IMAGE: The Hound of the Baskervilles frontispiece, illustration by Sidney Paget
I have taken quite a liking to the Sherlock Holmes stories lately.* There is something paternally soothing about them – an assurance that no matter how bewildering the circumstances of a mystery may be, at the end of ten pages Doyle’s legendary character will deliver you back to the rational world with a condescending smirk and a lecture about how plainly obvious the whole matter was to anyone who cared to look.
It’s a trick, of course, a lie – as all detective fiction must be in order to function. Sure the clues are there, but the aperture through which the reader must view the story is so narrow that one can only ever glimpse a sliver of the overarching tale. The great fun of the Holmes character, ultimately, is that he goes out of his way to spoil such illusions. In his final exegesis of each crime he metaphorically strides onto the magician’s stage, drags back the curtain and snaps on the house lights, revealing every trapdoor and wire to the stupefied crowd. It’s ‘elementary’ because he was never taken in by the ruse.
Of course, Holmes is not himself adverse to pulling such tricks upon his audience. He will often make an impossible observation, state the seemingly unknowable – ‘You have just come back from France’; ‘I see you are thinking of investing in the stock market’; ‘Your fly is open’ (…maybe that one’s not so miraculous) – and the characters surrounding Holmes will gasp in astonishment. In the very first case they work together (A Study in Scarlet), Holmes at first refuses to describe his entire deductive process, momentarily withholding his suspicions about the murder in question and thereby propelling the plot. As he explains to Watson:
‘You know a conjurer gets no credit once he has explained his trick and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.’
However, this is precisely what Holmes goes on to do – repeatedly – for the remainder of his time with Watson, solving seemingly impossible conundrums, but always taking time to explain his methods, insisting that anyone else could do the same, if they too simply bothered to look. As he states himself in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, describing the trick he uses to strike wonder into his audience:
‘[I]t is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple enough in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and present’s one’s audience with the starting point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious effect.’
And it is only when Holmes then goes on to lay out the intuitive leaps and logical reasoning that lead up to his pronouncements that we readers applaud. Indeed, it is precisely this inclination toward explaining his gimmicks that makes Holmes such a wonderfully fun character, rather than a condescending prat.
It should come as no surprise then that with such a devotion to the rules of an ordered and logical universe, Holmes’ most frequent bugbear (quite in contrast to his creator Doyle) was the willingness of those around him to entertain metaphysical explanations for the world’s mysteries. Holmes believed that the world could be – must be – quantifiable, and so there is a recurring theme throughout the his tales of confronting and exploding superstition and mysticism. In one famous example, ‘The Sussex Vampire’, Holmes immediately banishes the fantastical from consideration, refusing to indulge the panicked imagination of others and instantly dismissing the notion that a supernatural being could be dwelling in suburbia (in this instance a mother is suspected of having vampiric tendencies):
‘But are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.’
Over the course of the story, Holmes therefore dissects this false hypothesis, unmasking the ‘vampire’ by revealing the mystery to be a product of altogether too human emotions: petty jealousies, paranoia, and blinding affection.
Similarly, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (a great read I that cannot recommend highly enough), Watson is sent off into the gloomiest landscape imaginable to be stalked by a creature of gothic horror: the titular hound and its deathly curse. It is only when Holmes turns up two thirds of the way through the story that he can drag the whole proceeding back toward the light of coherency. All the mythical, mystical wonders that blight this landscape are dragged from out of the shadows, again to be cast down at the audience’s feet, the products of mere shadow puppets and paranoia.
In this sense, Holmes is the ultimate Victorian-Era Scooby-Doo, unmasking the irrational and mystical in order to expose the creepy-old-janitor-under-the-werewolf-mask of the coherent, objective world. …Or, if anthropomorphised, mystery-solving cartoon dogs aren’t your speed: these narratives effectively operate as Socratic dialogues, exposing the metaphysical to be but a misapprehension of the plainly apparent.**
The great irony of this endeavour, however, is that it is precisely in his attempt to rid the world of mystery and mysticism that Holmes himself becomes all the more fantastical. To return to Holmes’ own conjuring analogy, in his denouncement of the metaphysical he becomes the magician who takes you through the process of the illusion: he puts on a show so that you can be stupefied, then explains the trick so you can share in the conspiratorial glee, finally being wowed again by thinking back on how the ordinary was made to seem impossible. Holmes makes the rational world, by virtue of its tediously unremarkable logic (not in spite of it), seem astonishing.
On a larger scale, what makes Doyle such a fantastic author is that he performs exactly the same function in his narratives: almost going out of his way to notify his audience of the trickery he is using to hoodwink them. Doyle dazzles his reader with his audacity, and it is for this reason that he can get away with one of the most audacious acts in literary history: bringing his most beloved hero back from the dead.***
IMAGE: Scooby-Doo, Where are You? (Hanna-Barbera)
* I’ve also blathered about him further here.
** Just swap the mystery van’s endless, cross-country drive for a Socrates’ nomadic wanderings, and Scooby snacks for hemlock. …Wait, no, that’s horrible.
*** Sorry, I should have said: SPOILER ALERT. Scooby-Doo is a dog.