Friday, October 9, 2015

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

Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Book-of-the-Month Club
Publication Date: 1892
Format: Hardcover, 307 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Holmes and Watson have had some unique adventures over the years and Watson has decided to share the choice stories, even if Holmes disapproves. They are all individual in some way that attracted Holmes to them, though some of them, like "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," just landed in their laps on a dull Christmas Eve, or more aptly, their dinner plates. Many of the tales actually have no crimes, per se, but that doesn't mean their isn't a mystery! And if it wasn't for Holmes untangling all the threads the police would have spent much time and possibly never learned that there actually was no crime. Money and greed is always a factor in crime perpetrated against people and institutions... sometimes on a grand scale, and sometimes in a very intimate fashion. Sometimes though it's a matter of revenge, years in the planning till finally the opportunity presents itself. And then, sometimes it's about something which Sherlock knows little about, love. It is with one of these cases that Sherlock finally meets THE woman of his life, Irene Adler. Holmes has only been outwitted four times in his long career, and only once by a woman. That woman was Irene Adler. She was just as clever as Holmes, but possessed true emotion, which Holmes viewed as a hindrance. Maybe she teaches him that it can be a benefit... she at least leaves a lasting impression.

While I usually have great issues with short stories, in that they have an inconsistency in quality which can have a stellar story followed by a disaster, I think that in the case of Sherlock Holmes it really works. With his first two books it felt as if Conan Doyle was stretching the story in order to give it greater weight and length; but the format of little short mysteries wherein you can sit down and enjoy one in about an hour before you go to bed is just right. As for the inconsistency, well, in this case a lot of it has to do with Conan Doyle developing as a writer. About half way through this collection, specifically during "The Five Orange Pips," you will literally be struck by how much more confident his writing is. What before was uneven is now smooth. This is perceptibly visible with each story's beginning. I wonder if Conan Doyle regretted marrying Watson off in The Sign of the Four because almost every one of these adventures has to justify Watson's presence at 221B. In the later adventures it's handled cleverly, either the story is set prior to the wedding, Watson is the instigator of the adventure, or it's just assumed that they were working in partnership. But these reasons are once Conan Doyle was more accomplished, prior to the shift, well, it doesn't just seem forced, but ham-handed. Almost each story starts "I was near 221B Baker Street and wondered what Holmes was up to." Seriously Watson? "Let's see what Holmes is up to!" Ugh. It just is a juvenile qualifier to start the story and lessens the tale as a whole by starting off on a wrong and amateurish footing. It's like forcing the story to start when it needs a more natural beginning.

Yet I realized something interesting with the development of Holmes and Watson's relationship. Yes, Holmes needs Watson to be his "biographer" as it were to feed his ego, but he also needs Watson to provide a more engaging tale. Of all the cases they handle they don't always handle them together, sometimes Watson is nothing more than a sounding board that sits in a chair and listens to Holmes. In one instance he is literally housebound due to his war injury. The cases where Holmes is out and about solving crime and then Watson is just in for the denouement are boring. We, as readers, are just reading a precise of what Holmes was up to. And while this might entertain Holmes's number one fanboy Watson, for us readers it doesn't. I don't want to be the person who just stops in every evening to 221B to get the latest news, I want to be in on the action! That is exactly why Watson is important! When he is in on the action we don't get the bare facts, we get insight into things that Holmes thinks are beneath him, like how the clouds look and was there a pretty sunset while they hunted over a certain moor. While this might seem a 180 from my previous mocking of Watson's florid prose, I counter with the fact that we need them, to a certain extent. Plus Watson has reigned them in a bit. Without this other context Holmes's adventures would read like police reports. Of course that is what Holmes would like, the science without the superfluous. But we need a bit of superfluous. 

Watson also humanize Holmes to a certain extent. In his first two stories he was very inhuman in his abilities and was kind of looked at as an oddity who was also a genius. Someone alien is hard to relate to. You can admire him, but you can't connect. Watson gives us a connection, an "in" into the stories. Hence, as I mentioned previously, they need to be working side by side. Though people might joke about Holmes's disconnect from emotion and people while still having such insight, sometimes he is way to callous for comfort. In "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" a down and out man who would have been the unexpected recipient of the lustrous jewel is bought off with a goose. Um... shouldn't he be getting the reward money that was offered at least? He had the luck to get the goose that laid the golden egg and he gets nothing and Holmes doesn't even have a backward glance for this poor soul. In "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb" he tries to cheer up Victor Hatherley that although he might have lost his thumb, almost lost his life, and was out his promised money, at least he has a great story! What the heck! Great way to console someone Holmes, it's all about the entertaining story, not about losing your opposable thumb! And then in "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" he is offended that the bachelor in question, aka the bridegroom, won't sit down to a hearty meal with the woman he lost... excuse me? Holmes actually thought that everything would be fine? Seriously, he knows so much but is sometimes so dumb. And that's not even going into the full ramifications of "The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet!"

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Irene Adler. Firstly, Adler herself is a conundrum in the cannon of Holmes. She has one brief appearance in one story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," but can be found in almost all adaptations, continuations, what have you. This one character has taken on a significance almost greater than Watson. There is part of me which wonders if this is to balance the male and female dynamic in the works of Conan Doyle. Quite literally there aren't many women, and when they do appear in stories such as "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "A Case of Identity" and "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches," they are just pawns in a greater game so that their families can steal their fortunes. Therefore Irene seems to be the great leveler. Here is someone who is not only female, but she bests Sherlock Holmes. She makes women of significance, though one should note that this is only for the readers, for Holmes she is the ONLY woman of significance. What I find interesting about Irene Adler is that she is almost the exact opposite of Holmes. She doesn't view emotions as unnecessary and stumbling blocks to solving cases. She uses them to her benefit and she outwits Holmes. Which makes me wonder if Holmes ever thought after their encounter if he was doing something wrong. Could he do what he does without shutting down human emotions? Holmes wouldn't be the man we know... but perhaps he would be a better man.

One thing this collection brought home to me once again is that for all that Holmes knows, Conan Doyle himself is quite ignorant on many things, and many of these things are related to the great U. S. of A. What bothers me even more is that this perpetuates myths and stereotypes about the country I happen to call home. And it's not just his not quite getting political and religious organizations, he needs to freakin' look at a map. This all started back with A Study in Scarlet. While Conan Doyle later went on to apologize about the atrocities and lies he propagated about the Mormons with his incorrect data, he didn't apologize for geographical errors. I would sincerely like to know how the Mormons on their journey from Illinois to Utah, which I have taken by train I might add, went through the alkali salt flats of Nevada... the state even further away from Illinois than their destination. As for the KKK in "The Five Orange Pips," ugh. The naivety of Conan Doyle just drove me to distraction sometimes. I mean really. This just gets under my skin. Holmes is supposed to be mystical in his all knowing prowess and yet time and time again whenever America comes up Conan Doyle's ignorance rears it's ugly head. Which kind of brings all the writing down a peg. If something that any American could point to as wrong is given as fact, what else is wrong in these books? How infallible was Holmes really? And all because of his creator...


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