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Posted on 4 Sep 2015 in The Godfather: Peter Corris |

The Godfather: Peter Corris on revisiting Sherlock Holmes

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peternewpicI’ve been reading, or rather having read to me via Audible, the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. The temptation when writing about Holmes is to fall into the manner and cadences of his biographer Dr John Watson. If I were to do this I’d write something like:

The follower of these trifling columns will recall how I once recorded my reading of Conan Doyle while taking refuge from the heat of Delhi in a cool, walled hotel garden …

I’ll resist the temptation but it makes an important point. There is something mesmeric, alluring and comforting about Conan Doyle’s style when writing about Holmes, which not only accounts for the immense popularity of the work but for the great number of Holmes pastiches.

Some of these books, particularly Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976) have carried off the impersonation well. Others have failed miserably by attempting to inject inappropriate elements into the story. Browsing among the multitudinous e-books, I’ve noticed some that propose an alliance between Holmes and Irene Adler. This violates the misogynistic Holmes canon absolutely and I haven’t read them. Similarly the television update of Sherlock (2010) had me switching off as soon as I heard Mrs Hudson addressing Holmes by his first name – unthinkable!

I first read the Holmes short stories when quite young and enjoyed them immensely. Now I find them almost pathetic in their plots and details. Stories like ‘The Dancing Men’, ‘The Red-Headed League’ and ‘Silver Blaze’, to name just a few, are tissue-thin as to motive and means. In ‘Silver Blaze’ a man is thought to have been murdered by a blow to the head but it turns out that he was struck by the hoof of a horse. Sherlock Holmes should have been able to perceive this at a glance instead of reaching the solution by circuitous means.

Remarkably, in quite a few stories, people are shot with revolvers. In all but one case Watson reports that a number of ‘barrels’ were emptied into the victim. Pistols with more than one barrel were in existence then, but these were incapable of being concealed in pockets or in a female ‘bosom’. It might have been possible for a double-barrelled weapon, but hardly for some with apparently five or six barrels. Doyle, of course, should have written ‘chambers’.

There are numerous slips and improbabilities which a good editor should have picked up. Initially, Watson says that Holmes has no acquaintance with literature, later we find him reading his pocket Plutarch, quoting Balzac and referring to Poe. Watson describes the wall above the Reichenback Falls as ‘sheer’. Holmes corrects him, telling him that it contains a ledge wide enough to lie on, yet Watson’s eyesight is frequently given as excellent – a clear glitch here. In the novella The Valley of Fear (1914), a house is blown up by means of the powder ‘used in the mines’. This same substance is later called ‘gunpowder’. Careless. Doyle’s and his editors’ acquaintance with firearms and explosives was clearly deficient.

None of this matters. It’s clear that the Holmes oeuvre was based on a conjuring trick – the detective’s ingenious deductions distracted attention from the shaky details.*

The success of the stories is plain to see – they offered comfort to the upper classes, the members of whom, unless they were afflicted by some hereditary canker, were always portrayed as steadfast and true. A similar comfort was offered to the urban middle class and the rural gentry, who are seen as sturdy and reliable while the urban poor are ‘wretched’ and all rural people not landowners or professionals are ‘peasants’. The lower middle classes, represented by clerks, secretaries and governesses, are also privileged – they can rise through a combination of loyalty and hard work.

It was a winning formula, whether Doyle was aware of it or not, and I confess, as I listen to the stories, that despite my dissection of it, it still works for me.

* This does not apply to The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is a well-constructed and satisfying novel.