Friday, September 11, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

It's hard to talk or think about detective fiction without bringing up Sherlock Holmes. To be sure, there were detective stories before Conan Doyle came along: Poe, Wilkie, even Dickens came before him, many of them originally inspired by real life detective stories. But Holmes created a mold that would go pretty much unbroken until 1929 by Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest [1].

Conan Doyle pioneered a number of things. Although it would be left to folks like Knox and Van Dine to formalize the idea, the Holmes stories made a stab at the concept of fair play: these were stories based on science, where the reader could in principle solve the mysteries based on the clues therein. Indeed, Holmes was himself a published author of various criminology pamphlets, and was continually performing experiments to find ways to further the art, and was said to be based on Dr. Joseph Bell.

He also introduced the, er, Watson: realizing that a story written from the point of view of the Great Detective would be insufferable (not to mention not very suspenseful, though he pulled it off a couple times later in his career) this viewpoint character was added. One important point that's often lost is that John Watson was not dumb at all, he was a successful physician, after all. A lot of the impression of stupidity comes from the framing story, that of Watson retelling the story afterward for publication in a way intended to highlight Holmes's genius.

Lastly, although the stories drip with Holmes-worship, Conan Doyle was careful to make his detective distinctly imperfect. His personal habits include slovenliness, drug use[2], and playing the violin at all hours of night. Moreover, he suffered for his perfection, having a personal life almost devoid of anything but work. This notion of the flawed genius is repeated very often in detective fiction: Hercule Poirot's fastidiousness, Nero Wolfe's obesity and foul moods, Peter Wimsey's obnoxiousness (that one might have been unintentional, actually), and more recently Adrian Monk's crippling phobias and Gregory House's general personality.

With all that in mind, I recommend the following short movie from Hulu, The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes, which includes old interviews with Conan Doyle himself (also features Christopher Lee, who's definitely styling):

[1] Red Harvest, by the way, would later (by way of a film adaptation) be the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai flick Yojimbo, which in turn inspired Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, which spawned pretty much the whole spaghetti western genre, plus Clint Eastwood's career. If you watch these two movies, you'll get a lot more of Quentin Tarantino's references. Red Harvest also happens to be a pretty good book, with the detective playing the new role, that of gritty avenger: this idea in turn gave rise to, among many others, the Batman.
[2] I am fond of repeating Holmes's saying, "The best rest is a change of work" and then noting, "But then again, Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict." To be fair to Mr. Holmes, cocaine was at the time considered something of a wonder drug (advocated by none other than Sigmund Freud on behalf of Merck), and he did eventually kick the habit.

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