Summer Reading: Sherlock Holmes

This isn’t really so much about reading Sherlock Holmes as experiencing the Holmes… thing, the atmosphere, the intrigue, the magic, to be honest. I suppose what started everything off was me watching Sherlock Holmes on the flight on my way home, although really, my fascination with Holmes has lasted several years.

The thing was – I didn’t like the movie very much. I appreciated the whole scientific explanation that Holmes gives for the scary supernatural things that plague London, but really, it was as though Ritchie took everything “Holmesian” and smushed it together into one big ball of confused gloop. What was up with the Holmes/Watson characterization? Why does Watson always appear to be wearily squabbling with Holmes, with Holmes disparagingly dismissing him, without much of a hint of their mutual affection? The scene where Watson returns to find that Holmes has apparently hanged himself was rather touching in the way Holmes haltingly asks if his best friend is all right, but moments of that sort are few and far between.

And let’s not even get into the factual mishmash of this movie – Irene Adler, who’s actually cast as Holmes’ sweetheart; hints of Professor Moriarty, who would never have been that visible or crass (also paving the way for a sequel, God forbid); Lord Blackwood, who is entirely fictitious (I mean, fictitious even in the canon of Holmes).  </rant>

(I should probably rename this blog to I Rant A Lot, just so people [you know, the millions of readers I have] who read it know what they’re getting into.)

But there are some things I actually liked about the movie. One main concept was Holmes’ vulnerability, the human who hides his affections and abuses his cocaine, instead of the reasoning machine he’s often portrayed as. Another strong point: Watson was not stupidified. I admit that when I’d first heard of Sherlock Holmes, it seemed like Watson was ripe for the role of the bumbling sidekick, which is what everyone takes him to be. But, as one astute observer pointed out, they do not randomly award medical degrees and veteran honours to stupid men. Watson’s role as biographer, in fact, is what colours the public perception of Holmes – an extraordinary man, but still a man with depth, with faults, even with contradictions and inconsistencies. Watson’s gentle needling humour, his patience with Holmes, and his ready reliability can’t be overlooked.

What really started this confused jumble of a post was a comment on a Holmes-loving online community that asked the members for a nice tattoo-worthy quotes. Some of my favourites:

“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” Holmes, flushed with the discovery of a foolproof test for blood cells, floors Watson with this observation when he first meets him. He explains this only much later, when Watson is trying to (not too gently) ferret out what the hell his bewildering room mate really does for a living. It’s totally random, but totally Holmes.

“Come if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same. -S.H.” Typical Holmes – strangely funny, imperious, pretty needy when it comes to Watson.

“The game is afoot!” Classic.

“An experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents…” All right, Watson, you’re the man.

“(The dog did nothing in the nighttime). That was the curious incident.” I think this is probably one of my favourite mysteries (Silver Blaze). Holmes gets to utterly astound an old gentleman with no patience for his newfangled method of deduction, and then lets his love for drama provide an astonishing finish for the entire story. This is also the source of that other awesome quote, “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“I have usually found that there was method in his madness.” “Some folk might say there was madness in his method,” muttercd the inspector.

Holmes is recuperating from overwork in the country when – what else? – his work finds him again. Against all Watson’s pretexts, Holmes sets out to investigate, nearly gets strangled in the process, fakes a nervous breakdown, pisses off Watson, and apprehends his criminals with his usual flair. The first part of the quote is actually Watson’s words, as close as I can remember them, defending Holmes; the second is the disgruntled inspector’s muttered retort. It was also, completely randomly, the t-shirt inspiration for the RGS class next to mine when I was in secondary school (V knows all about this, right? 🙂

The Blue Carbuncle

I think the story I enjoyed the most in terms of narration was The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. It’s not just the mystery, which is cool by itself, but Holmes’ sheer entertainment value. From his greeting of Watson, to the examination of the hat (“a man with so large a brain must have something in it”), to the way he wrangles clues out of his unsuspecting witnesses, it’s all done with such understanding on the part of Conan Doyle.

And that’s probably why Holmes has such an enduring fan base – the complexity of his character, as well as his astonishing detective powers. The mystery of Holmes is compounded by the fact that he’s narrated through the eyes of Watson, who is himself not quite the most unbiased person. In fact, Watson himself is complicated enough – a chivalrous man who’s still quite the gigolo, the upright, staid boring English gentleman who still finds running around with Holmes extremely exciting, the war veteran/doctor, a man fascinated by his room mate but who has a sense of humor in the fact of Holmes’ awesomeness. What version of Holmes are we actually being presented?

It’s an interesting question, a reasonably valid one, given that so many detective stories after him borrow quite a bit from Holmes. Christie, for instance, and her unbelievably foreign Poirot, with his deliberate eccentricities, his romantically inclined sidekick Hastings, his “weasel-like” Scotland Yard nemesis Inspector Miller (the placid Miss Marple, though, what a genius creation).

And finally, coolest bit of dialogue in the Holmes stories, in my opinion – the one between Moriarty and Holmes, the two most brilliant minds in all of London (besides Mycroft, of course):

“‘You have less frontal development that I should have expected,’ said he [Moriarty], at last. ‘It is a dangerous habit to finger loaded firearms in the pocket of one’s dressing-gown.’

“You evidently don’t know me,’ said he.

“‘On the contrary,’ I [Holmes] answered, ‘I think it is fairly evident that I do. Pray take a chair. I can spare you five minutes if you have anything to say.’

“‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he.

“‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.

A truly awful picture of Holmes, but a pretty good one of Moriarty:

The Final Problem

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