Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A notable absence of an interesting Irregular

Holmes and Dumbbell. Photo by Alli Kirkham

"'I am inclined to think - ' said I.
"'I should do so,' Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
"I believe that I am one of the most long-suffering of mortals; but I'll admit that I was annoyed at the sardonic interruption. 'Really, Holmes,' said I severely, 'you are a little trying at times.'"

I really do love the universe in which 221b Baker Street has a share, but I would be remiss in my criticism if I didn't admit that Holmes stories can be a bit formulaic. This is nowhere as apparent as it is in The Valley of Fear; last week I discussed the fact that The Hound of the Baskervilles is unique because it all takes place in England and under the gaze of the good detective. Baskervilles is also unique because it manages to escape the unhappy accident of holding a dime novel between its pages.

The back-stories to Valley of Fear, A Study in Scarlet, and to a lesser extent The Sign of the Four, are tedious and trite. The tales are cheap and uninteresting because they were so common at the time that they've become ingrained in the collective literary unconscious. And worse, we don't get to hear from Holmes and Watson for a significant portion of each novel.

Sherlock Holmes as a collected body of work is only still fascinating, and only remains relevant because of the titular character. I know Aurthur Conan Doyle was frustrated with Holmes for a large part of his career, and wrote outside of Holmes to keep himself interested in his novels, but reading the longer works in the series feels like dues-paying. If you read Holmes you want to have read all of Holmes and so you read through these novels as a nod to the canon, not because they're compelling stories.

Even in the short stories there is ample evidence of reliance on formulas to move the action, and quite a few of the stories are depressingly predictable once you've gotten the pattern down. There are gems in each collection of stories, though, and the interactions between Holmes, Watson, and the other regulars are charming and make for worthwhile reading.

But as to the longer novels, well, in The Valley of Fear the introductory paragraphs (shown at the top of this post) are significantly more entertaining than most of the rest of the novel.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. "The Valley of Fear." Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels And 
     Stories, Volume II. Bantam Classics, a division of Random House. New York: New York.
     2003. (Originally Published 1914).

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