Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1894
Format: Hardcover, 259 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Money. It's what almost all crime is in aid of; the procurement of more. The vast wealth that can be attained by some underhanded dealing, holding a Greek heiress hostage, crippling a horse, stealing state secrets. This is where Sherlock Holmes comes in. If a case looks too hard, if the criminal looks too cunning, there is always Sherlock Holmes. Few can best him, and only one would use his powers for evil, the Napoleon of Crime, Moriarty. Though that might be selling Sherlock's brother Mycroft short. But despite the stranglehold that Moriarty has on the underworld, he isn't the only one up to no good. Some cases have echoes of cases past, as "The Adventure of the Stockbroker's Clerk" has shades of a certain red-headed organization. Some cases of criminals that would never have been suspected by their victims, as they are trusted friends and servants. And some cases where the answer is right there all along. But Sherlock Holmes would have never become who he is today if not for that first case. That first time when his powers were awoken to the use they could serve. "The Adventure of the Gloria Scott" occurred at his friend Victor Trevor's house over the school holidays. If it wasn't for Mr. Trevor's amazement and encouragement, who knows what would have happened to the course of Holmes's life... sadly things didn't end quite so well for Mr. Trevor.

Reading so many of these stories you really start to yearn for some originality in the criminal class, oh hello Moriarty, we'll get to you soon. You can see why Holmes longs for something out of the ordinary, because even if they have unpredictable twists and turns, there end goal is always the same for each villain; all they seem to want is money, money, and yes, more money. They are boring and passe, but worst of all, predictable. Eight of eleven stories all about greed. How I long for other motives. So the villains have no more allure for me and I have therefore decided to look to the victims... and oh, they are themselves an odd lot as well, but for the moment far more interesting. I don't know if Conan Doyle is exaggerating their distress for dramatic effect when they call on Holmes or if he really thought people in dire straights would act this way, but they are so frenzied and manic that they go beyond relatability into comedic fodder. The hyperactivity, the pulling out of hair, oh, and in one memorable case, the actual banging of the head into the wall... what was this all in aid of? Seriously, tension? What? Because I really don't think this is how people where. In fact, I think the overt showing of not just emotions, but an overabundance of emotions, is what signifies that something "beyond the everyday" is occurring. If sometimes the scales tipped into parody, well, that was just the price that was paid to show how bad the crime was on these unsuspecting people. Personally, I don't know how I would handle a situation that would require Holmes, but hysterics and brain fever might be a little outside my wheelhouse of personality traits no matter what the situation.

But the fact that the victims have such traits that are unique to each case shows a shift in Conan Doyle's storytelling. These stories are more character driven. We are getting to know Holmes more and more and, despite being originally this almost otherworldly being, he's being grounded in reality as time goes on, as evidenced by the fact that we finally meet his family! Yes, Mycroft Holmes makes his first appearance in "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter." It is entertaining how Watson is almost incredulous at the mundanity of Holmes having a sibling. Yet thankfully Mycroft is anything but mundane, having the same, if not superior skills of Holmes, but lacking any moral compass or desire to "solve crime." He is the true armchair detective not even needing to have his hypotheses validated, because he knows they are right. Also, I oddly am starting to relate to Holmes myself. Not in his skill set, but in his work habits. He has intense periods or work wherein sleep or food are tertiary concerns. But come the end of the case he has his fallow periods, wherein he doesn't leave the apartment and just lays about all day in his dressing robe. Going to art school I have found that this is very much the temperament of the artistic mind. You go full steam ahead, hypnotically focused on your one task, until you are done and you crash, unable to even lift yourself out of a chair. I never thought that I'd relate to Sherlock in my habits... but there you go, sometimes I can be surprised!

As for another important character who finally makes his appearance, I'm talking about Moriarty! And the enigma that he is. Why is he an enigma? Because he is in one and only one story and is never built up to and then he's gone, taking Holmes with him. I can see why 20,000 people cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine! It's lazy storytelling! Over the course of the year leading up to the "death" of Sherlock Holmes and even in every single other story ever previously written about Holmes there has been no mention of an arch nemesis, something I think you'd, you know, mention. Instead in this short twenty page story Moriarty is mentioned, hunted, avoided, and then dispatched. Why isn't this built up to in ANY WAY!?! If Conan Doyle planned on killing Holmes off eventually, you'd think he'd lay some groundwork, build it up a little. Clues like breadcrumbs leading to this final "noble" act. Instead it has this feeling of a petulant writer who was sitting at home one day and cracked. "You only want me to write Holmes, well see how you like this!" Grumbling about the ungrateful reading public all the while. Because it really does feel like a slap in the face to his readers. "Here's the end, you didn't see it coming did you? Haha!" There is no elegance, there is no mystery here. Adaptations have tried to fix this, to romanticize this relationship more, much as they have done with Irene Adler, but that doesn't fix the source material. "The Final Problem" might be a good story, but it is still lazy storytelling because of everything that came before.

I will tell you one thing I have learned from reading all these tales, if you don't trust Conan Doyle anymore, there's someone you should trust even less, and that is your "trusty" manservant! Because, even if they have been with your family all their lives, even if their family and your family have worked side by side for centuries, given the chance, they will screw you over. It might be stealing your family fortune out from under your nose. It might be blackmailing you! They are the viper in the garden. Because they don't care about loyalty, they don't care about tradition, they don't care about trust, they only care about the monies! Long before Downton Abbey and Thomas, Conan Doyle showed us that those we let into our homes, who see us at our most vulnerable, will take advantage whenever they can. I don't know if this is just good storytelling, like Downton Abbey, or some sort of personal vendetta against backstabbing servants, but it sure is a theme running through these adventures. Did Conan Doyle get burned or blackmailed? Because there is a feeling of pure hatred, especially in how these servants meet their ends... One wonders if Holmes every worries about Mrs. Hudson turning on him... now that could make an interesting story right there... or even that random pageboy that is always showing people up to the rooms... seriously, who is this pageboy and where did he come from? He's like in every story and is never mentioned by name or anything!

The final observation I have on the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is the meta of it all. Throughout the tales Watson narrates in such a way as to make the audience complicit in the stories, as if we're old friends and know all the public affairs that he does. We get a kick out of it when Holmes takes him to task for romanticizing the prose and not sticking directly to the facts. But in "The Adventure of the Crooked Man" Holmes brings up a whole new slew of things to consider. He basically lays all the fault in any of the readers dislike of the stories on Watson taking artistic license. Holmes aims right for Watson's heart when he says: "It is one of those instances where the reasoner can produce an effect which seems remarkable to his neighbor, because the latter has missed the one little point which is the basis of the deduction. The same may be said, my dear fellow, for the effect of some of these little sketches of yours, which is entirely meretricious, depending as it does upon your retaining in your own hands some factors in the problem which are never imparted to the reader." So all this time we thought we were comrades in arms with Watson, and here he's been holding out on us to make a better tale! It's an interesting revelation on Holmes's and therefore on Conan Doyle's part. Because simultaneously you like Holmes more but also the perceived intelligence of Watson as Conan Doyle's conduit is increased. I was never one who thought of Watson as unintelligent, but if you were... well, this is a slap in your face. Apparently Conan Doyle is willing and wanting to smack us all around a little... ungrateful author!


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