Editor's Comments

Some 21st century musings on Holmes, Watson and Conan Doyle.

 

 

HOLMES AND WATSON IN THE 21st CENTURY

Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters who, despite at least one conspicuous attempt by his illiustrious creator to consign him to the haunted West Wing of literary history, continues to haunt the public consciousness.
 
Like or loathe the Guy Ritchie treatment of fiction's most popular detective, the recent movie (and its forthcoming sequel) has merely tapped the aquifer of extant interest to which the current cinematic incarnation is the merest standpipe. But it is to be welcomed nonetheless.
 
My first encounter of Holmes was via BBC-2's much missed Friday 6pm teatime re-runs of the old Rathbone/Bruce films in 1982 before the insatiable demand of wall to wall media.

'The Scarlet Claw' was the first of such, and it was only years later that I realised it was non-canonical.

The second was 20th C Fox's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), followed swiftly by The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (the film) and I became hooked.

Watson, to me, was somehow, already in my mind's eye, a bumbling fool - portrayed admirably by Nigel Bruce; but it was only after picking up The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes in 1981, aged 13, that I realised Watson was anything but. I recently lost the copy much to my chagrin.

And it is was perfectly obvious then, after reading all (well, most) of the 56 short stories and four novels, that Watson - stolid, dependable, a ladies' man in a prosaic way, perhaps - was the human foil to the erratic, aloof Holmes.

To many readers and critics, Watson was Doyle - himself a medical doctor - who is said to have been given the inspiration for Holmes by a Dr Bell at Edinburgh University.

In a sense, reading the novels, are we all not 'Watsons' next to the curious, aloof Holmes - a little 'scared', if that is not too a strong a word, of Holmes's genius and his clinical ways?

And yet, the mastery of CD's writing - which is rich in metaphor and adjectival phrases - is his ability to allow us to glimpse in Holmes' singular character the odd 'goldfish in the murky pool'.

Were Holmes a cold automaton, a reasoning 'Mr Spock' or 'Mr Data' to use modern day Star Trek speak, his character would fall flat.

Yes, his deductions are brilliant, but the tantalising aspect of his character is the flash of emotion, or the Everyman, which occasionally appears away from the reasoning brain.

It points not to a disjoined, demi-god, but to a 'real' [ironically] human being, elevated through education, reasoning, upbringing, DNA, who knows what?, to a state far beyond mankind's usual mediocrities.

We get the feeling we could all be Holmes, if we either tried or so desired.

In Milos Forman/Peter Shaffer's 'Amadeus', court composer the pompous but outshone Salieri leaves in the final scene spouting 'Mediocrities of the world, I absolve you'.

Holmes might exhibit near-genius, and IS arrogant [though not quite as such in the books as in some media portrayals] but is never condescending to his fellow humans.

In the TV version of 'The Devil's Foot', it takes a narcotic sprinkled on the heat shield of an oil lamp to induce - purely out of experimental necessity - an out-of-character gush of gratitude from Holmes to Watson, as the good doctor cradles his stricken patient away from the poisonous fumes of the combusted root.

But away from artificial stimulants, Holmes can be just as warm.

His endearing phrase, 'I thought I knew my Watson' might sound slightly effete in these cynical, image-conscious days - and yet in context, it points to Watson's stoic, loyal, and cautious admiration of his friend - and Holmes's respect vice versa.

Holmes is the ultimate anti-hero; not the flash-in-the-pan symbol of celebrity of today, but the dark man sat in the shadows who - like Strider (the wandering precedent to the same-self Aragorn) in 'The Lord of the Rings' - always shines through.

Watson is no mug; as an MD, he's seen service and has acted as a physician in the battlefield overseas, and would not stand proudly beside a charlatan, coward or man of poor morals or low vigour.

The fact that he does, and Holmes's remarks to him in response, do not underscore a latent homosexuality, but something which has been lost to many in the 21st C - a sense of decency, friendship and a fraternal admiration built upon trust.

Watson's marriage seems to some like a literary device - and it's true that his long-suffering wife seems to agree to his jaunts back to Holmes' pad without much resistance. Perhaps gender roles have changed since the 1900s?

Without such indulgences of course, we would not have had the continuation of the tales.

Conan Doyle of course was desperate to kill off Holmes - he had 'higher literature' in mind and couldn't wait to swat away his creation.

Critics have recently been re-examining the author's relationship with his father with reference to his nemesis.

Conan Doyle Snr was a brilliant artist, but shot-through with a depressive personality - through whatever cause - which later required his incarceration in one of the less than forgiving asylums of late Victorian England.

He never returned from such and may have been prone to a bi-polar illness, poor chap, much better understood and in some celebrity quarters almost vaunted these days.

