My Man Sherlock
An admirer’s portrait of one of the greatest sleuths in literary history.
By S. Kahn
This a review of Sherlock Holme: Fiction and the Forms of Narrative commenced with detective fiction—a selection of Holmes stories, including A Scandal in Bohemia, The Musgrave Ritual, and The Final Problem. It was an assignment I had back in college. I had read the tales many times before, but the assignment was one of the most enjoyable I have ever had. The same holds true for a question on: International Ideas and Institutions, which asked us to analyse an extract from A Study in Scarlet, the first novel in which Holmes appeared,to show what it conveyed about international affairs.
For all my enjoyment, I discovered many people who found Holmes inappropriate in a literature course, let alone one in international studies. Such detractors would find an unlikely supporting voice: Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, felt that his other writings were of greater literary value, and neglected by a public too engrossed in Holmes’s adventures. Doyle was a prolific writer, producing numerous other novels and short stories, the most famous perhaps being The Lost World. He was also an astute observer of politics, warning of Word War I well before it broke out, and an adventurer, knighted for his work on the Boer War. Primarily, however, he remained known as Sherlock Holmes’s creator. To remedy the situation, Doyle tried to get the detective killed in The Final Problem. Readers were devastated: Londoners wore black in mourning; letters flooded in, demanding Holmes’s resurrection. One began in undisguised rage: “You brute.” Doyle eventually restored Holmes to life, but the episode demonstrates his reservations about Holmes’s place in literature.
Considering such reservations, I found myself asking what made Holmes so special. The answer, I believe, is that Holmes is that rare individual: an artist with a conscience. His commitment to his craft is absolute and his craft protects our world.
Detective work is multidimensional. There is a scientific component to Holmes’s methods: the famous observation and deduction. Explaining what sets this thinking apart from the ordinary, Holmes observes: “There are fifty who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically…There are few people, however, who if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.” The detective moves almost mathematically from crime to criminal; Watson, Holmes’s friend and chronicler, underlines the point in describing Holmes as “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine.” A glance at Watson tells him that the doctor has come from Afghanistan; a man’s trouser knees alert him to a bank robbery. “From a drop of water,” he notes, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.” Small details, closely read, provide large conclusions.
This “severe reasoning from cause to effect,” tells but half the tale. “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from the armchair,” Holmes says, “my brother would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy.” Energy is Holmes’s hallmark; he is bursting with it. If the occasion demands, he can enter the underworld, knocking a thug out, dashing a revolver from a villain’s grasp, or running like the wind. His energy takes subtler forms, too: he can disguise himself so that even Watson fails to recognise him. This is no armchair reasoner, but an adventurer, the man who takes the field with astonishing results.
Such is Holmes’s art, and “it is,” he insists, “an impersonal thing—a thing beyond myself.” There is a touch of arrogance here; Watson often comments on his friend’s vanity. For all his admiration of Holmes, Watson is a faithful reporter, recognising his failures and castigating him for them, more Boswell than Sancho. But despite the vanity, Holmes’s portrayal of his art is fair; just how impersonal it is can be gauged from his denial of bodily needs while working. Sleep and food are ignored in the heated pursuit of an answer. “…It was one of his peculiarities,” Watson informs us, “that in his more intense moments he would permit himself no food, and I have known him to presume upon his iron strength until he has fainted from pure inanition. `At present I cannot spare energy and nerve force for digestion,’ he would say in answer to my medical remonstrances.”
Art is a jealous mistress; she brooks no rivals. “…Love is an emotional thing,” Sherlock says, upon hearing of Watson’s marriage, “and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things. I should never marry myself, lest I bias my judgment.” The closest Holmes comes to sentiment is in A Scandal in Bohemia where the enchanting Irene Adler outwits him; stunned at being beaten, he keeps her photograph. But even here, the admiration seems more professional than sexual; Irene is remarkable for her intelligence rather than her beauty. “He used to make merry over the cleverness of women,” Watson concludes, “but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.” Irene’s cleverness excites Holmes; there will be no romantic liaison. Nor is there much homoerotic interest in Watson; the chronicler sometimes shows sensitivity to the absence of overt affection, though accepting it as part of that “cold, reserved” nature, which rarely shows emotion. Eroticism too is subordinated to the thrill of the chase.
Bereft of that thrill, Holmes is lost; to escape ennui he idly fires his revolver at the wall or turns to cocaine. “My mind,” he explains, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram, or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation.” Watson, as a doctor, repeatedly censures this weakness, but without effect. Holmes needs the exertion a case demands; it is an addiction. Thus Holmes spends his time “alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition,” from “his drug-created dreams” to “the scent of some new problem.” In the absence of work, a drug-created world is the only one worth living in for him.
Such absolute commitment could be dangerous; the powers the detective delights in are powers a criminal might use. Professor Moriarty, the arch-villain who nearly killed Holmes, certainly has much in common with his enemy. As a mathematician, Moriarty has a thinking process very similar to Holmes’s; Holmes himself remarks that Moriarty “may be taken as being quite on the same intellectual plane as myself.” A purely aesthetic evaluation acknowledges: “My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration of his skill.” As an artist, the detective respects and admires the criminal; flair and intensity do not provide a way of distinguishing between the two.
What distinguishes Holmes from Moriarty is conscience; his art bears a moral purpose. “In over a thousand cases I am not aware that I have ever used my powers on the wrong side,” he says—his powers are devoted to upholding right. Holmes will cheerfully let Moriarty kill him because “I am pleased to think that I shall be able to free society from any further effects of his presence”(thus Doyle sought to kill his hero, only to find that he could not be kept dead); he will spend hours worrying about a client because “no sister of his should ever have accepted such a situation”; though fully occupied, he cannot refuse a plea for help “without a harshness which was foreign to his nature.” Integral to his work is an upright nobility, the nobility of a knight or “gentleman” (to use Doyle’s word). On occasion, it transcends the law. Holmes is not a police agent; he can therefore draw independent moral conclusions and does not hesitate to do so. The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for example, shows him keeping silent about a man’s crime, because the miscreant is poor, unfortunate, and ill-used: “Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, `There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’” There is empathy for the weak, here, a humanity that inspires faith. Case after case, we find Holmes’s art being used to protect a moral order, and like his clients and Watson, we come to trust him.
So what makes Sherlock Holmes special? I find him special because he is superlative at what he does. I find him special because he loves it so deeply. And I find him special because he is, in Watson’s phrase, “the best and wisest man I have ever known.” Any professor should be proud to introduce students to such a character.