At the end of an otherwise spirited introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, John le Carré seems a little defensive.
“Do not be dismayed,” he warns us for no particular reason. “Nobody writes of Holmes and Watson without love.”
Now, imagine you are someone who has just plunked down $75 for Leslie S. Klinger’s massive two-volume compendium of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous stories (published in 2004), 1,900 pages full of annotations on everything from Victorian public schools to Holmes’s sex life, not to mention the Sherlockian arcana (redundant, I know) tackled in the appendices. Would you worry about whether Klinger properly loves Holmes and Watson?
More likely, you would ask yourself, in all seriousness, whether you love the pair enough. After all, reading these stories has just become a lot of work.
Either way, it turns out that le Carré is wrong: Richard A. Posner writes of Holmes and Watson without love. The federal judge and freelance intellectual delivered his humorless pan in the October 11, 2004, issue of the New Republic magazine, ruling that Conan Doyle’s stories are (and one imagines a pounding gavel here) “wildly overrated.” Whack! Klinger’s annotations are nothing more than “an eccentric venture.” Whack! And the book’s design, with the red, small-print notes in a vertical column on the outside edge of the page, renders it “almost unreadable.” Whack!
With regard to the last of His Honor’s points, I object. These are beautifully designed volumes, printed on cream-colored pages decorated with Sydney Paget’s original illustrations for the Strand magazine. In addition, a wonderful collection of black-and-white photographs accompanies Klinger’s long, often fascinating essay, “The World of Sherlock Holmes.” If, as was the case with this reviewer, you tighten up a bit as Klinger walks you through complicated theories regarding, for example, the real identity of Holmes’ only love, Irene Adler (was she an opera singer? a rabbi? Nero Wolfe’s mom?), the pages’ ample white space serves as a calming agent.
Considering Posner’s point that there is something eccentric about The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the idea of Irene Adler as Mother Wolfe should speak for itself. (If not, then chew for a moment on the proposition that the great villain Moriarty switched sides — perhaps in more ways than one! — and changed his name to J. Edgar Hoover.) In his preface, Klinger delicately explains “the idea of Sherlockian scholarship,” which is, he says, “the ‘game’ of treating the stories as biography, not fiction.” Note Klinger’s ambiguous use of quotes. Is this a game or isn’t it? Before you have a chance to tease out exactly what he means, though, the larger truth of it all whacks you on the head: This guy thinks, or “thinks,” Holmes was real. In fact, Sherlockian “scholarship” posits that the stories were actually written by Watson and that Conan Doyle simply served as the good doctor’s literary agent.
At this point, a judgment like “wildly overrated” seems wildly beside the point. Even le Carré, who rhapsodizes on the stories’ merits, stipulates that they are, at first glance, nothing special.
Peek up Conan Doyle’s literary sleeve and you will at first be disappointed; no fine turns of phrase, no clever adjectives that leap off the page, no arresting psychological insights … No wonder that, unlike other great story-tellers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Conan Doyle translates without loss into practically any language.
In advancing his story-trumps-all thesis, le Carré is given to outbursts against what he calls the “literary bureaucracy,” by which he seems to mean folks who unreasonably demand fine writing and insight from their literature. He does, however, unwittingly raise an interesting point about translation: Novels that don’t translate particularly well may actually be more interesting, at least on the level of language and in their original tongue. That said, le Carré also begs us to ask another important question:
What on earth is behind this “absurd obsession” (the judge’s words) that Klinger and his Sherlockian buddies have with the Boys from Baker Street?
It goes without saying the Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t that good. What is? The Bible?
Ah, the Bible.
That’s what Conan Doyle’s stories (also known as “the Canon”) have become for these folks: a text to which they attach a sacred-like importance that, frankly, makes some of us scratch our heads. Still, don’t misunderstand me: I’m a big fan. There is much to love about “The Red-Headed League,” to pick just one of Conan Doyle’s best stories. The tale begins with a mysterious newspaper ad calling on all able-bodied red-headed men to apply for membership in the titular League at four pounds a week, a handsome salary paid “for purely nominal services.” That those services happen to be sitting in an empty room copying out by hand the Encyclopedia Britannica, and that the lucky hire, one Jabez Wilson, at first finds nothing particularly odd in this, only invests an already slightly surreal story with a mischievous sense of humor. Holmes, meanwhile, takes a moment to expound on the advantages of German music over its less introspective (to his taste) Italian and French counterparts before dragging the always wide-eyed Watson across town to stare at the knees of a man’s trousers.
“He is, in my judgment, the fourth smartest man in London,” Holmes declares after sizing up the stranger’s pants.
There is, as I said, much to love here, but Klinger’s take on such adventures is insistently fundamentalist. Because everything must have really happened, he has no time for questions like, Why the Encyclopedia Britannica? Was Conan Doyle making a sly critique of English public education? Of course not. Conan Doyle didn’t write the story! Instead, in what amounts to a parody of literary criticism, Klinger introduces us to someone called Thomas L. Stix, who has calculated that Jabez Wilson must have copied out 6,419,616 words in eight weeks, laboring just four hours per day. Assuming the facts of the story, this works out to a brisk 33,435 words per hour.
Stix, for so brilliantly marrying exegesis to calculator, ought to be known as the Bishop Ussher of Baker Street.
Klinger mentions that he enjoyed Sherlock Holmes as a young man. Le Carré fondly recalls having the stories read to him in boarding school by the headmaster’s brother (“I can see him now,” he writes, “and see his great bulk, with his bald head glinting before the coal fire.”).
These two facts are significant, at least according to literary critic Gabriel Josipovici. In The Book of God, his absorbing consideration of the Bible, Josipovici puzzles over why the book has always been set aside as special, even by atheists. He concludes, in part, that it has to do with its stories being read to us as children. “Spoken as they are by someone we trust and who forms part of the world into which we have come,” he writes, “they seem to us as natural and inevitable as the world itself.”
Of course, Josipovici concedes, things change as we grow older and encounter words on the page:
Because we now read instead of simply listening, because we can pause, turn back, put down the book and take it up again, a whole set of questions arises which never troubled us before: Did King Arthur really exist? If so, when and where did he live? Who was Moses? Did the plagues really occur? Was Jesus really the son of God?
Did Sherlock Holmes really fall to his death at Reichenbach Falls? Or did he simply check himself into Betty Ford?
There is great fun to be had in the world of Holmes and Watson and even in the world of Klinger and Stix, et al. Sadly, the “scholarly” efforts of the latter bring us no closer to an appreciation of the former. They practice a kind of forensic analysis, however tongue-in-cheek, that is best suited to corpses and not stories still beating with life more than a hundred years after their first publication. What kind of love, after all, dwells at such length on what isn’t true while ignoring the greatness of what is?
A version of this review originally appeared in January Magazine, December 2004.