Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four

Today (or maybe tomorrow, depending on the weather), the Connecticut mystery book discussion group is meeting to discuss these two books.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. A Study in Scarlet in The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1930. (The work was originally published in 1887.)

It's been years since I've read any Sherlock Holmes. I don't know why (maybe because, due to overexposure and poor representation, he's become almost trite in our cynical society, a character who is mimicked and mocked to some degree, created by an author it's popular for snarky critics to "dis" these days, not taking him all that seriously -- which is very, very unfair -- so that, somehow, it's not "cool" to read Sherlock Holmes if you're over the age of twelve. And I'm not quite as resistant to societal influences as I'd like to think), because every time I read Conan Doyle, I am blown away by his brilliance. This time has been particularly fun, given my new-found (vested) interest in math, because I viewed this book from a logical and mathematical perspective. Holmes is a bit of a snotty ass at times (smug, even, and I usually abhor "smug"), but somehow, he's forgivable and likable (maybe because Watson likes and respects him so much). I admire him, because he's able to do something I've never been able to do in my life: stay focused. I mean, really focused. He doesn't allow himself to be led by the tangential, which is why he's able to keep to the logical path. I love it when Watson is trying to figure out who this man is and what makes him tick. He makes a list:

Sherlock Holmes -- His Limits

1. Knowledge of Literature. -- Nil.
2. Knowledge of Philosophy. -- Nil.
3. Knowledge of Astronomy. -- Nil.
4. Knowledge of Politics. -- Feeble.
5. Knowledge of Botany. -- Variable.
Well up on belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
6. Knowledge of Geology. -- Practical, but limited.
Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he received them.
7. Knowledge of Chemistry. -- Profound.
8. Knowledge of Anatomy. -- Accurate, but unsystematic.
9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature. -- Immense.
He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
10. Plays the violin well.
11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.
12. He has a good practical knowledge of British law. (pp. 21-22)

See what I mean about Conan Doyle's brilliance? Look how much you found out about both these characters from that one list. It beats pages and pages of detailed description any day. What this tells me about Holmes is that he seems to have known, long before computers were invented, that memory chips can only hold so much information. He wasn't about to fill the ultimate computer (human brain) with information that wasn't helpful to him, because it might over-ride the stuff he really needed. Most of us (Watson included) aren't smart enough to do that with our brains. We eagerly accept that big, new box of information about some current interest or fad. It eventually gets lugged up to the attic of our brains to gather cobwebs until we're playing Trivial Pursuit or something and go in search of it. Holmes, on the other hand, seems to have made a conscious decision about where his focus would lie, and he kept his brain full of only those things that would be useful to him. His attic was empty, and he never had to go in search of the information he needed. Smart way to live, but it does make for a very strange human being, doesn't it?

One of the most fun aspects of this book is that it's the one in which Watson is introduced to Holmes. For those of you who don't know, Watson comes to London from India, having been injured in the war. After living a bit beyond his means, he realizes he needs a roommate with whom to share living expenses. That roommate turns out to be Sherlock Holmes. So Watson is getting to know Holmes, which means we are, too.

I haven't really read many other early contenders in the mystery genre (except Edgar Allan Poe and G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, the latter of which make a great comparison to Sherlock Holmes, being logical in the same way but having much more of a surreal element to them). One thing I found particularly interesting about this book, compared to later mysteries, is that the actual crime was solved very early. Today, we tend to have the murder (and sometimes, even that doesn't come until halfway through the book), then lots and lots of excitement and exploration -- all kinds of suspects, a red herring or two, near-death of the sleuth, etc. Finally, at the end, we are presented with the culprit and all is quickly explained (most of the explanation having been pieced together throughout the book). Here, we had the culprit (huh? Who on earth is he? Why would he do such a thing?), and then we get the long back story (as engrossing as the murder and the clues themselves were). I liked that.

I always marvel at how funny my memory is when it comes to reading books. I would imagine it's been well over ten years since I read this book. All I remembered was that some part of it took place in The United States and that Mormons were involved. That was it. I didn't remember the circumstances of the murder. I didn't remember how Holmes got involved. Sad to say, I didn't even remember whether or not Holmes traveled to The States. Let's hope that if I read it again in another ten years, I at least remember that this is the book in which Watson and Holmes are introduced.

All-in-all, great fun. After reading this one, I completely understand why Holmes has stood the test of time, despite our modern-day society's attempts at crushing him.

Conan-Doyle, Sir Arthur. The Sign of Four in The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 1. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1930. (The work was originally published in 1890.)

