“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” the middle-aged man said in greeting as the doctor entered the room. The doctor, just returned from the second Anglo-Afghan War, was amazed by the man’s perspicacity. But before he could ask him how he knew this to be true, the man grabbed him by the sleeve and pulled him over to view his latest obsession.
The doctor listened in amazement as his new acquaintance spoke at length of the chemistry experiment he’d just completed. The friend who introduced them had told the doctor that the man was eccentric and that he conducted strange and morbid experiments. He told the doctor that he had once seen the man beat a corpse to find out if a bruise could form after death. (It can’t.) Indeed, he was so coldblooded, the friend added, it would be easy to imagine the man slipping a friend a drug just to see the effect. Certainly Sherlock Holmes was eccentric, Dr. John Watson thought, but he was also interesting.
It was in this way, in 1887, that Arthur Conan Doyle began one of the strangest and most productive partnerships in literature, with his novel “A Study in Scarlet.” I first made the acquaintance of this odd couple in high school. Recently I found myself dipping again into my well-worn volumes of these remarkable stories, but this time I couldn’t help looking at Sherlock Holmes with the eyes of a doctor. What I saw was what any doctor would see: a patient. The question for me was, Could the strange behavior of Sherlock Holmes be diagnosed?
He does have symptoms. He appears oblivious to the rhythms and courtesies of normal social intercourse — he doesn’t converse so much as lecture. His interests and knowledge are deep but narrow. He is strangely “coldblooded,” and perhaps as a consequence, he is also alone in the world. He has no friends other than the extremely tolerant Watson; a brother, even stranger and more isolated than he, is his only family. Was Arthur Conan Doyle presenting some sort of genetically transmitted personality disorder or mental illness he’d observed, or was Sherlock Holmes merely an interesting character created from scratch?
Conan Doyle trained as a physician at the University of Edinburgh, then one of the most prominent medical schools in the world. He had a keen eye for the subtle manifestations of illness, and his stories are filled with dead-on medical descriptions. The alcoholism of a once-wealthy man is seen in the “touch of red in nose and cheeks,” “the slight tremor of his extended hand.” In another story, the contortions of a body — the limbs “twisted and turned in the most fantastic fashion,” the muscles “hard as a board . . . far exceeding the usual rigor mortis”— allow Watson (and his doctor-readers) to diagnose strychnine poisoning.
It is thought that Conan Doyle was among the first to describe an inherited disease now known as Marfan’s syndrome. First presented in the medical literature in 1896 by a French pediatrician, Antoine Marfan, the syndrome is characterized by a tall and slender build, eye problems and a tendency to develop aneurysms of the aorta at a young age. The rupture of the dilated vessel, which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body, is the most common cause of death among those with this disorder, and, until recently, few sufferers lived past 40. Jefferson Hope, the avenging murderer of Conan Doyle’s first novel, is described as a tall man in his late 30’s, who kills those he holds responsible for the death of the woman he loved. When finally captured, he tells Watson to put his hand on his chest. Watson reports that he “became at once conscious of an extraordinary throbbing and commotion which was going on inside. The walls of his chest seemed to thrill and quiver as a frail building would do inside when some powerful engine was at work. In the silence of the room I could hear a dull humming and buzzing noise which proceeded from the same source.” Watson knows instantly what this means. “Why . . . you have an aortic aneurysm!”
Is it possible that in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes Conan Doyle captured some yet undescribed familial psychiatric syndrome? There have been many diagnoses bandied about among fans and scholars, says Leslie Klinger, the editor of the most comprehensive annotated version of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Klinger favors a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, pointing to the detective’s swings between hyperactivity and lassitude. Bipolar disorder does run in families and is characterized by episodes of frenetic energy — often tinted by grandiosity and extravagant behavior — alternating with periods of profound depression. Although it is true that Holmes didn’t sleep for days when in the grips of a case, his mood swings seem tied to his work. When he worked he was electric. When at loose ends, he was melancholic. Drug use might account for the wild shifts in mood, except that Holmes used cocaine when he was idle and depressed, not when he was busy and his mood elevated.
Others, Klinger adds, have suggested that Sherlock Holmes may have had a mild form of autism, commonly known as Asperger’s syndrome. This disorder was reported in the medical literature in 1944 by an Austrian pediatrician, Hans Asperger. He described four bright and articulate boys who had severe problems with social interaction and tended to focus intensely on particular objects or topics. The paper languished in obscurity for more than 40 years, but by 1994 Asperger’s was part of the official psychiatric lexicon. The diagnosis may be folded back into autism in the coming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but there is no doubt that Asperger’s description of these socially awkward, intensely focused young men resonated with parents who recognized their own children in it.
Holmes often seems oblivious to what others are thinking or feeling, even his dear Watson.
While working, Holmes seems inexhaustible, not sleeping for days. Between cases, he sometimes falls into a state of deep lethargy.
Holmes has extensive knowledge of odd subjects — like 140 different types of cigar, pipe and cigarette ash.
