Is there a literary character better renowned than Sherlock Holmes? Is there one who has been captured more distinctly and diversely on screens large and small? Is there a crime-solver with statements quoted more often than those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's master detective?
Benedict Cumberbatch, Robert Downey Jr, Basil Rathbone, Jonny Lee Miller, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, James D'Arcy and even John Barrymore have added their signature and breathed life into this enigmatic, brilliant detective. In fact, while Downey's films retain their DVD-rental popularity and Cumberbatch and Miller create the character on the small screen, Sir Ian McKellen (popularly known for his work in X-Men and the Tolkein films) will appear in the soon-to-be released 2015 film Mr. Holmes.
Therefore, as I was challenged this month to read a book of short stories as part of the Ron's Bookshelf Classic Challenge 2015, what could be more natural than I select Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as my read of choice. And what an intriguing read it was.
Watson describes Holmes as "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen." That observation was made early in Holmes "career" when he initiated his first case -- my first Short Story called Study in Scarlet, which debuted in Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. The Sherlock Holmes mystery series, written over a 40-year span from 1887-1927, explored the good, the bad and the ugly of Victorian England's society, its ideals, its accomplishments and its deepest fears.
Sherlock Holmes was -- and still is -- a character very much of his own time and place. But not limited to one. His time and place can be classic adaptations, futurized Steampunk variations, or even modern day England or America. He appeals to readers -- and viewers -- in the unique way he confronts the messy, changeable world we all live in.
For Sherlock Holmes -- classic or modern -- "the world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes" (Hound of the Baskervilles). Holmes is continually stating that people are flawed since they "see but do not observe." (A Scandal in Bohemia). He studies human behavior and cracks the case in the most uncanny of ways, devoid of emotional pitfalls since "sentiment is a chemical defect found on the losing side." Well, that's BBC and not Conan Doyle. But the tone is consistent. Sherlock's methods in 2015 fascinate as much as they did in 1887.
The words written in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes might be the same phrases spoken by Jonny Lee Miller or Benedict Cumberbatch today. They have a timeless fluidity that allows them to resonate in any mystery-lovers mind. How often have we heard Sherlock's most famous phrase, Elementary, my dear Watson? How often have we used it ourselves? Perhaps that's why the stories captivated me as I read them.
What good mystery does not imply, state or suggest that quintessential foundation of solving crime -- the one Holmes stated in the 1890 publication Sign of the Four: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth..."
Reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is like watching a marathon of BBC's Sherlock. Okay, perhaps Sherlock of old doesn't say "I'm not a psychopath. I'm a high-functioning sociopath" as Cumberbatch eloquently proclaims. But in Conan Doyle's crafty prose, you hear that statement bubbling under the surface. When it comes to his emotions, you hear a modern Sherlock stating in simple terms that "Sentiment is a chemical defect found on the losing side." The classic Holmes' view was the same, though. In A Scandal in Bohemia, he is described as believing that "All emotions, and love in particular, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind."
I like that despite his decision to distance emotion from reasoning, Sherlock doesn't go it alone. The literary Sherlock valued Watson as the film and television counterparts do equally well -- heck, Jonny Lee Miller's Watson is a woman and she holds her own in the crime-solving duo. In 1890, Sherlock indicated his appreciation of Watson by saying "You have a grand gift for silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion" (The Man with the Twisted Lip.) Cumberbatch echoes that idea saying "Listen, what I've said before, John. I meant it. I don't have Friends. I have one." Of course moments later he explodes in a slightly more dramatic and modern ... "Shut up everybody, shut up! Don't move, don't speak, don't breath. I'm trying to think!"
There are challenges with reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, though. While it's Sherlock's business to know what other people don't know, it's sometimes daunting to find my way with the plot. And the typeface in these short story collections is tiny ... heck, I think it's the original four column type-setting from The Strand magazines. Overall the layout is a bit taxing on today's eyes.
In addition -- and I'm reluctant to admit this -- sometimes Sherlock's intellect works so rapidly that my brain can't keep up. I get fuzzy. I fall asleep. I'm serious. There is a section of the original Robert Downey Jr. film where I always nod off. I have even nodded off during the BBC program and had to rewind or rewatch. So the fact that I nodded off reading the book is only natural. It's almost like my brain is over loaded with ideas and imagery and defends itself the best way it can ... by shutting down.
I'm not saying the stories are boring ... just heavy with thoughts and words and ideas. A bit too heavy for me at times.
I did enjoy experiencing Sherlock from a literary perspective. Reading about him and his original adventures made my creative mind work. Oddly, my mind still cast Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role. But no matter which image of Sherlock you prefer, the written words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle come alive in whatever time they are set. After all, as was written in A Case of Identity over 150 years ago, "life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence."
Sherlock Holmes transcends efforts to bind him to one era in time, making his tales terrific to read. And though Doyle himself had mixed feelings about his creation -- a love-hate relationship with a character whose name had eclipsed his own -- who would have guessed his 60 short tales would continue to captivate 200 years later!