At first (not remembering any of these very well at all), I thought I was going to like this one better than A Study in Scarlet. It's a little bit spookier, with nearly supernatural elements to it (of the "how-on-earth-did-the-murderer-get-in-the-room?" sort), reflecting popular thrillers of today. However, despite this aspect and Watson's love story (which is charming), despite the fact that yet again, we had Holmes's wonderfully logical mind, Conan-Doyle's brilliance with the written word, and a crime that was solved long before we got the back story, I came away from it with not exactly a bad taste in my mouth, but a taste that wasn't quite as pleasing as I'd wanted it to be (like when you remember how delicious some restaurant's chocolate mousse was last time you had it, so you order it again, and, although still very good, it doesn't quite live up to your memory). That's because I found I just couldn't ignore the blatant racism. And that, in turn, has led me to think a lot about the racism I find in old books. Here's a good example for you:

...there was movement in the huddled bundle upon the deck. It straightened itself into a little black man -- the smallest I have ever seen -- with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this savage, distorted creature." (p. 138)

Imagine reading a passage like that in some book written today. Well, you wouldn't, because no one would ever allow it to be published. And as I read this book to the end, I found myself completely distracted by the fact that I forgive such passages in old books -- sometimes. I was forgiving Conan Doyle, telling myself he was a man of his era, didn't know better. I forgave Margaret Mitchell when I finally got around to reading Gone with the Wind last year. I forgive the likes of Eric Linklater, Nancy Mitford, G.K. Chesterton (I'll stop here, because the list could go on and on), and yet, when we read Charlotte Jay's Beat Not the Bones last year for this same mystery discussion group, I wasn't able to forgive her. And I think, because this stuck with me in a way it doesn't when I come across racist passages in other works, that I don't quite forgive Conan Doyle, either.

Why is that? I’m beginning to think it’s because the racism in these two mysteries is sensational. The characters are weird; they’re different. What’s going to be scary to the white gentry reading Sherlock Holmes in the nineteenth century? A black man. Make that a black man with other distortions, and he can’t possibly be anything but evil. He’s even evil in the weapon he chooses: a poison dart over the more "civilized" revolver. His accomplice, a white man, isn't anywhere near as evil as he is.

And yet, I do forgive him in a way I didn't Jay. Is that because I just like Conan Doyle better as a writer? Is it because he was writing in the late nineteenth century and not the mid-twentieth as Jay was? If the former, is that really fair? Beat Not the Bones is the only book by Charlotte Jay I've ever read. What if I'd read something else by her first, had loved it, and then had come to this book? Would I have been more forgiving? If the latter, is that really fair? After all, Jay was writing before civil rights were an issue.

Lots to ponder here. But don't let me turn you off Sherlock Holmes altogether. After all, chocolate mousse is still chocolate mousse, and I plan to continue reading my way through The Complete Sherlock Holmes on long winter evenings. And after that, I plan to re-read Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, another book I remember being very good fun (despite not liking much else I tried to read by the author, including others in that series).


Anonymous said...

Ah you bring Sherlock Holmes back to me so vividly! I think I can deal with him being smug because he also has that mad tortured side that makes him reach for the opium and saw away on his violin. And we forgive him because Watson loves him so.

As for racism in older texts, I do pardon it because however good a writer is, he or she can't foresee the future. Just imagine how we would feel, when, fast-forward two hundred years and social relations have changed completely, we are being blamed in retrospect for the terrible, offensive things we've said on our blogs (although that would assume our writings survive which is rather unlikely). However I think those authors continually remind us of how distasteful such racist attitudes were, and keeping the issue before our eyes usefully prevents cultural amnesia. Well, that's how I deal with it myself, otherwise there'd only be books post the civil rights movement to read! ;)

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, that tends to be my general approach as well (I'm absolutely convinced that 150 years from now, people will be appalled at our treatment of other animals and our lack of care for this planet), and I don't like to throw the baby out with the bath water. Oh, wouldn't it be a sad world if we only had books post civil right movement to read? What was new for me here was my realization that if I like an author, I'm much more forgiving (seems the way I kind of am with non-book friends and acquaintances. Some abhorrent stranger who is blatantly racist/sexist/agist is much easier to condemn than some dear friend who suddenly does the same).

Rebecca H. said...

As always, Emily, we missed you at the meeting and your post was part of the discussion yesterday -- we all agreed with you that the passage you quoted was a brilliant way to introduce both characters. The racism was hard for me to take, too, and it's interesting to think about how we are more likely to forgive it when we like an author -- it's probably a common reaction, but it doesn't seem quite fair. I'm sure I do it too though. I found these books fascinating to think about in terms of their literary and historical context, and it's interesting to think about how Doyle is responding to the racism and colonialism of the period.

Anonymous said...

I love Conan Doyle although I haven't re-read him recently. I like Agatha Christie too, she can nail a character in a short sentence.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, and I missed you! Sometime I'm just going to have to make the effort to come up there for one of these. I, too, thought the book was fascinating in its literary and historical contexts.

HPH, oh yes, I like Agatha Christie, too (although I haven't read her in years, either).