Wednesday, October 21, 2015

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

The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1905
Format: Hardcover, 381 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Many surprises are in store for Watson, the erstwhile chronicler of Sherlock Holmes. Since Holmes's death Watson has had quite a different life. He no longer writes about that great detective, he has put down his pen because the subject is just too painful. He has also lost his wife, their wedded bliss lasted only six years before she died. Watson is just plodding along, doing his duties to his patients, till everything changes. Holmes faked his own death and the time has come to reveal his resurrection. Moriarty's second-in-command Moran is about to be apprehended and it is now safe for Holmes to come out of hiding and reveal his continued existence to his dearest friend and companion, Watson. After Sebastian Moran is finally behind bars Holmes hopes that Watson will return with him to 221B and that their old bachelor crime solving days will recommence. The cases are even more illustrious than before, as the world rejoices at Holmes returning to put the criminal element in it's place. There is ironically a case about a man who fakes his own death, another about an infernally annoying code using dancing men, some waving little flags. As always money is a great motivator for crime, from inheritances to stolen jewels. While some of the cases are barely worthy of Sherlock, there are others that spur him to drastic, even criminal measures. One thing is certain, the world is a better place with Holmes waiting to solve your problems.

I can see why Conan Doyle tried to kill off his most famous creation. You reach a point when you feel there's nothing left to say, no more variations on a theme available. All the stories have been told. If I'm having trouble searching for new insights for yet another Sherlock Holmes review, can you imagine trying to find some new way in which to inveigle Holmes in yet another ingenious mystery? Let alone devise that mystery? Death might easily have been the only answer. Luckily for his readers it didn't stick. Conan Doyle finally caved to his eager public and their demands and The Return of Sherlock Holmes collects the next thirteen short stories of Holmes and Watson after a ten year absence. Yet I think it was very much a reluctant return. It's not that the stories aren't of the same caliber, or that Holmes is less brilliant, it's the undertone of the stories that struck me as poignant. I think it's not a coincidence that blackmail features so heavily among these tales. Conan Doyle was coerced into returning to writing Holmes; and while he went on to write another stand-alone book and two more collections of short stories, he always thought his energies would have been better spent elsewhere. His fans would disagree with this assertion I am sure, but I feel his pain... I still have something to say, but will I still have something to say come the final volume? I can't be sure and I can't condone the pigeonholing of anyone with artistic sensibilities. Change is good for the soul, and Holmes isn't one to embrace change.

After reading this book, especially combined with A Study in Scarlet, I seriously would like to know what Conan Doyle has against Americans. Yes, I've mentioned this before, but seriously, it's too weird not to bring it up again. As an American myself, it's just weird reading these stories, such as this volume's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men," wherein Conan Doyle's ignorance of America is only outdone by his obvious dislike of it. America is portrayed as a backward society full of violent people who for some reason strongly believe in the binding oath of arranged marriages. Seriously? Arranged marriages? Is this something that they just skipped over in history class wherein 19th century America was all about matchmaking? In fact, if you go to Wikipedia, you will notice that like England and Europe, ALL of North America is exempt from the tradition of these arranged marital alliances. Suck it Conan Doyle! Plus the violent American spurned bridegroom is another erroneous trope that Conan Doyle seems to take glee in writing. I can only thank the powers that be that we were spared Conan Doyle going into any detail about the child crime ring in Chicago. As someone whose ancestors lived in Chicago at the time period that Abe Slaney and Elsie Patrick of the aforementioned story did, I dread to contemplate what Conan Doyle's view of Chicago was...

Getting away from Conan Doyle's ignorance and prejudices and back to Holmes there is an aspect of Holmes that is getting on my nerves more and more. Whenever Holmes meets someone for the first time he does his signature trick of reading them and then telling them the details of their lives that make it look like he is a magician. He then explains how he reached these conclusions. The dirt on their shoes, the indent on their finger, the tailoring of their clothes, everything tells a story to Holmes. This isn't what I dislike. In fact, this is always the fun part of any story, Holmes proving his superior deductive abilities to the world at large. Also, his explanation isn't annoying either. What's annoying is that Holmes gets angry that after he explains how he did it everyone sees it as an "easy" trick. If you get mad at people when you willingly give them insight into how something is done then don't give them insight! It's like Houdini showing everyone how his magic is done and then being pissy that they no longer view it as magic. If it's explained it's no longer magic, it's as simple as that. In fairness to Holmes, he does want his techniques known so his explanation is logical. But he wants his techniques known in a scientific and rational way, not in the sensational way Watson writes it up. So therefore he needs to start embracing willingly sharing his techniques to his clients and his friends and this includes letting go of his huffy attitude when the simplicity of the observation is understood. And if he worries that sharing his gift will make him unnecessary, to that I say I don't think there are many people who can tell the different types of mud or tobacco.

The story that stood out most to me of the thirteen was "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton." Yes, it did partly stand out because they used it as the arc of the most recent season of Sherlock; but more importantly, it stood out because Holmes and Watson set themselves clearly on the wrong side of the law and have fun doing it. Holmes even muses that if he had set his mind to it that he could have been quite the criminal genius. I personally have no doubt that he could be such a criminal, in fact, I often wonder why he solves crimes at all. He has no actual interest in his clients. In fact in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" he once again shows his callousness by assuming that everyone, especially his clients, have the same indifference to money as he does, and therefore greatly harms his client's pocketbook. He is only interested in things that will challenge his mind. In fact, he often has a hard time finding anything to divert him and be the least bit challenging. I would assume, with the glee he takes in playing the criminal, that actually taking to a life of crime would provide more range for his abilities. He wouldn't have to wait for someone to commit a mind-boggling and devious act, he could create them. And in fact in my second favorite story here, "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange," he lets a murderer go because he views this as true justice. Holmes is so close to stepping over the line I say he should just do it, become the new, and far cleverer Moriarty. There is a gap left in the world of crime from his departure...

Which in a roundabout way brings me to guilt. The more stories I read about Sherlock Holmes the more I realize he doesn't have any guilty clients. Now only a fool who committed a crime would hire Sherlock Holmes to look into the case, but still, people are amazing for the capability of deluding themselves. Holmes does mention one murderer who tried to hire him and was shown the door... but has Holmes ever mistakenly taken on a guilty party as his client? Has he ever committed such a faux pas? Occasionally his clients die, sometimes due to his negligence, but do they ever do the evil deed and cause someone else's death? Because as his clients are currently represented this would mean that Holmes is infallible, and I don't think this is the case at all. I think that Holmes is, very occasionally, human. So the question becomes, is Watson skewing the narrative to make Holmes look more God like? Is he expurgating the cases? It is something to wonder on... I almost hope that in one of the upcoming stories that this happens, just because it would shake things up a bit. The more I read, the more the similarities are apparent from case to case and just once I would like something radically different. Yes, Holmes playing criminal was nice... but let's switch things up even more. How about a criminal who doesn't confess everything? How about Holmes finding the evil doer and them being exonerated in a court of law because Holmes's evidence is so esoteric that the judge and jury find it unbelievable? Because, seriously, would most of Holmes's evidence stand up in a court of law? It's more than a little inconceivable.


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