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The Great Detective

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.

8 thoughts on “The Great Detective

  1. That’s a great observation, Paul, and one I’d not until now considered (though subconsciously I’d suspected it). Thanks for pointing it out. And I may have to join you in re-reading the complete Holmes. It’s just the best!

    … We’ve discussed Shklovsky before (briefly), but remind me: you’ve read his essay on Holmes, correct? (““Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery Story,” in Theory of Prose.) I consider it one of his cleverest.

    Cheers, Adam

    1. I remember us talking about the Shklovsky, but I have only just read it. As you say, a clever piece. Though his analysis of the structure of the detective story is now fairly commonplace, I suspect it wasn’t when he wrote that. And there are some lovely points, such as the need for someone to play the fool and lay a false trail. That is still a commonplace of detective stories: the falsely accused person who risks all unless the hero detective can discover the real criminal. Until I read the Shklovsky it hadn’t occurred to me how much detective fiction depends on at least two different interpretations of the facts.

      1. The part of that essay I like best is where Shklovsky notes how Holmes usually solves a simple mystery in the first few pages of the story, but then takes the remainder of the piece to solve the larger mystery; Shklovsky then asks why it takes Holmes that long. “Why can’t he solve the main mystery as quickly as he solves the first one?” His (ingenious) answer: …because otherwise there wouldn’t be a story! And so the task of the author then becomes delaying Holmes from solving the larger mystery right away. Hence the fool, the false trail, Holmes’s mistakes, all the rest.

        …I learned a great deal from that insight. Honestly, nearly everything I know about writing fiction, I learned from Theory of Prose. (The rest I learned from Curtis White, whose first lesson to me was, “Go read Theory of Prose.”)


  2. Cool observations, Paul. I can remember reading an introduction to The Best American Mystery Stories in which Robert Parker talked about the distinction between Conan Doyle’s stories, in which order is restored to a universe thrown off-balance, and the hard-boiled detective story to come, which exposed a universe inherently chaotic, morally and otherwise, in which one’s only recourse is to embrace the slime and learn to operate within it.

    Also, I just read an excerpt from Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy in the new Open Letter catalog (it is forthcoming in March of 2012) called “The Final Case of Sherlock Holmes,” in which Holmes investigates a maniac who is going around London shooting clocks in a pattern that seems to form a giant bicycle. So, a murderless crime, unless you consider horocide to be murder. The passage feels like Conan Doyle filtered through Borges, with perhaps a touch of Flann O’Brien’s absurdist bicycle humor from The Third Policeman as well. It makes me want to read more from Basara.

    1. Ah, the Borges version of Holmes, ‘Death and the Compass’, is perfect. And have you read the Chabon version, The Final Solution? Another excellent reimagining of Holmes. I think it says something very significant about Doyle’s invention how readily other writers want to pick up the character. The Basara does sound interesting, I’ll look out for it.

  3. Paul, what a pleasure, revisiting these ratiocinations w/ you.

    The one distinction that might be worth making, at this point, is that between “detective fiction” for which the Holmes oeuvre remains the primary root & model, & “crime fiction,” which as you say must include desperate business, & generally *more* than one murder, but can actually do w/out a detective at all. At least, Elmore Leonard or Leonardo Sciascia, to name two greats of crime fiction from either side of the Atlantic, often both do w/out any police protagonist or otherwise authorized agent of justice.

    1. Yes, agreed. I think the crime novel is an outgrowth from the detective novel (though it has its roots in, for instance, Crime and Punishment), but it comes from that growing fascination with the crime rather than with the puzzle. If you aren’t interested in the puzzle, you don’t need the detective.

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