Friday, October 30, 2015

Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes

The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1927
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Holmes is happily ensconced in his retirement and his study of bees, but that doesn't mean he has foregone the occasional mystery, sometimes they literally show up on his doorstep; or that all his past adventures have been told, there are metal boxes full of them. Watson is back to share a few of these adventures with us, more diverse in motives, but never beyond the grasp of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes himself even picks up the pen twice to give us insight into crimes that Watson wasn't around for, and in a rare moment admits that perhaps Watson's writing was more clever than Holmes had given it credit. It's harder then he thought putting one's exploits on the page in a way that captures the reader's attention and holds it, without spoiling the solution in advance. Yet what is most fascinating about these case files that Watson has culled is that they are almost beyond the ken of man. Vampires and apes! Fiery South American Brides. Lepers and creatures from the sea and lions killing their circus handlers! A client who might not be as innocent as they paint themselves to be. If this is to be the last we hear of Sherlock Holmes, one thing is certain, these stories are unlike any that have been told before. But the most surprising of all is Holmes being willing to change his mind... not just about Watson's writing, but about Turkish Baths. They're now all the rage.

While I have grown a little weary of the world's number one consulting detective, I question if I am not just channeling Conan Doyle himself. When reading a good portion of the works of one author you get keyed into them and their emotions. You can tell when they are enjoying themselves, when they are struggling, and most importantly when they are fed up and hate what they are writing. I quite sincerely believe that here, at the close of the Sherlock Holmes canon, that Conan Doyle quite fervently hated his creation. You can just feel it oozing out of the stories and permeating your subconscious as you read. If you were in any doubt, just take a gander at this book's introduction, I can clearly read between the lines Conan Doyle's message, which basically runs "fuck off, leave me alone!" Yet there's a weird benefit of Conan Doyle no longer caring, and that is his experimentation in narration styles. Before, during his first atrocious attempt at third person narration, which he still has yet to get the hang of here, I commented that perhaps Holmes as a narrator would be an interesting yet logical transition. My wish was granted. Twice! And what was the outcome of this? I really wanted Watson to return. It is odd, me and Watson, we've never fully gotten along. I called him a sycophant, he called me overcritical of his classic status, I went on to say his mentioning of cases he's not supposed to mention was an annoying tease, he went on about Holmes's reputation, you get the point. I forgive him everything after reading the alternatives! Please Watson, come back! Forget about your random new wife and live with Holmes again pretty please!

With his changing of narration styles, Conan Doyle also threw caution to the wind with the crimes. Instead of always being about money, we have far more complex motives than ever before. Seriously, one more about money and I don't know what I would have done. While you can tell this was all a result of Conan Doyle trying to revitalize his waning interest in his subject, I can't help but think if he had started these innovations earlier that the canon could have been more varied, more unique. Yes, yes, it's probably some sort of heresy that I'm saying this, but it's true! I'm looking at these stories not through rose-tinted glasses! As for the innovations, we FINALLY get to read a story wherein the client is the guilty party. I have oddly been longing for this day. Of course Holmes always suspected his client, so therefore it's not as interesting as if Holmes had been found fallible, but still, liking the change. The cases overall had a dash more romance. Jealousy, love, these are the cornerstones to these new set of tales. As well as real tails! Dogs play significant parts in two of the adventures! While these are a refreshing change, one of the two more sensational tales caught my imagination the most . These are really interesting in that they almost verge on pulp fiction, with death by sea creature, and notably, the heavily Poe influenced, with just a dash of H.G. Wells, "The Adventure of the Creeping Man." It's this second tale that I found most fascinating, while also very out of place. Seriously, this guy is injecting himself with a drug extracted from monkeys just to become young again for the woman he loves? Sadly it has some amusing though unintended side effects. This is so odd a tale that it instantly is the most memorable.

Yet with this love and jealousy there's a consequence that I don't know if it's intentional or not. In "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" and "The Problem of Thor Bridge" both stories concern men who married South American brides whom they fell out of love with and the wives went a little bit crazy. Was it Conan Doyle's intention to have two stories be basically Jane Eyre? Well, technically Wide Sargasso Sea, but that came after and just fleshed out the back story of Rochester and his crazy wife in the attic, Bertha Mason. Because there is no other way these stories can be looked at. They are literally Jane Eyre meets Sherlock Holmes, but not in some weird story written by Jasper Fforde. Each of the stories even captures little personality traits from Bertha. In "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" the supposed vampirism and the biting can obviously be seen in Bertha's attack on her brother when he comes to visit Thornfield Hall. Then in "The Problem of Thor Bridge" the psychotic jealousy and eventual suicide just scream crazy wife in the attic! Why this bothers me so much is I don't know what Conan Doyle's intention was with these two tales. Firstly I don't like him perpetuating this myth about fiery and unstable South American wives, but more than that, was it an homage or was he taking the piss? Was he obsessed with and adored Charlotte Bronte, or was it something else? Was he just using the framework which was familiar to all readers to get a backstory without having to do the work himself? It's no wonder "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" was so radically changed when it was adapted for TV, because otherwise everyone would be in the same conundrum as me!

Speaking of TV adaptations... what I have always found odd is how the CSI episode "Who Shot Sherlock?" has stuck with me year after year. The episode concerns a man found dead who was obsessed with Sherlock Holmes. He had even converted his basement into a recreation of 221B Baker Street with windows that utilized rear projection to show a Victorian street outside despite the fact that the room was underground. During the episode the victim is found dead of an apparent gunshot wound to the head. But there is no murder weapon to be found and the room was locked from the inside. Grissom and his team get to work to figure out whodunit. The obvious suspects are the victim's fellow Sherlock fanatics. They even have a club! Of course in the end it turns out it was suicide, the gun was attached to a band that pulled it up the chimney... which is basically the exact murder, down to a little nick, in "The Problem of Thor Bridge." So, as I've said, I don't know why this episode has stuck with me this long, but finally reading the original story that inspired this episode made me realize one major plot hole that I must now gripe about. IF these were Sherlock Holmes fans HOW did they not figure out how the crime was committed? It's in the freakin' stories! Seriously! Are they that freakin' dumb? Did it really need the all powerful mind of Gil Grissom to go, hey look at this it's right out of the books! Now I'm forever going to be stuck with remembering this episode not for it's Sherlock angle but for the stupidity angle.

But nothing in that CSI episode is as stupid as Sherlock Holmes retiring. Why? Because it's against character! The only reason Sherlock Holmes retired after only twenty-three years of active duty is because Conan Doyle tried to kill him and it didn't work, so banishing him to a life of bees seemed the next best option. Think of this logically, think of Holmes's personality, it just doesn't make sense! Watson time and again mentions how Holmes is fine in the country, but that he is a creature of the city. He needed to be enthroned at 221B Baker Street like it was the center of a giant spider's web where he could sit and listen and wait for a little criminal disturbance that would capture his attention and off he would go. Yet he's perfectly content to sit in a house looking at the channel, bathing and swimming there occasionally, and concentrating on bees? I could see him doing it for like a week or a month, learning all there was and moving on, of course writing that monograph on bees, but living there? Choosing that as his life? NO! I think this is the biggest crime in all the canon. The fact that Conan Doyle had grown to hate his character so much that he would give him an ignominious end. Of course, in fairness, he tried to give Holmes the ending he deserved but had to retract it... but still... to pour your spite out by giving an ending that was a whimper, not a bang. It's an injustice to the greatest consulting detective who ever lived and has resulted in way too much fan fiction concerning bees. Seriously. Why bees?


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