The Case of the Conjuror’s Trick

800px-A_Study_in_Scarlet_from_Beeton's_Christmas_Annual_1887Sherlock Holmes. Just that name conjures up a lean man in cape and deerstalker tracking through the moors or pacing 221B Baker Street over a multi-pipe problem. Holmes long ago achieved literary escape velocity, transcending Victorian London, crime fiction and even Conan Doyle. First sleuthing upon the page in 1887’s A Study in Scarlet, these days scads of pastiches and reinterpretations are published every year. Holmes movies, television series, theatre productions. Holmes societies across the world. The game has never been more afoot.

What about him has such lasting magic?

Last year I found myself immersed in that question, tasked at Killer Nashville to moderate a panel on modern incarnations of Mr. Holmes. Wonderful authors Nikki Nelson-Hicks and Stephanie Osborn held forth expertly on what makes Holmes timeless: his towering analytical capacity, his fit as mythic archetype, his addictions and failings of vanity. Nikki and Stephanie lauded the deftly-drawn London backdrop and wit and ingenuity of the stories and the growth of the characters–Conan Doyle kept Holmes fresh and (mostly) alive in print for over forty years. All yes, but for Casual Fan Me there’s more to why Holmes works as well today as a generation before WWI. Fortunately, I don’t need epic deductive powers to suss out the secret behind Sherlock Holmes. He tells us himself:

“I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum of everyday life.”

Book Illustration Depicting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a Train CabinFifty-six of Conan Doyle’s sixty Holmes outings came through the eyes of Dr. Watson. Good old Watson, forever grabbing his pistol and never-minding Holmes’ squalor and hailing the next hansom cab. Watson isn’t Holmes’ sleuthing or mental equal–neither of them thought that, either–but it’s wrong to demote dear Watson for it. His real partner is you and me. The reader.

Holmes is gloriously over-the-top: master of disguise, expert fighter, damn near a superhero (and he kind of thought that of himself, didn’t he?). If we were in his point-of-view, either he’d bang on disproportionately about clinical detail, or he’d sit in unlikeable judgment of bumbling Lestrade or some red-headed dupe. Or worse, he wouldn’t bother explaining a thing, and we would have to read his solutions as magic.

“A conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick…”

Such was how Holmes chastised Watson over dramatizing the cold science of detection. And yet Holmes understood how his own perspective stepped all over the drama: he tells us precisely so in 1926’s “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier,” a rare tale from his POV:

“I am compelled to admit that, having taken my pen in my hand, I do begin to realize that the matter must be presented in such a way as may interest the reader…”

Holmes, too clued-in to be a boring narrator. This Watson chap, though, has to struggle. Normal, prone to (gasp!) emotion, stuck with a limp, but clever, able to eventually grasp his friends deductions and diagnose certain bad habits yet still marvel at feats of intellect. What does Watson know about rare poisons and shipping timetables and the relative ash qualities of tobacco varieties? Ah, the struggle, the stuff of fiction. Watson must sift out the clues, or else Holmes prods him to dig into what is seen but not yet observed–and he does it at our pace.

Which circles back to the enduring Mr. Holmes. We’re fascinated with him because Watson is, too–and that’s because, if Holmes is the canon’s most fascinating character, Watson is its most interesting. What I mean: I’m fascinated by meteorology–weather systems, tornados, etc.  but I can’t do much with or about a storm. I only semi-grasp the science. The dirt-poor grad student jumping in a minivan to chase a super cell, though, now that’s interesting.

Isn’t that Watson? Chasing the conjurer’s trick? And I don’t mean any ghostly hounds or criminally-brilliant opera singers or international crime lords. Watson is chasing Holmes. What makes him tick. Holmes the problem-solver survives because Conan Doyle made him the canon’s greatest and deepest mystery. More than fumbling over any given case, Watson fumbles through time to learn his great friend–and never quite learns him. Thus we never quite learn him. There’s a cipher aspect to Holmes, that iconic silhouette in deerstalker and pipe, a figure open to as many enthusiastic interpretations as there are enthusiastic interpreters.

first appeared in SinC-Middle Tennessee’s newsletter, April 2016.