Reflections on Sherlock Holmes

In a FiveBooks interview, Michael Dirda offers some suggestions of where to begin with Sherlock Holmes and what to read. I have a few thoughts of my own:

1. Only start with A Study in Scarlet if you feel you must. Each of the mysteries is self-contained—albeit with some references to earlier cases—and your understanding of Holmes and Watson’s relationship will not be hampered if you haven’t read about their first encounter. The novel is not Conan Doyle’s best, as the transition from Part I to Part II is jarring and the back story is dull.

2. If you’re only going to read one Holmes mystery, choose The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s the best written of all the novels and ought to be considered one of the foundational myths of Modernity, a kind of anti-Prometheus celebrating the triumph of science over superstition.

3. The best short story collections are The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. My favorite short stories are “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League” and “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” (in The Return of Sherlock Holmes).

4a. Moriarty is more interesting on film than he is in the books, where his real significance is that he represents a wicked problem. Moriarty is crime made conscious of itself. “The Final Problem” suggests a strategy for dealing with complexity: Destroying one’s own perspective.

4b. Mycroft is more interesting in the books than he is on film. What sort of man “remains a subordinate, has no ambitions of any kind, will receive neither honour nor title, but remains the most indispensable man in the country”? Possibly a very selfless one. Possibly a very selfish one.

4c. Although we have come to think of Sherlock Holmes as an autistic savant, we forget that one of his fundamental talents was his ability to project himself into the minds of others. Throughout the mysteries, he is portrayed as a master of acting and disguise. (Might not Sherlock Holmes be the creation of Sherlock Holmes?) If anyone struggles to relate to others, surely it is Mycroft, who forms the anti-social Diogenes Club, or Moriarty, who is typically far removed from his victims. Change the timbre of Holmes’ soul—make him less willing to seek out solutions in society or unable to empathize with the suffering of others—and voilà! You have either Mycroft or Moriarty. That these men exert far more influence in the world than Holmes is a profound commentary on the nature of power.

5. I took the time a couple of years ago to read the entire Holmes canon on the advice of Harlan Ellison:

You want to be smart, don’t read the Bible, don’t read ‘The One Minute Manager,’ don’t read ‘How to Influence Friends and Make People Kiss Your Ass,’ what you read is you read the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories. You read the entire canon. They’re not that many. You read the entire canon and you will be smarter than you ever need to be, because every one of them is based on the idea of deductive logic. Keep your eyes open and be alert. That’s what all good writing says: Wake up and pay attention. Pay attention! Pay attention!

I love Ellison’s insight about what good writing says, but upon reflection, I’m not convinced that my time with Sherlock Holmes has made me in any way a better thinker. Ultimately, I enjoyed the stories, and that enjoyment is justification enough for having read them. I think there’s a case to be made that the mysteries actually make us worse thinkers if we take an uncritical, extremist sort of view about the possibilities of Holmes’ brand of deductive logic. (And incidentally, don’t think that Conan Doyle himself falls into that trap.) Consider this passage in A Study in Scarlet:

From a drop of water… a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.

Well, no he couldn’t, and if he doesn’t understand why not, it’s because he hasn’t really understood the nature of a scientific model, much less the qualitative wonder of the Atlantic Ocean. Envisaging some large body of water with living organisms is not the same as deducing and understanding the Atlantic. “Ineffable twaddle!” cries Watson. Indeed. But here I waste my breath, for I take umbrage against the presumption of the age, which ultimately, is what the mysteries reveal, unravel, and mythologize.