One of the interesting things about finally delving into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes stories has been comparing the popular images of the characters with the originals. I was amazed, for example, to see that Steven Moffat lifted dialogue right out of A Study in Scarlet for “A Study in Pink,” the pilot episode of Sherlock. In the first two Holmes novels, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock is just as eccentric and prickly as the Sherlock I’ve gotten to know through the Sherlock series and Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books. I’ve enjoyed seeing that, especially since before encountering those series I’d been under the impression that he was cold and rational, but not nearly so weird.
Readers who only know Holmes through the stories in this collection might be left with the same mistaken impression that I had. The 12 stories involve serious crimes and more trivial personal problems that Holmes assists his clients with. Watson, our narrator, has selected the stories not for their seriousness or drama but for the ways they demonstrate Holmes’s keen skills at deductive reasoning to solve seemingly impossible problems or see through apparently airtight ruses. The stories include such well-known tales as “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League,” “The Adventure of the Blue Carbunkle,” and “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”
The stories are fun to read, but they generally focus on the mysteries themselves, with limited attention paid to the characters of the men working to solve the mysteries. We learn that Holmes is choosy about the cases he takes on, and we see evidence of his high energy when he’s on a case, but he doesn’t come across as nearly so odd here as he does in the two earlier novels.
Watson, too, suffers a bit in the stories. Watson is commonly perceived as being rather dim, thanks in part to Nigel Bruce’s comic depiction of the character in the first film adaptations of the Holmes stories. The novels, and Holmes’s own embrace of Watson as a friend and colleague, show Watson to be an intelligent and capable sidekick. It pains me to say, however, that the stories in this book do show Watson as being perhaps a little slow on the uptake. I thought that many of the mysteries were not all that difficult to solve—or at least get a start on solving—yet Watson often accepts alibis at face value or fails to see the flaws in the police’s theory of a crime. As I think about it, though, this weakness as a crime solver probably reveals not a lack of intelligence but a tendency to see things straightforwardly, probably because Watson himself is a straightforward man. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Holmes explains that looking at the evidence requires the ability to view the same situation from multiple angles.
It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally compromising manner to something entirely different.
Instead of just looking at what’s in front of him, Holmes looks at what’s missing, what led up to the situation, and why things are as they are. He’s a keen observer, but he can see beyond the details, putting those details in context to see the larger story. Watson sees what’s there and not much more, which makes him an excellent chronicler of Holmes’s adventures but not such a great detective. I’m now wondering whether his time with Holmes will improve his skills.
One character I was excited to meet was Irene Adler, who appears in the first story in the collection, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” Irene is tremendously important in some of the more recent Mary Russell novels, and I wanted to see what she was like and learn how her relationship with Holmes developed. Alas, the meeting was anti-climactic. She’s clever, that’s for certain, but a love interest? I don’t see it. I wondered whether she shows up in additional stories, but Wikipedia tells me that she does not.
My guess is that the legend surrounding Irene Adler among fans comes less from her actions within the story and more from the story’s opening lines, in which Watson states that “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her by any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates most of her sex.” Combine those lines with the common desire to put characters in couples, and a romantic partner is born. If there were a woman in Holmes’s life, it would be Irene Adler. It’s just that there doesn’t need to be a woman in Holmes’s life at all.
In the next few months, I’ll be reading Garment of Shadows, the new Mary Russell mystery, and watching the second season of Sherlock. I’m looking forward to seeing how my greater understanding of the original character affects the way I see the newer versions. I feel confident that I’ll pick up on at least a few things I’d never noticed before.