a mind, there is no joke.

(New York Review of Books, 20 February 1975)


Genre fiction presents the critic with an insoluble problem, because he is the last person it was written for. Writers of science fiction and crime novels, though they have always craved respectability, could once count on being smothered with learned commentary only in the fanzines. In the post-modern era, respectability for the genre writers has arrived with a rush: Hannibal got as much attention in the culture pages on one weekend as Kafka did in a lifetime. Things were probably better the way they were. In the genres, inventiveness counts most and writing counts least, which is lucky, because hardly anyone who can invent can write. The few who can do both (with Simenon as the outstanding example) are worthy of celebration, but those literary critics who celebrate too hard betray themselves as finding literature dull. When young I read and re-read almost everything by Arthur Conan Doyle except the historical romances. I can still remember the excitement of trekking back up to Kogarah’s house-sized public library to renew my take-out of The Complete Professor Challenger Stories, a chubby volume whose heft is imprinted so exactly in my brain that fifty years later I am reminded of it when I pick up something of the same weight. I was born in a small private hospital just around the corner, and in retrospect my trips to the library seem part of the same process.

Youthful passion is the right kind of attention to give genre fiction. Mature consideration, especially if it has never been preceded by the youthful passion, is the wrong kind. I still think Doyle was some kind of great man. But to place him among the literary artists is bound to shrink the vocabulary we should have available for acknowledging those who really are. If we have to go back to the radiant books of our youth, it is better to go back as a comedian than a critic. What we will rediscover is the way we used to daydream, and our superseded daydreams of glamour, sex, bravery and deductive brilliance are always funny when they are not shameful. The best-ever traveller à la recherche du trash perdu was S. J. Perelman in Listen to the Mockingbird. Paying his belated respects to The Sheik, Graustark, Black Oxen and Three Weeks, he hit a rich seam of comic stimuli. But not even he could mine it for long, because he soon ran out of bad books that he had once truly loved. Bad books that you merely liked won’t do. The present equipoise doesn’t work without the past madness.