A Chat about Sherlock Holmes

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A Chat about Sherlock Holmes is an article written by Harry Thurston Peck published in The Independent on 21 november 1901.

A Chat about Sherlock Holmes

The Independent (21 november 1901, p. 2757)
The Independent (21 november 1901, p. 2758)
The Independent (21 november 1901, p. 2759)
The Independent (21 november 1901, p. 2760)

It is, or ought to be, a truism that professional critics of literature are generally the very last persons in the world to recognize new literature when they see it. This is partly because such standards as they have are purely conventional, and partly because they them selves are timorous and mistrustful and afraid of making mistakes. Hence they hesitate to commit themselves to a definite opinion until they are pretty sure that they are on the side of the majority. The result is that they follow where they ought to lead, and are apt to come in at the tail of the procession when they ought to come in at its head. Just as the venerable Austrian commanders in Italy were convinced that Napoleon knew nothing about the art of war because he was defeating them in reckless defiance of the rules laid down in the military text books, so our literary critics would not admit that Kipling's first five books had any value, for these were brilliant in an utterly new way, and not in a thoroughly approved old way. Originality is terribly disconcerting to unoriginal people. They think it frivolous or "unsound" or "queer." They never quite approve of it. This is why they glorify Robert Louis Stevenson for those productions of his that are good in a conventional way. but ignore his one extraordinary tour de force which is unique in literature. Yet a century hence "Treasure Island" and "The Master of Ballantrae" will be only names to the reading public, while "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" will stand as the most striking allegory ever written on the curious duality of man's moral nature.

The case of Dr. Conan Doyle is almost as interesting as the case of Kipling, in kind tho not in degree. Dr. Doyle does not take himself and his writings very seriously. Neither did Plautus nor Shakespeare. for that matter. Dr. Doyle is a genial, wholesome, sensible Anglo-Celt who turns off his work in a comfortable sort of way. He is not a genius, but he has a leaven of genius in his make-up, and he is a born story-teller as truly as was Herodotus. Most of his books are just admirable examples of the story-telling quality which in some mysterious fashion renders its possessor able to give real interest to even a commonplace narrative. In fact. the least important of Dr. Doyle's stories — as for instance some of those in "Round the Red Lamp" — are readable. They may be as improbable as the one about the resuscitated Egyptian mummy or the electrocution at Los Amigos; but all the same you will be glad to read them and you will wish for more. In "The White Company" and "Micah Clark," this story-telling quality is of a very high order, yet still not going beyond the limits of great cleverness. The critics, however, would select these books as containing the best of which Dr. Doyle is capable. The one thing of his that is really indicative of creative genius they merely smile upon indulgently and pass by with as little notice as they would give to a dime-novel, and with much less notice than they often give to some schoolgirl's machine-made historical romance. It never occurs to them that English fiction was permanently enriched when Dr. Doyle began his cycle of stories whose protagonist is Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

It is likely that most literary critics. if asked to give an opinion about these remarkable stories. would at once compare them with those of Gaboriau and feel that there was nothing more to say. But, as a matter of fact. the Sherlock Holmes stories are not only immensely superior to anything of Gaboriau's, but in some respects the best of them are better than those tales of Poe which treat of crime and its detection. Gaboriau is an excellent literary mechanic. His mysteries are very neatly constructed. The parts all dovetail perfectly. But they have no artistic value whatsoever, and the unraveling of their complicated plots is like the dissection of a Chinese puzzle which interests by its ingenuity, but appeals neither to the intellect nor to the imagination. Poe, on the other hand. is highly intellectual. and in "The Murders in the Rue Morgue." for instance. he stirs the imagination very powerfully. He can rouse the sense of horror and make his mystery deepen into ghastliness and terror.

