“My mind,” he said, “rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper place. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession–or rather created it.
Most of my familiarity with Holmes comes by way of Laurie King’s version of the character in the Mary Russell books or Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s version from the Sherlock TV series, and it’s fun to see how certain qualities of the original made their way into the more recent iterations. This Holmes is most definitely the sort of man who might in his retirement believe he has nothing to live for, as in King’s Beekeeping for Beginners. I could also see him firing a gun repeatedly in his flat, as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock does in the TV series. It’s interesting, too, that the show’s creators decided on gunfire, rather than drugs, to demonstrate this self-destructive streak in the modern character. I imagine with today’s Sherlock living in an age when the dangers of drugs are more well-known, the use of cocaine would seem too far outside the bounds–or maybe they just didn’t gotten around to exploring that angle in the first series. (I have yet to watch the second.)
At any rate, Sherlock’s need for artificial stimulants doesn’t last long because a young woman named Mary Morstan comes to 221B Baker Street seeking his help in solving a mystery related to the death of her father and a mysterious annual gift of a single pearl. She has just received a letter that she believes is related to the gift asking her to meet her the letter-writer at the Lyceum and to bring two companions if she’s mistrustful. Holmes and Watson agree to come.
As with A Study in Scarlet, the best parts of this book are those focused on the interactions between Holmes and Watson. Watson continues to be mystified by Holmes, and Holmes is beginning to find Watson useful. Watson’s tentative courtship of Mary Morstan is sweet, but I have a hard time imagining how this relationship will fit in the future stories. The fact that I knew Watson got married but knew nothing about his wife is probably revealing. But I’m reading these books partly because I know so little about the original characters, and there’s lots of room for Doyle to surprise me with the way he uses Mary. Holmes, as it happens, considers Mary useful but believes that something as emotional as love can only hinder the cold reason needed for his work.
As for the mystery, it’s fine as a vehicle for setting Holmes in motion. But, again, as with A Study in Scarlet, when the narrative turns to the background leading up to the mystery, the book suffers. And Doyle once again bases a lot of the suspense on creating an “exotic other” for readers to fear. The Indian characters, while stereotyped, don’t come off entirely badly, or at least no worse than their English cohorts, but the depiction of one character, Tonga, is unsettling, to put it mildly. This kind of thing is very much of its time, but I’ll be glad to get to some stories focused on Englishmen behaving badly.