What do you picture when I say the word “detective”?
Perhaps you think of a scrappy New York City policeman with a slight temper. Perhaps you imagine a chubby pair of friends on a stakeout with a box of doughnuts. Or perhaps your mind goes to a magnifying glass and smoking pipe…
It is in chasing this last image that I came across my current literary obsession: Sherlock Holmes.
Today, when people say they are “crime buffs” or “love detective shows”, as I have admitted many times, they are usually harkening to some hi-tech crime series that involves a diverse team of police officers, morally upright and perpetually on the quest for justice in an unflinching court system. Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, Bones, Covert Affairs….and these don’t even include the medical dramas! We love mysteries and love even more those who solve them. They give us a sense that we will receive help in society should we need it. They paint very vivid picture of the evil that waits just outside our door, but paint an even brighter picture of those who will stop at nothing to conquer it.
As I read through the series over these past few months (see bottom of post of sequence of the books), however, I began to see that there was so much more that made these stories famous aside from their incredible smartness of puzzle-solving. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was truly ahead of his time. The following are a few quotes I’ve selected on account of the fact that when I read them, I felt as if this book were just published this century. Indeed it seems that part of the reason why modern adaptations of the books are so common and varies is due to the fact that Doyle was so adept at identifying cultural trends. He had an eye for the universal and, knowingly or not, the witty banter he inserted almost as character asides were just as evocative as the brilliant detective details among which they were placed.
1. Urbanization and the Economy
“It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, hand-made London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life, and to recognize the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilization, like untamed beasts in a cage.”
– From “The Five Orange Pips” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes pp. 118
Is it a coincidence that this quote opened for a story about a bank heist? Before the audience even knows the nature of the 20-page mystery they are about to read, Dr. Watson writes this musing, observing how the power of nature (of the elements and of people also perhaps) over man-made luxuries and and utilities, even in a city as mighty as London. While he describes the howling winds as “untamed beasts in a cage”, he implies at a certain level that the bars keeping them back will not hold for long. Perhaps, even, we are the ones in the cage! While the weather is barely spoke of again later in the short story, the tone of this bank-robbery tale is immediately tinted by this grave, limiting view of capitalism.
2. The Nature of Love
“A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand-in-hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.”
– From The Sign on the Four, pp. 79
Turn-of-the-century London was a fascinating place. Social norms and expectations changed drastically and Watson’s love of Mary represents the changing times. In this novel, Watson is afraid to admit his feelings for Mary as she is expecting to receive a large fortune, and he does not want her to misjudge his intentions. Many do not entirely appreciate this romance in the midst of the exciting quest for treasure that dominated the plot of Doyle second novel. However the “subtle” nature of their relationship, and their likeness in Watson’s eyes as children in the dark serve to infantilize the characters in the face of their dangerous quest. Does Doyle feel as if love is childish, then? I do not feel so. Instead, I feel as if Doyle were trying to tell his readers, much like he is in the first quote I mentioned, that material goods taint us, and mutate any semblance we have on childhood innocence we have into something ugly and unfeeling.
3. Politics and the West
“It is always a joy to meet an American, Mr. Moulton, for I am one of those who believe that the folly of a monarch and the blundering of a minister in far-gone years will not prevent our children from being some day citizens of the same world-wide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes.”
– From “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, pp. 175
This is not the first time where Doyle’s plot centers around an American. Throughout his novels and short stories he introduces to his famous mysteries with such groups as the Mormons, Native Americans, and the KKK, offering heavy details of their mannerisms and customs. He seemed to have a fascination of the Yankee spirit and the concept of “starting over” in a different land. In contrast to his eccentric, home-based protagonist Americans were adventures, creating the mysteries while Holmes was left to solve them. This quote is unceremoniously, but markedly, places at the end of the short story “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” and would likely be skipped over by anyone attempting to quickly devour the next story in the collection. But this was written over a century ago…a prediction of Western civilization eventually merging into one conglomerate nation. In spite of the bitterness with which many English men and women regarded American independence, Doyle expressed (vicariously through Sherlock Holmes) his hopes of learning from his brothers and sisters across the pond to embrace the prospect of reuniting in some fashion in the future. Though at the time when this was written the relationship between Americans and their former government was not bad, this prediction was still quite prophetic and further demonstrates Doyle’s unique ability to enhance his stories through universal truths, however subtly.
While my foray into the extensive world of Sherlock Holmes was quite superficial (I loved the TV drama “Sherlock” and was intrigued by their origin), I am nearing the end of the series with a newfound respect for its intricacies. I was never one to appreciate short stories, as I didn’t see how a mystery could be satisfying if it was solved within 15-pages. However the beauty of Sherlock Holmes, and mysteries in general, is not solely in their ability to create suspense, but rather also to teach us more about the mysteries that lie within us as readers and as occupnts of the crime and fear-riddled world.
The Sherlock Holmes Series:
1. A Study in Scarlet
2. The Sign of the Four
3. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
4. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
5. The Hound of the Baskervilles
6. The Return of Sherlock Holmes
7. The Valley of Fear
8. His Last Bow
9. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes