The mysterious appeal of Holmes & Watson

Even to a fellow aficionado of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, it is difficult to explain the attraction of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To others, it is virtually impossible. Just what is the attraction? It’s clearly not the plotting: if it were, there is no reason why readers should return to these stores repeatedly, even when they know what happens next. And neither do these stories explore the intricacies of human relationships, or profundities of human existence. The characters are certainly memorable, but why? They have neither the complexity of the creations of Tolstoy, nor the archetypal resonances of a Don Quixote or a Sancho Panza. They are clearly not real characters; and yet, Abbey National, the building society whose offices used to be located on the very spot where Doyle’s Holmes and Watson were supposed to have lived, received every year hundreds of letters addressed to Holmes. Some of the correspondents even appeared to believe that Holmes and Watson were not only real, but were alive. Indeed, such was the quantity of mail received by Abbey National; Sherlock Holmes may well be the only fictional character to have had his own private secretary.

It defies analysis. So it is best, perhaps, not even to attempt to analyse. So let us transport ourselves back to Victorian London, with its hansom cabs and its dark, gas lit streets and its swirling fogs. This is not, of course, the London that any modern resident of that city will recognize, but since myth is more potent than reality, let us stick with it.

It is early morning in mid-winter. Watson, still in bed, is woken by Holmes. “Come Watson,” he says in urgent tones, “the game’s afoot”. It would take a reader of uncompromisingly austere tastes to resist reading on.

Holmes and Watson made their first appearance in the novel A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887. Neither character was properly developed. Holmes, especially, is given certain characteristics that Doyle, in his later stories, had to alter. He is made out to be an eccentric who keeps in his mind only that which is of use to him in his vocation: anything else – even the rudimentary knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun – he neither knows, nor cares to know. This is a far cry from the Holmes who appears in later stories who can quote from the Persian poet Hafiz off the top of his head; who takes Watson to a violin recital given by Sarasate; and who has written a monograph on the motets of the composer Lassus.

But the principal characteristics are established. We already have, for instance, the machine-like logic of the mind, which allows Holmes to make the most extraordinary deductions from detailed observations. When Holmes first sets eyes on Watson, for instance, he knows immediately that he had served in Afghanistan. Later, Holmes explains how he had deduced this. Watson is impressed, but remains sceptical. But then, he witnesses Holmes apply his methods to a particularly intriguing murder case.

To be frank, Holmes’ deductions are not always so logical, nor always so brilliant. In “The Blue Carbuncle”, Holmes makes a number of deductions by observing a hat – most of them brilliant, but also the very dodgy one that, since the hat is large, the owner must have a big brain, and hence, must be intelligent. Hmmm. There are other deductions scattered through the stories that are, perhaps, less than watertight. But it doesn’t really matter: these stories were, after all, written as entertainments, and not as demonstrations of scientific theory. Each unfolds a drama of some type. Often, as in A Study in Scarlet, the murder is a consequence of a character’s past misdeeds catching up on them. And sometimes, the perpetrator can even appear a sympathetic figure. At other times, as in the second novel – The Sign of Four – it is an innocent who is caught up in the consequences of past misdeeds.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and is generally agreed to be an improvement on the first. It is influenced greatly by Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: here, too, we follow through the foggy London streets a trail of treasure looted from India, and involving greed and murder. All fine stuff, but I think most aficionados will claim that it is in the short stories that we see the best of Holmes and Watson. The first short story appeared in the Strand Magazine, in June 1891: “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Over the next months, eleven more short stories were published: these were then published together as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – possibly the most significant publication in the entire history of the detective fiction genre.

And what stories they are! The very first story actually tells of a failure on Holmes’ part: he is charged by the King of Bohemia, no less, to recover incriminating pictures from a former lover of his – Irene Adler. And although Holmes does everything correctly, she outwits him. But in the process, Holmes falls in love. Not that he would admit this to anyone, not even to Watson, but, as that famous opening line tells us, for Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler was always the woman.

