Author: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Type: Fiction, short stories
I read it: October 2015 (re-read)
The standard Sherlock Holmes tale is comfortingly predictable. Watson narrates Holmes’ agitation about hearing about a strange case. The two sit together in idleness and trade ideas. Holmes informs Watson that he is already investigating and they should expect a visitor. A strange foreign or rich man, or a distressed or mysterious woman, enters in dramatic fashion. Holmes listens to the visitor’s information (his eyes shut and his fingertips pressed against each other) and when he hears something unusual to him, he decides to take the case. Watson, ever agreeable, joins Holmes at the drop of a hat and off they rush into the choking London night.
Yet the standard Sherlock Holmes tale is refreshingly unique. The great detective only occasionally works with the bumbling law enforcement to bring someone to justice. More often, he is interested in a situation in which “a little problem will be presented which may be striking and bizarre without being criminal.” When he does effect a neat conclusion, he rarely waits for reward. His satisfaction comes in relaying his methods to Watson, and in being the only one to arrive at the solution. “Singularity is almost invariably a clue,” says Holmes. The strange, non-supernatural coincidences are his guiding light. He goes on: “My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence.”
To the modern reader, large chunks of the Holmes tales are quaint or foreign. The titles themselves are offputting, featuring items such as blue carbuncles, beryl coronets, copper beeches, and orange pips. (I have no idea what they are either. It doesn’t matter.) And by cataloging the states of sleeves, thumbnails, and bootlaces, the detective is always devastatingly accurate in assessing a client’s vocation and how his or her day is going. These scenes are almost cartoonish in their Holmes worship (you can feel Doyle congratulating himself through the thin veil of the page). And I have a hunch that Holmes would be confounded to sit on today’s city bus and try to guess people’s comings and goings when there are more than twenty job occupations in existence.
But the delight of these tales is the banter between Watson and the godlike Holmes, in which the latter gets to relay lines of wisdom like “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” and “When you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbably, must be the truth.” There’s a lot of fun in watching the stories unfold, and even more fun when they are peppered with serious danger or ethical gray areas.
Lastly, I couldn’t help but picture Cumberbatch and Freeman in the roles due to the popularity of the excellent BBC show, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Sherlock Holmes is, above all else, a force of personality, inhabiting a world that begs for colorful actors and a heightened sense of the character’s uncanny abilities.