Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Some novel strengths. . . .

Reg Henry: Sherlock stories show novel strengths

A newspaper columnist is bound to receive many suggestions from readers, not all of them invitations to attempt bodily contortions of an indecent nature. But in 18 years, I have never received an email like this one:

Dear Mr. Henry,
I am the editor of The Northumberland Dispatch, the newsletter of a group of Pittsburgh-area Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, which has been published for 41 years. I have an occasional column called “List of Opinions,” that takes a survey of our members and some invited guests on various Sherlockian matters. I would appreciate greatly if you could answer the following:
What explains the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes (10 words or less) ...
Sincerely yours,
Jim Zuric
Only the arch-fiend Professor Moriarty could refuse such an offer.
“Ah,” I said to myself, “this promises to be a most interesting and unusual column,” which the vast legion of Sherlockian connoisseurs will recognize as a paraphrase of the great detective’s own words. They are members of a unique literary sub-culture steeped in the minutiae of the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.
It turns out that Mr. Zuric is a 69-year-old retired assistant librarian and public school teacher. He tells me that this Pittsburgh group — there have been several dating back to the 1940s — first met Downtown in July 1974. It is called the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers because that was Dr. Watson’s regiment in Afghanistan during the 19th century unpleasantness. Of course! We all know that.
This love of all things Sherlock Holmes is a worldwide phenomenon. Members of the national group are the Baker Street Irregulars, named for the London lodging house of Holmes and Watson and the group of urchins Holmes recruited to help in his sleuthing. The Fusiliers are only loosely affiliated, and in neither group do you have to be an urchin. Groups like this meet regularly, and the shortage of hansom cabs to convey them does not deter their fun.
But what explains their lasting enthusiasm? That is precisely the question, my dear Watson and reader, but it is one that attends other baffling cultural phenomena, too. Why the perennial popularity of vampires, who are just pains in the neck? What’s the deal with the undying interest in the living dead? Is that just our fear of politicians?
Life is a mystery, but for the matter at hand we can at least develop a Sherlockian hypothesis. For this, I consulted “The Complete Sherlock Holmes,” a tome that I picked up at the Sewickley Academy Clothesline Sale a few years ago, because you never know when it’s time for a tome. I should have bought one of the detective’s distinctive deer-stalking hats, too, but they were all out.
The very first story — “A Study in Scarlet” — offers some clues. In this tale, Dr. Watson, recuperating from his war wounds, is introduced to Sherlock Holmes for the first time and becomes his flat mate in London, “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.”
This is exactly what happened to me many years ago as an up-and-coming lounger with dreams of becoming a successful idler. The author knew human nature and the world very well.
As it happens, cesspools make a splendid setting for crime fiction, which Conan Doyle did not invent but perfected. Throw in some fog, add some excellent characters lurching out of it, stir in some ingenious plots, and the recipe for immortality is well formed.
No characters are better drawn than Holmes and Watson. Holmes is not an easy person; he’s brilliant but moody and given to eccentric habits. Watson is the conventionally dull plodder who usually tells the story. Actually, Watson is a proxy for us, the readers, serving as the constantly amazed audience for Holmes’ deductive powers
Holmes and Watson never call each other by their first names, even when they share rooms. They are Englishmen of a certain formal period and upholders of its civilized standards. Crime may be brutish, but it is no match for intellect and scientific deduction — that is the enduring message.
Many recent versions of the tales twist the essentials but never completely abandon them. In the CBS series “Elementary,” set in New York City, Watson is a woman but Holmes remains English and strange. In the BBC series “Sherlock,” the action takes place in modern-day London.
Ten words, you say? Great characters, remarkable plots, evocative scenes and good out-smarting evil.
If only everything in this confounded world was as elementary as this.

Reg Henry:

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