It's perhaps more than coincidence that in the year of the death of his father, (1893) Conan Doyle the younger consigned Holmes - an enigmatic pseudo-doppelganger of his father perhaps? - to the depths of Reichenbach.

The Final Problem was written/published in Dec 1893 - almost contemporaneous with Charles Atlamont Doyle's sorry death.

And yet in a sense, it’s a tantalising thought that ACD could not get 'rid' of the influence of either - Holmes or his father, no matter how much he desired or wished to exorcise them?

Just like 'Brundle-Fly' in 'The Fly', was 'Father-Holmes' an amalgam in the mind of the young Arthur?

Perhaps fearing the 'sins'/ways of the father - Conan Doyle Snr was often 'under the influence' by accounts - might be revisited upon him, was his destruction of Holmes just artistically expedient, a career move as we might say today, or a psychological necessity?

It seems unlikely that the good doctor had thoughts of the 'franchise' at heart; a 21st century marketeer 'beamed' back to Edwardian England might have spat out his 'latte' at the very idea of killing a such a lucrative cash cow.

Did he [CD] fear his [Holmes's] resurrection from the 'depths' of the falls for reasons other than to meet the clamour from an insatiable Edwardian public?

Again, like Gandalf in 'The Fellowship of the Ring', did he fear what might lurk in the bottomless chasm of the Mines of Moria, more from a psychological point of view than any other?

Was Holmes ACD's 'Balrog' - that which he dare not waken; his 'paternalistic avatar'?

Speculation aside, Conan Doyle didn't need the money. His pocket book was already overstuffed by the time he was cajoled into writing Hound - a masterly 'cop-out' if ever there was one.

Set in seemingly what Hawking might refer to as 'imaginary time' - almost at 'right angles' to ordinary time - Hound appears after Holmes's 'death' - which never happened in any case - and before his resurrection in 'The Empty House'.

Were readers to presume this a 'prequel'? Or a filler after ACD's hiatus year?

Whichever, the return spawned even more tales, though devotees often remark they lack the inspirational zest of the earlier books.

To make a crude comparison, Shakespeare never quite 'bettered' - the phrase jars but it is succinct - 'Hamlet' in his 'purple patch' which had alongside it timewise, very roughly, Othello, Macbeth and Romeo.

But that is not to decry The Tempest, A Winter's Tale and others in his autumn years.

The comparison is forced of course, but we likewise mustn’t demean Shoscombe Old Place, The Lion's Mane etc.

To enthusiasts of literature, proto/antagonists such as Hamlet, Poirot, Sauron (paradoxically through invisibility), Moriarty, Othello, (the list is endless to which you can add your favourite), exist in a near-reality - in a way, a meeting of the quantum world of science with that of literature. There - but not.

We might happen to catch ourselves talking about them as if they exist in the 'real world', to a friend - or even via a website!

Of course, they don't - they are only ghosts of the imagination - both of ours and of their creators.

Their longevity and boundless appeal is based on, to purloin another pseudo-modern science phrase - a 'mind-meld' between both parties to the ultimate mutual satisfaction.

It is the ultimate skill of the writer.

Were Conan Doyle's characters not founded on all the virtues [subliminally or not] ever exhibited by every book or cinematic hero before and since, and furthermore without the ability to light the touchstone of our basic emotions, just as the greatest classical music piece reaches out to us, the rest, as Hamlet says, would have been silence.

Finally, Conan Doyle's genius - even unwittingly maybe - might simply be, just as Watson is mollified by the shining humanism of Holmes's 'goldfish warmth' in the murky pool of the empirical mind, so we might - tantalisingly as readers - just occasionally catch a flash of the real Doyle, and 'through a glass darkly', perhaps, glimpse his even more shadowy progenitor, via nothing more than the lines on the page, the greatest human asset of an ability 'to feel', and of course through the 'science of deduction'.

The 21st C seems far-removed from our favourites' world now.

With a plethora of demands being made upon our time by an increasingly invasive media [especially tv and internet], and with many channels to fill, there is a danger that the concept of 'quality' [whatever that may mean] will leave our parlours and homes to an extent which would be abhorrent to the Victorians.

Pulp fiction and 'pot-boilers' have always existed but they have never been quite so 'up close and personal' arguably, to be deliberately blunt.

In my humble opinion, in literature, online, both narrowcasted and broadcasted, and with the possible exception of radio, too much output has become far too stretched; as someone once said 'like too little butter spread over too much bread'.

If indeed 'mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognises genius', in these far flung times, Holmes's axiom might never have been more relevant - or unfortunately so irrelevant - to our lives.

A dose of Conan Doyle always raises the spirits (!).

Martin Hickes, Journalist, writer, Yorkshire

July 2008