The other stories in the collection are a varied lot in terms of mood and content. “The Red-Headed League” is comic and grotesque, and Holmes’ client is a somewhat down-market and seedy pawnbroker; while the extremely sinister “The Five Orange Pips” features a young landowner, who is convinced that both his uncle and his father had been murdered by some secret organization, and that his own life is now similarly threatened. The clients range from the rather pathetic lower-middle class typist in “A Case of Identity” to the pompous and stuffy – and, perhaps, equally pathetic – aristocrat in “The Noble Bachelor”. Holmes pops up unexpectedly in an opium den in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” (he is following up a case, and is posing here as an opium addict); and “The Blue Carbuncle” is a Christmas story: a precious, stolen jewel pops up in the neck of a Christmas goose, and Holmes has to find out how it got there. In “The Speckled Band”, Holmes solves, in extremely spectacular fashion, a particularly nasty murder committed in a locked room; and the last story in the collection, “The Copper Beeches”, takes us into Jane Eyre territory, as a young governess finds herself in a mysterious mansion with a shuttered tower into which she is forbidden to set foot. God only knows how frequently I have read these stories since I first encountered them some forty or so years ago. And I read them still, and I wish I knew why.

And there was one very significant contribution to the Adventures: these stories were illustrated in the Strand magazine by a Sidney Paget. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, Doyle described Holmes as wearing a long coat, and a flat cloth cap. Paget drew the long coat, but instead of the cloth cap, he drew a deerstalker hat. Paget later drew Holmes wearing different hats, but the deerstalker – which Doyle had nothing to do with – stuck; and so did the curly pipe. When we try to picture Holmes, it is Sidney Paget’s visualization that comes most readily to mind.

The next year, twelve more stories appeared, of which eleven were printed in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: the twelfth, which Doyle appeared to have some doubts about, was “The Cardboard Box”, and was published in book form only years later. In this story, a retiring landlady receives a parcel containing two severed human ears. Holmes then unravels a very dark story of lust, betrayal, adultery and murder, and, having done so, muses on what the point can be of so grotesque a sequence of events. It’s one of the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but perhaps Doyle had felt at the time that the tone had become a bit too serious.

The other stories in the collection are a sheer delight. Among the more memorable ones is “Silver Blaze”, where Holmes investigates the theft of a racehorse, and the killing of its trainer. It is this story that features the superb exchange with the local police inspector, whom Holmes alerts to the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. And when the inspector protests that the dog did nothing in the night-time, Holmes responds: “that was the curious incident.”

There’s also “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes tells Watson of a case he had solved in his younger days; and there’s “The Naval Treaty”, where Holmes recovers a stolen secret document upon which the very security of the country depends. But the greatest surprise came in “The Final Problem”: at the end of this story, Holmes, in deadly struggle with his enemy Professor Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls, is killed. The public was shocked and outraged. How could Doyle bring himself to do this?

But Holmes was dead, and for some nine years, remained that way. Then, in 1902, Doyle partly appeased his disappointed fans with the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the Holmes & Watson stories, though not among the most characteristic. Holmes himself is absent for much of the time, and when he does appear, he doesn’t seem to have much to do. The atmosphere of the Devon moors is thrilling, and the hound itself is a terrific creation; but the plot is a bit on the thin side and the villain distinctly unmemorable. Indeed, I get the distinct impression, blasphemous though it may be even to think so, that this novel would have been better without Holmes. The splendid image of the ghostly hound terrorizing the bleak moors called for a supernatural story, but Holmes and the supernatural didn’t really mix, and the rational explanation provided at the end seems not merely too prosaic given the Legend of the Hound, but also, to modern readers, unfortunately reminiscent of the endings of Scooby Doo cartoons. Nonetheless, the novel remains, rightly, a legend, and a new Holmes story was more than welcome after the shock of “The Final Problem”.

But there was an even greater delight awaiting Holmesians the following year: in October of 1903, the Strand magazine published “The Empty House”, which ingeniously explains how Holmes had actually escaped death at the hands of Moriarty, but had been in hiding to wipe out the remnants of Moriarty’s gang. But now Holmes was back in 221B Baker Street; Watson, his marriage now conveniently forgotten (although it is more than hinted that he has become a widower), was back at his friend’s side. God was in His Heaven, and all was well with the world. Except for the bits that weren’t, of course, but Holmes was, at long last, at hand to investigate.

In the stories that followed – collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Doyle appeared to have lost none of his touch. Once again, the cases and the characters range far and wide. There are such intriguing cases as “The Six Napoleons”, where some maniac appears to be breaking into houses merely to smash busts of Napoleon; there’s “Black Peter”, in which a tyrannical retired sea captain is found harpooned to his own wall; there’s “The Golden Pince-Nez”, involving betrayal amongst Russian revolutionaries; “The Priory School”, which finds Holmes in the North of England investigating the kidnapping of an aristocratic child from a school, and the murder of one of the masters; and so on. At long last, here was vintage Holmes & Watson stuff, and it was almost as if they’d never been away.

The stories still continued to appear, but not so thick and fast. In 1917, Doyle published in book form His Last Bow, containing seven stories that had appeared at irregular intervals over the last eight or so years, as well as the earlier masterpiece “The Cardboard Box”. Other stories in this collection include “Wisteria Lodge”, about the attempted killing of a former Latin American dictator, now living in the English countryside off the proceeds of his terrible crimes; and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” – one of the very best of the Holmes & Watson stories, where the body of a junior official of a government department is found next to an underground train line, with a brief-case containing top secret government papers.

And in the 1920s, there appeared twelve more stories, collected together in a collection published in 1927 entitled The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. In the midst of this, in 1916, there appeared the final novel, The Valley of Fear: this was an ingenious story with an unexpected denouement, but, as with A Study in Scarlet , Holmes and Watson appears only in the first part: the second part is given over to an account of the events leading up to the murder. This second part seems to me remarkably successful, and is, in many ways, an early forerunner of the more hard-boiled detective stories written later by the likes of Chandler and Hammett. The Valley of Fear may well be a novel of two halves that don’t quite fit, but each half is so exquisite in itself, that it’s tempting to see this a sthe finest of thefour Holmes & Watson novels.

The series came to a stop with The Case-Book , and perhaps that was for the best: Doyle seemed to be getting bored with it all by this stage. There are still a few good stories in the final collection: “Thor Bridge” is among the best, and “The Retired Colourman” or the rather gruesome “Shoscombe Old Place” are fine works. But most of the rest was, it must be admitted, inferior stuff.

Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on the later failures: there is enough among the many successes to keep fans engrossed for an entire lifetime. No other fictional detective has become such a legend, and has commanded so devoted or diverse a following. So this brings us back to the original question: just what is it about these stories that generate such veneration? Sure, there is a wide range of stories and of characters; the ease of the storytelling is frequently an object lesson in the art; there is that atmosphere of Victorian Britain, with its swirling fogs and its gas lit streets – elements that always seem to enhance any detective story. And, as well as the stories we have, there are various ones just mentioned in passing, merely hinted at: there’s the case that Holmes apparently solved by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a hot summer’s day; or the is the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra – a story, Watson informs us, for which “the world is not yet prepared”; or, perhaps most tantalizing of all, the tale of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant.

And there are the characters of Holmes and Watson which, though clearly artificial, seem more vivid and more real than many real people.

Holmes’ range of tastes and interests is wide, and often takes one by surprise. He has written a monograph on identification of types of cigars and tobacco from examination of the ashes; and as noted before, another on the motets of Lassus, which, Watson informs us, is the last word on the matter. He is a first-rate swordsman and pugilist, and a master of disguise who can convincingly melt unobtrusively into any social background. He treats each problem on its own merits, without any prejudice: you never hear him speak of such matters as “the criminal gene”, even though such pseudo-science was very popular at the time; he is careless of social distinctions, never standing in awe of – and, indeed, sometimes taking sides against – the aristocrat; and he appears to have about him little of the xenophobia which allowed Victorian gentlemen to consider themselves superior to a mere foreigner.

Watson, as Orwell once observed, is possibly the subtler piece of characterization. He is certainly no fool, despite certain cinematic depictions: Holmes trusts him, and takes him along on dangerous or on sensitive cases. Watson is the soul of discretion – always knowing better than to ask Holmes anything that his friend does not feel ready to reveal. There is also a general sense of decency about Watson: he recognizes the importance of utter detachment when working on a case, but his heart is always in the right place. One thinks, in particular, of the ending to “The Yellow Face” : this is a case where Holmes is wrong, and the denouement, far from being sinister, is unexpectedly touching. And Holmes’ client resolves matters by behaving in a morally admirable and kind-hearted manner. Watson, describing this, tells us simply that it is something that he still likes to think about. It is a fine complement to Holmes’ agonized questionings at the end of “The Cardboard Box” on the meaning of all this endless wickedness and misery.

Perhaps one of the greatest attractions of these stories is its believable and unsentimental depiction of a not entirely untroubled, yet nonetheless deep, friendship. Holmes is one who feels that the world can be viewed and interpreted in strictly logical and empirical terms, although, perhaps he is not quite the completely detached thinking machine he likes to imagine himself; Watson, while acknowledging in theory the accuracy of the principle that once the impossible is eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth, is nonetheless prepared to acknowledge those aspects of humanity that don’t conform to such clockwork precision. While Holmes, towards the end of “The Cardboard Box”, confesses himself puzzled by destructive human passions, Watson, at the end of “The Yellow Face”, is happy simply to observe what he can of human goodness and decency. Somehow, these two very different characters complement each other perfectly.

But we are not, admittedly, on any such quest here as seeking the meaning of life; many writers have done that sort of thing, but there isn’t anyone else who has created so evergreen a source of delight as the Holmes and Watson stories. So let us leave behind for the moment more the moment the metaphysical and psychological probings of a Dostoyevsky, the sober contemplation of life of a Flaubert, the epic panoramic vision of a Tolstoy or the existentialist nightmares of a Kafka, and return to Holmes awakening Watson on a cold, winter’s dawn with the words “Come Watson – the game’s afoot”. The story is “The Abbey Grange“, and may be found in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I’m off now to read it again.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erika W. on January 24, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    On the occasions when I feel miserable with a heavy cold or even, God forbid, the ‘flu, I retrieve a couple of Strand volumes from the shelves and lie on the sofa under a blanket and 3 cats and turn first to Sherlock Holmes. The creaky stories and gloomy illustrations are just right at such times. I was clever enough to pick up 48 of these volumes from secondhand book stores back when I was a graduate student in Cambridge–many from David’s Bookstores and market stall, places I hope will be in my personal Heaven when the time comes.

    Reply

    • I take it these Strand volumes contain all the stories published by that journal? I hadn’t realised you could get them all. I have the three volumes of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes – a trifle expensive, but nonetheless a most welcome present from my wife for my 50th birthday last year.

      I don’t know Cambridge too well – having been a student at the somewhat less renowned universities of Strathclyde & Manchester. Currently, I live not too far from Oxford, and that usually tends to be my destination when I want to spend a day browsing bookshops. Central London is good as well, but Oxford is so much more pleasant.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Erika W. on January 28, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    The Strand volumes were bound up in 6 monthly amounts. I am lucky enough to have vols. 1-42 and then a few stray later ones. I presume the subscribers could receive the uniform binding and take their monthly magazines to a stationer for binding. I don’t think I ever paid more than 10 shillings for any one of them. This was back in the 1950s and 60s. Don’t look at prices now on ADDALL or ABbooks without first sitting down.

    They are lovely lovely browsing. My married daughter has said “what ever I do or don’t inherit one day, if you don’t leave the Strands to me I will be doubly heart-broken!”

    Reply

  3. Posted by Erika W. on January 28, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    (continued) the Sherlock Holmes stories began in the Strand from Vol.I, July 1891. The return of Sherlock Holmes stories were in 1903-1904; I had to go check.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Erika W. on January 28, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Here I go again…If you feel like splurging on a Strand volume you could be in for a wonderful treat. The original magazine is not like the modern revival. It has drawings, photographs, humorous articles and a very nice series of interviews with well known people + photographs of their homes. Great ephemeral stuff also as well as other important writers. The children’s author E. Nesbit had some of her books serialized and this was their first appearance also.

    Reply

    • That sounds fascinating. I know there’s a Folio Society volume containing selected stories and articles from Strand magazine, but I never realised till now that the whole set is available. I haven’t looked for it yet in the net, but I doubt whether even my book-buying budget would be able to accommodate it!

      Not all the Sherlock holmes stories appeared in the Strand, of course. The first Holmes & Watson stoies to appear in the Strand were the ones in “The Adventures” collection; and I think some of the later stories appeared elsewehere. But that does cover most of the stories, and if you have the luxury of reading them as they originally appeared, then that really is luxury!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Erika W. on January 29, 2011 at 2:06 pm

    Go online to Google and type in

    Project Gutenberg the Strand Magazine volume 7 reproduction

    and you can read it as it looked originally with all the articles. This is a particularly good volume as the most interesting series are all represented.

    Reply

  6. Posted by alan on February 5, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    I think that the appeal is that of a simple and easily determined world where virtually all problems have solutions and arguments towards certain conclusions can be made from a few observations within a framework of otherwise perfect knowledge.
    For some people that is comforting. Sometimes I find it quite irritating. I seem to recall one Holmes story where scratches around a watch led Holmes to determine that the owner had delirium tremens caused by drink, as if this was the only thing that could cause the shakes.
    We have the famous Sherlock Holmes quote “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”.
    The problem lies in the ‘whatever remains’, which is usually a great deal.

    Reply

    • I think that the appeal is that of a simple and easily determined world where virtually all problems have solutions and arguments towards certain conclusions can be made from a few observations within a framework of otherwise perfect knowledge.

      This is certainly Holmes’ view of the world, but the stories (all except two in the final collection) are not presented from Holmes’ view: our view of Holmes is mediated through Watson, and therein lies the genius of the narrations. To take Homes’ estimation of himself at face value is a facile misreading, especially as Conan Doyle takes particular care to show us how limited Holmes’ view can so often be. You seem to build your entire case against these stories on the basis of this gross misreading.

      I made a point of saying in my post that the appeal of these stories does not lie in the scientifically detached method Holmes claims for himself. I say further that some of his deductions (though not all) do not hold water; and also that Holmes is not quite the detached thinking machine he likes to imagine himself. In short, I do not see the relevance of your comments to what I actually wrote.

      Reply

  7. Posted by alan on February 6, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Perhaps you are right, I last read these stories thirty years ago and in my simplicity perhaps took the narration at face value. I’ve spoken to my son about this because he has read them more recently. His 12 year old viewpoint is that part of the reason for using Watson is to make life easier for Conan Doyle, so he doesn’t have to make clear all of Holmes’s thought processes. He also thinks that in some stories that this results in a lack of a build of tension between the opening and the conclusion, an example being ‘The Man with the ‘Twisted Lip’.

    Reply

    • One thing I find interesting is that those who normally enjoy reading thrillers but who come to Holmes & Watson stories late often tend to be disappointed: this indicates to me that it’s not the thriller element as such that forms the primary appeal of these stories.

      Your son’s insight – that telling these stories from Watson’s perspective saves conan Doyle th etrouble of having to depict directly the workings of Holmes’ mind – is an interesting one, but I think there’s mre to it than that. For one thing, if the stories were to be told from Holmes’ perspective, we’d be entering a very strange world indeed. For, whatever condition it is Holmes has, he does have a condition: Sherlock Holmes is, undeniably, an extremely odd person indeed. Watson is possibly the only close friend he has made in his entire life, and even there, the friendship is not entirley untroubled. But it is nonetheless a close friendship: Holmes’ deep concern for Watson when is friend gets shot (in “The Three Garridebs”) is such a marvellous moment, because we do not elsewhere see Holmes showing such spontaneous concern for any other person. This is not because Holmes is a bad man as such, but because he finds it difficult to relate to other people’s feelings: there is definitely something autistic about him. And if the stories were to be told from his perspective, the stories would be very different indeed. I suspect that Arthur Conan Doyle did not want to write that kind of story, even if he had the skill to do so.

      Watson is the very figure of normality in so many ways: and indeed, Holmes comes to appreciate Watson for precisely that reason. Here was a person who is sympathetic to him, and who, for Holmes, acts as a sort of touchstone: without Watson’s assuring presence, Holmes would have little idea of what is “normal”, of what is “acceptable”. Holmes needs Watson to be sure of his own moral bearings. Indeed, he describes Watson at one point as a fixed and stable point in an ever-changing world (or words to that effect). Without Watson, Holmes would be lost in that constantly changing world, and he knows it.

      There is one aspect of Watson, of course, that isn’t quite normal – and that’s his ability to get on with Holmes: this is something no-one else has managed. But we like Watson for this. We like Watson for his immense patience and tolerance. And I think it is this curious relationship between these two men that are at the centre of these stories. It’s not an untroubled relationship, but, in its understated way, it is nonetheless a close one.

      Another aspect is the “story behiond the story” – i.e. the stories revealed by the investoigation. Holmes doesn’t always get it right; and sometimes – as in, say, “The Five Orange Pips” or “The Dancing Men” – he is unable to prevent tragedy. But the stories revealed are superb – whether tragic (as in “The Dancing Men”), comic (“The Red-Headed League”), sinister (“The Speckled Band”), horrifi (“The Devil’s Foot”) or even poignant (“The Missing Three-Quarter”). Arthur Conan Doyle was, perhaps above all, a supremely good storyteller.

      And above all, they are entertaining. They have entertained me for some 40 years or so now. Of course, it’s worthwhile looking into the question of why they entertain me, but analysis only goes up to a certain point: there remains something very mysterious about the appeal of these stories.

      Reply

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