There has been a lot of Sherlock Holmes excitement these last few years. The Robert Downey Jr. movies, the television adaptations, the scores of imitations and new imaginings, it’s enough to spin anyone’s head. Holmes has become a type of hip, literary icon, without, it seems, the involvement of many of his literary pursuits. He has become a victim of the Superman complex, his legend expanded and exaggerated well beyond reason by years of adaptations and homage.
I am a fan of Holmes and as such, I finally took the time to read some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. For those of you who may not know, Sir Doyle was the creator of Holmes way back in the late 19th century. As you can imagine, I found many peculiar differences between Holmes of the book and his most well-known incarnation from the movies. The differences were few and trifling, in my opinion. Both share the extreme ups and downs in mood, going from melancholy to hyper excited in moments when something of interest strikes their fancy. Both have a certain lack of concern for the feelings of others. The Holmes of the book is, perhaps, better groomed and impeccably polite (even to Watson’s wife) as long as you interest him. There is also a certain addiction to cocaine that someone thought would be unwise for an actor with a history with the drug in actuality. Still, the Bohemian lifestyle, disparaging arcane traditions like marriage, etc, is very apparent in the book Holmes and echoed in the movie version.
There is a significant variance in character between Watson of the book and Watson of the movie and for this I am glad. The Watson of the book is nauseating at times. He is absolutely devoted to Holmes and seems to worship him with every paragraph. I see two explanations for this. Either Watson really was like that, or, as he was the one apparently writing the tales, he was merely seeing himself in the light that most people do. Holmes frequently accuses his friend of exaggerating his exploits, and who’s to say Watson isn’t doing just that? (This line of questioning relies on the reality that Watson is the biographer of Holmes and Doyle has simply published the books, much like “The Lord of the Rings” is actually a translation from “The Red Book of Westmarch” that Tolkien came across.) Watson may have wanted to increase his readership by impressing upon his audience just how amazing Holmes’ skills were and thought the most expedient method would be through personal comparison.
Besides the golden-retriever-like adoration for Holmes, the Watson of the movie is nearly dead on. He is competent, respected, and ready for anything. And he does carry a service pistol on his person, which is good considering some of the scrapes they get into.
That is another area which differs greatly from what I read. Holmes of the movies and TV shows is constantly on the hunt for something important, dangerous, and difficult. He is frequently in life-threatening situations and goes head-to-head with dangerous people. Now, I have only read a small selection of Holmes adventures, a dozen short tales of mystery and intrigue. I am convinced that this is not a complete selection because the infamous Professor Moriarty is in no way evident in any of these tales. That would be the price of free books. Holmes, in this collection handles a wide array of cases, from missing jewelry, to a bank robbery, to a murder, and even his first encounter with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams in the movie). There are allusions to other, more important cases, but overall, it’s a rather tame collection. Certainly, it is intriguing in many cases and there is one that involves the Red-Headed League, which was really funny. In other words, there aren’t quite as many explosions and gun battles as the movies would have you believe. Plus he handles many things that don’t fall into the realm of criminal activities.
As to the book itself, I found it fun and soothing, completely lacking in the artificial drama I was trying to escape. Doyle has an excellent way with words and his method was one I plan to imitate in my own writing. That method involving the choice of narrator, I mean. Holmes is a character alien to human connection. He is not relatable as a character and his narration would be unbearable, too clinical and unfeeling. Having Watson narrate gives the reader a character to sympathize with while still involving them in the process of unraveling the mystery. It also keeps them in the dark on many points until the end so it is still a fun adventure instead of a dull procedural lecture. The reader has the chance to form her own theories about the case.
Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. I would recommend it to all my Anglophile friends. It wasn’t very difficult to read, but if you need non-stop action to keep you entertained, stick to the movies.