Dr. Doyle, however, can do these things and give us still another ingredient — the human element. In the very best of the Sherlock Holmes stories he is as ingenious as Gaboriau, as imaginative as Poe, and in addition he creates for us characters that are broadly human and that interest us wholly apart from their relation to the plot. Take the personages in Gaboriau's "Monsieur Lecoq," for example, and compare them with those of Conan Doyle. There is Monsieur Lecoq himself, the aspiring young detective. We are curious about what he does in the story, but we are not made to care at all for what he is. lie is a puppet-figure. a factor in a mathematical problem. There is Gevrol, the established detective, commonplace, devoid of the detecting instinct, and jealous of Lecoq's very evident superiority. There is May, the remarkable and mysterious criminal, who outwits the whole detective force and finally escapes. Now these are not human beings at all. They are merely counters in an exciting game. Apart from the game they have no tangible existence. The same is just as true of Poe's M. Dupin. But Sherlock Holmes him self would interest us simply as a man. It is curiously varied tastes, his fondness for good music and rare books, his disorderly rooms, his utter boredom when not absorbed in disentangling mysteries, his prodigious consumption of shag tobacco when working out his problems, his addiction to the cocaine habit — a curious touch — all these things amuse or interest or pique us until we grow fond of him and get at last to know him almost as well as tho we, too, shared his rooms in Baker Street. Watson is another creation. Like all true artists, who do their best work by instinct rather than self-consciously, it is probable that Dr. Doyle had no idea of how supremely clever a thing it was to make Watson the companion and chronicler and also the foil of Sherlock Holmes. Watson, the matter-of-fact, sensible, and friendly surgeon, always planting both his broad feet squarely on the earth, is a typically British character, and his lack of insight makes Holmes's wonderful intuition appear twice as wonderful by the force of contrast. Moreover, by making Watson the narrator of the stories. they are made to seem always plausible to the reader, because of their sober, unemotional manner. Lestrange [1] and Gregson, of the regular detective force, are also types drawn adequately with a few broad strokes. Be side them Gaboriau's Gevrol is shadowy and unreal. The creation of Mycroft Holmes was a stroke of genius. That Sherlock Holmes should have a brother superior in inductive reasoning even to Sherlock himself is interesting; that he should be fat and luxurious and far too lazy to use his gifts in any practical way is delicious. The likeness of mind and the utter unlikeness of temperament be tween the indolent Mycroft and the keen, nervous, high-strung Sherlock is fascinating. That Mycroft Holmes is introduced in but a single story — that of the Greek interpreter — shows a remarkable artistic self-control on the part of Dr. Doyle. The glimpse that is given of him is tantalizing. One longs to know more about him, but his creator has very wisely stayed his hand.

The very best of all these stories are not the long ones — "A The Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of the Four" — the each of these contains many very striking things, and the first of them (which Dr. Doyle himself is said to have thought so little of that he sold the manuscript outright for $125), introduces us to Sherlock at the outset of his career. There is no doubt that the most finished and most effective tale is that of "The Speckled Band." This is a marvel of construction and of execution worthy of Poe, and better than Poe's best. From the very first page the reader's interest is riveted upon a mystery which, as it develops, is utterly inscrutable and fascinates one by its undefined yet very evident horror. The inexplicable death of the elder sister, the warnings given to the surviving girl, the peculiar whistle in the night, the clanging sound of metal, the strange discoveries made by Holmes, and then that nerve-racking vigil in the blackness of midnight with the hideous revelation at the end of it — I know of nothing in this sort of fiction which possesses an interest so absorbing intense. Of a different character is The Naval Treaty," which I place next to "The Speckled Band" in merit as a story. This tale affords a good example of the method by which the circumstances of a mysterious event are set forth quite frankly and yet in such a way that the perfectly simple and obvious explanation never once occurs to you. The draft of a secret naval treaty be tween France and Italy is to be copied by young Phelps, of the British Foreign Office, who is a near relative of Lord Holdhurst, the Foreign Minister. No one but Phelps and Lord Holdhurst know of it. The reputation of both these men is at stake if the terms of the treaty shall be discovered, and, moreover, serious diplomatic complications will ensue. Phelps remains at his desk in the Foreign Office after every one but the janitor has left, and then he begins to make the required draft. Finding that it will keep him later than he had expected. he goes down stairs to ask the doorkeeper to get him a cup of coffee. While he is giving this order he hears the bell in his room ring, and, rushing back again, he finds the room empty and the treaty gone. Now, in the first place, as no human being knew that the treaty was there, and as in the second place, the thief. instead of stealing it and sneaking quietly away, rang the bell to announce his presence, the problem seems on the face of it insoluble; yet the explanation of it is really the simplest and most natural thing in the world. Herein Dr. Doyle's plots differ so utterly from Gaboriau's. Those of the French writer are complex to a degree; those of Dr. Doyle are simplicity itself. The reader is just as hopelessly puzzled by them, but the solution, when it comes, comes not as a mathematical demonstration, but as a flash of light in a dark place — illumining, surprising, delighting all at once.

After the two stories just mentioned, I should place, without attempting to as sign them a definite order of merit, "Silver Blaze," "The Resident Patient," "The Engineer's Thumb," "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," and "The Five Orange Pips." Three stories make too strong a demand upon the reader's credulity. These are, "The Red Headed League," "A Case of Identity," and "The Man with the Twisted Lip," yet the first of them is none the less one of the most absorbing interest. There is indeed, not one story in the whole cycle which does not contain many touches that positively fascinate one by their ingenuity and unexpectedness.

Dr. Doyle will sooner or later get the recognition from the critics which he has already won from the reading public. His hold upon that public is an extraordinary one. Many books of the day sell by the hundreds of thousands, yet they are not talked about and no one clamors for more from their authors' pens. But in the case of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, the public not only buys and reads, but discusses them continually, and it has so strenuously insisted upon having more that Dr. Doyle has been obliged to yield to the demand, and in the story which is now appearing as a serial ("The Hound of the Baskervilles") he seems to have attained the perfection of his method. The first number of this tale disappointed many readers because it seemed to introduce the incongruous element of the supernatural, but it has already become clear that there is really nothing supernatural at all about it, and that instead we are to have what will probably be the most remarkable story of them all.

  1. Typo here, this is Lestrade.