I am slowly working my way through the complete Sherlock Holmes stories, something I haven’t done for a few years.
There is so much to explore in them. For instance, a post-colonial reading based on the number of adventures that have their roots in America or India; or a republican reading based on the number of stories that involve the aristocracy, and Holmes’s consistently anti-deferential attitude towards them.
But what struck me reading them this time is about influence. Okay, we know how many fictional detectives have their origins in Holmes. The emphasis on mentation is there overtly in Poirot’s little grey cells or in Nero Wolfe’s indolence, but it is there also in every single detective story that presents the crime as an intellectual puzzle (which is just about all of them). The curious, under-emphasised but distinctive morality of Holmes, the way he solves the crime for intellectual satisfaction but would rather let the criminal get away if that would better suit his notion of justice, is there in all those shabby moralists of crime fiction like Philip Marlowe or Benjamin Black’s Quirke. Holmes, in other words, is every detective that has come after.
The thing is that character is all that people seem to have taken away from Doyle’s stories. Because reading my way through the first collection of stories, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which contains several of the most familiar tales – ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, ‘The Red-headed League’, ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, ‘The Adventure of the Speckled Band’, ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beeches’, and so on – I suddenly thought how few of them follow the trajectory of most other crime stories.
What presents itself over and over again, is how little murder there is in this world. It’s there right enough, there are outright murder mysteries here – ‘The Boscombe Valley Mystery’, ‘The Five Orange Pips’, ‘The Speckled Band’ – but it is far from being the only or even the predominant crime. There are stories like ‘The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb’ in which there were murders in the past, but they are not the central cause of the investigation or the subject of the story. Instead we get stories of disappearance, of theft, of blackmail, there are even investigations in which no crime actually occurs – ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’, ‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’. Indeed, if you think about it, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, one of the earliest and most famous of all the Holmes stories, has no actual crime. Everything is precipitated by the prospect that blackmail might be possible at some point in the future, but no such blackmail is actually attempted, and the closest we come to criminal activity in the story is perpetrated by Holmes and Watson themselves.
What Doyle was trying to do in these stories was show off Holmes’s cleverness, I don’t think it mattered to him one iota whether you would count his work as crime fiction or not. And if it was a crime story, the nature of the crime didn’t matter, the whole point was about the solution of the mystery rather than its nature. And I suspect he was practically the last crime writer to write with that emphasis.
Even by the great days of the detective novel, it had become an unquestioned part of the structure of the story that there had to be a murder. I cannot think of a single Agatha Christie story in which there is not a body, or a single Dorothy L. Sayers story. These stories are still primarily about the detection, solving the puzzle, but the puzzle now has to be that bit more extreme. And as the history of crime fiction has progressed, the emphasis has tended to shift more and more from the solution to the crime (the murder). I am not sure that Arthur Conan Doyle would actually recognise the genre he did so much to create.
What we seem to be seeing is a shift to the extreme. The puzzle has to be ever more dramatic, a matter of life or death, so a theft, for instance, is less and less likely to provide the thrill that the genre demands. And as you become more extreme, the less it is possible to move in the other direction.