Thursday, January 26, 2012

Sherlock Holmes, and Why You Should Read About Him

Did the devil make the world while god was sleeping?
Someone said you'll never get a wish from a bone.
Another wrong good-bye and a hundred sailors,
That deep blue sky is my home.

She left in the fall, that's her picture on the wall,
She always had that little drop of poison...
"Little Drop of Poison," Tom Waits

This has been a slow week, so I thought I'd do some talking about what I'm reading: the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

I want to start by talking about a few reasons to read the Sherlock Holmes stories:
Genuine Mystery. Sherlock Holmes stories are full of surprising questions, begging for answers. (Why did an old lady get a box with two ears in it in the mail? Who would pay a man to sit and write out words from the dictionary just because he had red hair, and why?) The stories are great at presenting you with a problem and getting you to want to know the answer. Almost every story has, fairly early on, an engaging, thorny question. It defies you to explain it. It draws you in.

A Great Friendship. Holmes and Watson are very different men, but they have a wonderful chemistry together. Holmes has his cunning intellect and zeal for solving puzzles; Watson has a passion for action and a love of investigating and describing people's motives and character. The stories are about Holmes and his accomplishments, certainly, but more than that, they are about two men who do great things together, who sharpen each other. The stories are about a team, they are about a pair of world-class friends. And more fruitful and joyous friendships are rarely to be found, in literature or out of it.

Gateway to a Cool World. There's so much cool Sherlock Holmes material out there. If you read the original stories, all of it begins to make more sense. Plus, it's all more fun if you know all the references.


Having said that, here are some stray thoughts on Sherlock Holmes.

First off, let's talk about the joys of reading Arthur Conan Doyle's wonderful, 19th- and early 20th-century writing, full of things that you just could not write anymore:
"Very sorry to knock you up, Watson," said he, "but it's the common lot this morning. Mrs. Hudson has been knocked up, she retorted upon me, and I on you."

"The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man had framed himself in the aperture."

"[He is] so far down Queer Street that he may never find his way back again."
I think a great deal is often said about words in language becoming less offensive (or, if you like, offensive words becoming more widely heard and accepted). A great many things one might have never heard on television a generation ago are there in full force in this day. The process of words becoming less offensive in content is called amelioration in linguistics, and there are lots of examples of words that used to be devastating insults that are not considered so today: think of "Yankee" or "Quaker," for example.

But I think we rarely think about the opposite process, which is called pejoration, and in a way that's the process that's going on here. We see three terms used by Doyle which, in his own day, had essentially neutral meanings. Today, however, all three read as sexual--either as euphemisms or standard descriptions of sexual activity--and thus taboo in polite conversation. This is probably not pejoration in the usual sense--just because something is sexual does not mean it is bad--but it is a pretty common kind of semantic change. I wonder whether our society has, through an obsession with sex, developed a lot more of these sexualizing semantic changes than usual, or if it simply seems so because most people are unacquainted with euphemisms and sex talk from previous generations.


Now let's talk about some themes across the Holmes stories. These are by no means the main themes of the stories; they are just some things that stuck out to me as I read.

Marriage is usually terrible.
Marriage as the source of life's problems is huge in Sherlock Holmes stories. In many cases, an unhappy marriage (usually compromised by some third party) is the reason for a crime: a man kills his wife and sends her ear to her sister for turning the wife against him. A woman kills herself and frames the woman who holds her husband's affections. A man murders his wife and her lover and tells everyone they ran away with all his money.

At least as often as this, if not more often, there are unhappy or simply failed marriages on the sides of the action, causing extra problems, complications, and mysteries for Holmes and Watson.
  • In one story, a woman helps the criminal--unknowingly assisting him in killing someone!--because she is married to someone who won't divorce her, and the criminal offers to help her get a divorce.
  • Another time, a man beats and locks up his wife for trying to keep him from commit a crime.
  • There's a case where a man tries to woo a young woman, who refuses him--even though she likes him--because she is secretly married to the man who is pretending to be her brother.
  • All of those examples are from one story. None of them is the central crime around which the mystery revolves.
Other fine examples of marriage causing problems in these stories:
  • An uncle tries to murder his niece because he's worried she'll marry and deprive him of his living allowance.
  • A man's wife dies and he covers it up to keep from going bankrupt because of the loss of her estate.
  • A woman falls in love with someone who regularly murders or abandons his wives, and her family tries desperately to stop her from marrying him.
Marriage as a source of trouble is all over the place in the world of Sherlock Holmes. The kinds of trouble seem to fall into two categories: (1) being married to someone you don't want to be married to (...even dead people, sometimes) and (2) wanting to marry someone but being prevented by others. Sometimes, both cases apply, as in the aforementioned case of the woman who was prevented from being married to someone because she was already married to someone else that she didn't like very well.

You can tell some people's character just from their face. I don't mean that Sherlock Holmes can do this; Sherlock Holmes can tell all he needs to know about you from your shoes, for Pete's sake. No, this is the narrator, Dr. Watson's issue. Not every story does it happen, but quite often we will be introduced to a character, and Watson will just know exactly what kind of person they are. This often happens with women Watson meets, but here's a good male counterexample:
"He was certainly a remarkably handsome man. His European reputation for beauty was fully deserved. In figure he was not more than of middle size, but was built upon graceful and active lines. His face was swarthy, almost Oriental, with large, dark, languorous eyes which might easily hold an irresistible fascination for women. His hair and moustache were raven black, the latter short, pointed, and carefully waxed. His features were regular and pleasing, save only his straight, thin-lipped mouth. If ever I saw a murderer’s mouth it was there–a cruel, hard gash in the face, compressed, inexorable, and terrible. He was ill-advised to train his moustache away from it, for it was Nature’s danger-signal, set as a warning to his victims."
That's right, Watson can tell you're a murderer just from your mouth. This only seems to apply when it won't help him solve a case, e.g., in the above case, it's pretty clear that that guy was a dirtbag from page one of the story.

Latinas are feisty. I don't know why, exactly, but a lot of the non-Europeans in these stories seem to be Latin American women. And Doyle is not afraid to describe them as having really quick tempers, strong passions, and generally heightened emotions because of the continent they come from. These women include:
  • A Brazilian who frames someone for murder in a jealous rage.
  • A Peruvian who locks herself in her room and refuses to explain to her husband that she is not a vampire.
  • A Costa Rican who pretends to be her husband's sister and is a total babe but is constantly warning the guy she's supposed to be seducing to leave the countryside before it's too late! But she's too emotional and sentimentally attached to just, you know, explain that her husband is a murderer.
They're a warm-blooded bunch, those Latinas!


I'll leave that as is for now. These stories really are great, as I said. (Don't take any of the above as reasons to stay away: finding and thinking about authorial quirks like these is a great reason in itself to look into a body of work.) Please read them. If you already have read some and want more, or just want other things to read, here are two places to look:

The mysterious death of the world's leading authority on the work of Arthur Conan Doyle (really fascinating journalism).

A guide to where to start with Sherlock Holmes material, including which of the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories to look at first.


  1. my priest just gave an excellent homily on the "red thread of murder" in sherlock holmes relating to a passage from Isaiah. The plot thickens.

  2. Always a pleasure to meet a Sherlockian :)

    Nice post about the Sherlock Holmes canon.

    Have you read the book "Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes" by David Stuart Davies. This book is a recommended read for fans of the Granada adaptation and/or Jeremy Brett.