Could Conan Doyle have described this syndrome some 70 years before Asperger? According to Ami Klin, director of the autism program at the Yale Child Study Center, part of the medical school, the fundamental quality that defines all forms of autism is “mind-blindness”: difficulty in understanding what others feel or think and thus in forming relationships. Unaware of how others see them, those with Asperger’s often behave oddly. In addition, they tend to develop extensive knowledge of narrowly focused subjects.
In Conan Doyle’s portrayal, Sherlock Holmes at times exhibits all of these qualities. His interactions with others are often direct to the point of rudeness. And even when Holmes is speaking to Watson, his closest friend, his compliments are often closer to a rebuke. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” when Watson, pleased with his own detective abilities, reports to Holmes the results of his investigation, Holmes tells him that he isn’t a source of light but a conductor of light, a mere aid in solving mysteries only Holmes himself can untangle.
As for his interests, Holmes brags frequently of his detailed knowledge of all kinds of strange phenomena. He is said to have written a monograph on the differences among 140 cigar, pipe and cigarette ashes. He demonstrates what Asperger called “autistic intelligence” — an ability to see the world from a very different perspective than most people, often by focusing on details overlooked by others. Indeed Sherlock Holmes boasts that he is able to see the significance of trifles and calls this his “method.”
So where did this picture come from? Biographers have identified a number of individuals Conan Doyle may have drawn on for the character of Sherlock Holmes, but none with all these traits. Was it a patient? A family friend? A schoolmate who didn’t make it into the biographies? We may never know, but clearly Holmes’s peculiarities have a persistent appeal. Just look at Temperance Brennan of “Bones,” Adrian Monk of “Monk,” and, of course, Gregory House of “House,” who exhibit at least a few Asperger-like symptoms and owe much to Sherlock Holmes.
This may be question I should be asking myself more than anything since my output on this blog seems to have been somewhat lacking over this past summer.
Be that as it may, the question still seems to need to be asked; "Do we spend more time with Holmes in the cooler months than we do in the summer?"
If this were a question about beer I could easily explain my preference for one type over another as the seasons change.
The one summer, a couple of summers ago, when I found my Sherlockian output steady throughout the year was when Brad offered up the Sherlockian summer reading list.
I had a purpose, without even thinking about it, for continuing my Sherlockian reading through the warmer months.
But over all, I believe my reading of Holmes usually drops off during the summer.
I am not sure why, but I have a couple of theories.
I find reading Holmes, for me, a very atmospheric pursuit. The mood has to be right, my surroundings have to be comfortable and I have to at least imagine that it would be nice sitting near a fireplace reading. And since I am more of a wine drinker in the winter than summer, a nice glass of a dry red doesn't hurt either.
The Canon of Sherlock Holmes of course is not with out it's stories set in a sweltering heat wave that neither Holmes nor Watson seems to relish. Several stories suggest that it is uncomfortable in Baker St. in a London summer.
But for the most part I imagine Holmes and Watson walking about their business always wearing some sort of a jacket (which is not unusual in England at that time all year round) and often times with an outer coat over it. And of course, always a hat.
I want my stories to not only have a briskness in adventure but also in temperature.
I want Holmes and Watson using the fire place in 221b and I want a chill wind blowing across Dartmoor. And let's not forget "a lonely hansom splashes through the rain. . .". Who wants to imagine it being all hot and humid and rainy when the hansom comes along?
In a real quick survey (the chronology you chose to use my differ slightly) of the Canon I found 27 stories took place between June and Sept.
We could argue what months should be included as the warmer months, but even adding May we only come up with 3 more stories in the Canon that could be placed in, for arguments sake, summer.
So, using this as the bases for my discussion, over half of the Canon takes place in 'cooler' months.
And that's good enough for me.
How about you, when do you get more of less involved with the Canon of Sherlock Holmes?
For many a newer Sherlockian their reading trends could be spurred by the time of year new video media is released. Most TV shows come out in the fall or early winter. And most big movies come out around Thanksgiving and Christmas ( not including what are known as summer block-busters. Both RDJ films came out in winter, but Mr. Holmes did come out in July but to not as big a release and it's premier was in Feb. 2015 with the DVD release coming in Nov. 2015).
But having been a Sherlockian for a very long time I have found these releases have not effected my reading habits.
So, this evening I am going to go home and dust the pollen of my bookshelf, pick up a couple of bottles of a dry red and move my reading chair closer to the fire.
In 1922, Conan Doyle showed O'Brien's test reel to a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, which included Harry Houdini. The astounded audience watched footage of a Triceratops family, an attack by an Allosaurusand some Stegosaurus footage. Doyle refused to discuss the film's origins. On the next day, the New York Times ran a front page article about it, saying "(Conan Doyle's) monsters of the ancient world, or of the new world which he has discovered in the ether, were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces".
In April 1925, on a London-Paris flight by Imperial Airways, The Lost World became the first film to be shown to airline passengers. As film stock of the era was nitrate and highly flammable, this was a risky undertaking on a wood and fabric-hulled plane, a converted WW1 bomber, the Handley-Page O 400.
This is the first dinosaur-oriented film hit, and it led to other dinosaur films, from King Kong to the Jurassic Park trilogy. Writer Doyle, also the creator of Sherlock Holmes, appears in a frontispiece to the film, absent from some extant prints. In 1998, the film was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.