Friday, February 5, 2010

I see it, I deduce it - in which I am more complimentary to Doyle and Holmes

With "The Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), the first Sherlock Holmes short story, Arthur Conan Doyle instantly eliminates the worst parts of the two early Holmes novels, while retaining the best parts.

The version I have with me, in the 3rd edition of The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, is eighteen pages long.  Watson visits Holmes, and they do their little Holmes-Watson minuet (W: "Then, how do you know?"  H: "I see it, I deduce it.").  A client appears, and the mystery is established.  This is all fine, the usual stuff, but fine.  It fills about eight pages.

That's the solution, right there.  An eight page setup, nine pages of action, a one page denouement, with a juicy reward for the Holmesians, and we're done.  Doyle's not enough of a polisher for me to call the story elegant, exactly, but it is pretty efficient.  No, even better - it is efficient in the right places (the action, the minimal, trivial, mystery), but also lingers in the right places (the Watson-Holmes interactions).  This problem is not solved at all, but we can't have everything, except in all of the great books where we can.

All of this is well-known and obvious to anyone who has read any of these stories.  It was not well-known to me, in part because the diehard Holmesians are more interested in the various tics and props associated with Holmes than in the literary quality of Doyle's writing.  Many of them play an odd game in which Doyle does no writing at all. 

After finishing, barely, The Sign of Four, I was completely sick of Doyle and Holmes.  There was just too much bad writing.  I have been reading a lot of Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps too much, and worrying that I have been wasting too much time with second-rate books.  And this is with a real craftsman!  To turn from Stevenson to those early Doyle novels was no help.  From the point of view of the Scottish Reading Challenge, if I'm all done with Holmes for now, I won't complain, although a fellow reader would be just the thing to jumpstart my enthusiasm.

I knew, though, that I was not being fair to Doyle or Holmes.  The stories, the better ones, had to be superior, and I assume that the much later Hound of the Baskervilles (1901) is good, too.  Thus, a rereading, after many years, of "A Scandal in Bohemia," and this more complimentary post.

Advice to new readers of Doyle:  Go for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes first, or a short story best-of (not a Complete collection).  Then Hound.  The more stories.  If you discover that you really like the Whole Holmes Thing, that you are or may be a Holmesian, go back to the beginning, see how Holmes and Watson met, witness the introduction of the Holmes props (the violin, the cocaine).  Skip the Utah chapters of A Study in Scarlet.  Don't do what I did.

Reading "A Scandal in Bohemia" in a big anthology created new problems.  The story immediately following is Ralph Ellison's "King of the Bingo Game."  Now that, I tell ya what, is a piece of writing.  And look, there's "The Dead."  There's Alice Munro, and Eudora Welty, and Chekhov.  More advice: do not read any of these writers immediately before or after Arthur Conan Doyle.  Ramp down, then ramp back up.


  1. The Holmes-Watson interaction is precisely what I like most. :)

    (I do feel that often, in dramatisations, Dr Watson comes off as much more bumbling and stupid than my perception of him - or else, of course, it's just that I am just as stupid and bumbling. :) Obviously, however, I don't really favour the latter theory.:))

    Going by the vague impressions I have retained of the novels, I'd say that not only are the short stories more efficient, but also more energetic. And atmospheric. And - well - fun.:) To me, at any rate - but then, I did mention, did I not? - that I love Sherlock.:)


  2. So then I have a question about the stories - are they, or are they not, the same dang thing over and over again?

    Is Holmes allowed to change, for example? I know he ages. Anything else?

  3. If you are asking me, then you're asking the wrong person. I love him as he is, I don't want him to change.:)

    Oh, I forgot to say - 'A Scandal in Bohemia' isn't one of my favourites, as it happens...


  4. Now there's a question I should have asked. Which are your favorites (and why)?

  5. I'm not very good at analysing, I'm afraid - but I think it's mostly a matter of atmosphere, and, I think, where Sherlock is most Sherlock-y, so to speak.:)

    Some of these are my favourites:
    The Speckled Band
    The Copper Beeches
    Red-Headed League
    The Man with the Twisted Lip
    The Five Orange Pips (which really scared me, the first time I read it, sitting alone in the kitchen in the wee hours when the rest of the family was asleep... I can't say why without spoilers.)
    The Blue Carbuncle
    The Silver Blaze

    There are others, of course, but unfortunately I cannot always match the name and the story together... even though I've got the book (an omnibus with all the stories) before me. There is one, for example, where what looked like a murder turns out to be a suicide (Margery Allingham re-used that idea in one of her novels.) But I also like that it isn't always murder - and sometimes it isn't an actual crime at all - as in the story where a man pretended to be a girl's suitor so that she wouldn't marry anybody.

    Oh, and let me just say - the Sidney Paget illustrations are just so lovely, so right - even if he did make Sherlock more handsome than Conan Doyle had intended.:)


  6. Thanks so much - I now will be sure to get an edition with the Paget illustrations.

  7. I want to jump on the Sherlock Holmes bandwagon now too! All this waiting for the Johnson + Boswell... Daily Lit offers The Adventures in installments, free of charge - instantaneously.

    All I need now is to quit my job, go home and read.

  8. Yeah, you can't compare some writers to Chekhov and Joyce. Not at all. Just have to lower expectations some.

    That said, i can't remember reading Holmes. I now I have Hound on my shelf.

  9. Wait, who can't I compare to Joyce and Chekhov? Why not? Doyle is a worse writer than Chekhov, at the level of the sentence, paragraph, and story; comparing characterization, imagery, and insight.

    I'm not going to lower my expectations. Some writers should raise theirs.

  10. What I meant was, when I pick up a story by O. Henry or Doyle, I don't expect masterful writing. When I pick up The Dead of Chekhov, I do. I still like O.Henry, but not in the same way I loved reading Chekhov. I personally do lower my expectations. I can still enjoy it though.

  11. You're right, Rebecca - I lower my expectations, too. It's my standards that I won't lower.

    Enjoyment is a whole separate issue. I enjoy all sorts of things that are not only not first-rate, but are positively bad for me.