Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spending Time At 221B Baker Street

The Complete Sherlock Holmes: All 4 Novels and 56 Short Stories in Two Volumes
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Bantam Classics, $13.90 paper
ISBN: 978-0-553-358257


I have been amusing myself this holiday season by walking the streets of Victorian London with Sherlock Holmes. Of course, it was nothing like when I was actually there, walking the streets of the east end of the city in the steps of Jack the Ripper. The Tower of London is nearby, and across the Thames is the famed Dungeon Museum. However, that was modern London, and nothing like the slums and opium dens haunted by the criminals who are the targets of Holmes and his intrepid partner, Doctor John Watson.

Bantam Classics has a nice two-volume set of the complete Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels and short stories featuring Homes and Watson, reasonably priced, in a cardboard slipcover. This is light reading, something to sit with by the fire in an evening and drift off. The books are also suitable for trains, planes, and automobiles. If you should misplace a copy, the cost is minimal, but the enjoyment is fulfilling and complete.

These days, Sherlock Holmes makes for an intellectual hero, a breed long absent from the typical police procedural or gumshoe private eye stories of the hardboiled type originated by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Holmes solves mysteries with deductive logic. Given a set of clues, he can draw a conclusion using only his mind. Many of the stories involve little action; Holmes simply reasons his way through to the guilty parties. However, if it is action you want, Doyle provides some of the best in his Holmes stories as well. His iconic character is a noted pugilist, occasionally carries a firearm and can use it effectively, as could Watson, and often finds himself in some of the darkest streets and alleys of London with dangerous criminals. At his core, though, Holmes is the thinking person’s detective.

Conan Doyle did not make Holmes perfect. Notoriously, he injects himself with cocaine in a seven-percent solution. He frequents the above mentioned opium den on the pretense of research, and he is often self-absorbed, cranky, and eccentric. Watson warns him about his drug use, legal in the London of the late nineteenth century, and both characters use tobacco.

Holmes is often pictured with a pipe and playing the violin. His alleged famous saying, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” surprisingly has not come up in the number of short stories and two novels I have reread. A quick check online uncovered that he never actually says those words in that order, however, many people assume it is his common catchphrase. Wikipedia claims that the phrase originated in one of the film versions of the great detective. The site also says that Holmes’ famous “deerstalker hat” is not native to Conan Doyle’s works, but added by an illustrator, Sidney Paget.

There is a cottage industry surrounding Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Film adaptations are almost too many to count. I have seen some of the very old movies with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, but the only one I really like is The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939). I did not care as much for the 2009 production directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. That movie focuses more on the “action figure” Holmes and exaggerates his eccentricities and his “mad scientist” persona. The recent BBC series, Sherlock, strikes some interesting notes by updating the story to present day London. Holmes and Watson text each other, use modern technology, and race around the city in a hyper-real style. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Holmes, and Martin Freeman portrays Watson, now a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. The first season—three ninety minute episodes—has been released on DVD. When I asked for it at my local Barnes and Noble, the clerk told me they were sold out. The demand for the discs was overwhelming, he said. The series, produced by the people behind the popular English show, Doctor Who, was recently picked up for more episodes in the future.

I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work because it is flat out entertaining. Cold winter nights, Watson and Holmes sitting by the fire at 221B Baker Street, and suddenly, there is a knock at the door. The game’s afoot, and mystery abounds. It does not get better than that.

2 comments:

William Michaelian said...

Paul, what this piece really needs is a lot more links.... I count only twenty-five. I mean, if you’re not going to do your research, why bother?

Have you seen the series starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes? I think he did a marvelous job, especially when he was “under cover” in the opium den.

Meanwhile, heaven help me, I just ordered Montaigne’s complete works as per your earlier post. I do have a selection of his essays illustrated by Dali in a nice old hardcover, but I thought why not go for broke and read all 1,392 pages?

What a great blog you’re writing here. As Chandler said, “A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.” You demonstrate this time and time again. For that, and much more, you have my thanks.

Paul L. Martin said...

William, if you ever need to take care of someone who is a "problem," you can drop the Montaigne on his head from atop a tall building. That would make an excellent new case for Sherlock Holmes, don't you think? "The Case of the Falling Montaigne." I am glad I could sell a book for the dead guy, but I wish I could do more for the living writers I know. Ahem, copies of all William Michaelian books are available in beautiful signed editions at:

http://recently-banned-literature.blogspot.com/

I have not seen the Jeremy Brett movies. Might see if they are available for rent over the New Year holiday. Not much of a football fan. Rather watch a ripping good Holmes mystery.

I also went a little hard on Chandler and Hammett in the post. I actually like their work as well, especially for the Los Angeles noir.

Thanks for the comment.