All The Sherlock Holmes Is Done

Back at the end of May, I decided to listen to every single Sherlock Holmes story in a row. I’m not sure why exactly that seemed like a good idea, because you can definitely get detective burnout, and I have 100% burned out on Sherlock Holmes. I think it’s been a good fifteen years since I’ve read this much Holmes in a straight shot. I came back around for His Last Bow, but my god, Casebook was a slog. Not because it was bad, necessarily, but because you start to get attentive to an author’s little quirks.

I will say, the short stories are obviously a lot better than the novels. Doyle1 just can’t sustain an extended plot with this character. Like all detectives, Sherlock Holmes is an interesting device for exploring a variety of interesting little “what ifs,”2 but beyond that, it’s rough to try a longer story with him because at a novel’s length you either need genuine technical excellence that will keep your reader engaged with the machinations of the mystery, or you need depth of characterization. And the truth is, Doyle doesn’t have the chops to pull off a real fair play mystery. This is probably one of the reasons so many mysteries have a (basically superfluous) romance element, especially those that aren’t strong on plot. It’s a quick and lazy way to add character elements. Or, the other strategy: weird personality quirk. Food, or foppishness, or locality, or quip-spitting sidekick. Holmes’s personality quirk is the investigation itself, so it ends up being a bind rather than an out.

See, Holmes is such an interesting character because Doyle isn’t interested in his personal life. It’s not just that Holmes doesn’t have one, it’s that Doyle doesn’t care about it at all. You can particularly tell, in that Watson never pries. In contrast, newer portrayals of Sherlock Holmes occasionally veer into being very interested in his lack of a personal life, which draws attention to it and creates an interior life for him by highlighting its absence. That’s definitely a flaw, I think, in Sherlock.

Also, side question: what was up with Freemasonry back in the day? I just listened to a radio drama of “The Man Who Would Be King” and it feels like it’s everywhere.

Anyway. You kind of have to approach Holmes with a suspension of disbelief concerning logic and just roll with the puzzles and the jibes, but if you do, it’s pretty rewarding. Just maybe not in a 58 hour endurance test.

  1. Yes, it sounds weird, but even Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t decide whether his surname was a Doyle or Conan Doyle. But technically, it’s just Doyle.
  2. Like, can you imagine what he was thinking when he wrote that monkey-serum one? You can actually hear him going, “Wouldn’t it be weird if…”