A Toast to Sherlock Holmes
Ladies and Gentlemen, here he is, the Prince of Detectives, the Napoleon of Crime Fighters, the Finest Mind of the Victorian Age, a glimpse (if you’ll believe it) of the next stage of our evolution—ladies and gentlemen, I give you: Sherlock Holmes.
There he is, the lean figure in the deerstalker hat, impeccably dressed, smoking a fine pipe. He’s learned in sciences and in the arts, especially chemistry and music, in which fields he’s written authoritative little monographs. He lives frugally, but cultivates as fine a palate as he is able. He’s at his ease with the worth of men, and has met the Queen herself. His conversation is engaging but not demonstrative. His brother is a respected civil servant. Holmes is an artist, an academic, an effective worker; he keeps his wits and his poise about him at all times, and always carries himself with dignity. In a word: Sherlock Holmes is a gentleman.
For all that, he’s not quite a man you or I might feel readily at ease with. Oh, but he’s a strange one, this Mr. Holmes. Strange and discomforting. Of course he would be. He is a truly logical man, true intellect, who proves over and over that the physical world can be dissected and reassembled by the mind. He is the purely objective critic, drawing the scattered and disordered details of a case into a strict syllogism; when all the facts are accounted for then their logic is (to him) apparent. Obvious. Elementary.
Who is Sherlock Homes? One moment we see him departing, tall and distinguished in evening dress and a tall hat. When next he appears he’s staggering through the door of 221B Baker Street, breathless and windblown, looking for all the world like the most disreputable sort of vagrant. Whilen evening dress, he thinks nothing of gunning down a murderer with Watson’s revolver; disguised as the vagrant, he still addresses a lady with utmost courtesy.
His own form—his own physical presence—he adjusts and changes with the same easy confidence he uses to determine the direction of a bicycle from the imprint of its tracks, the origin of a poison from the rictus of a face. He’s an actor without a stage, a shape-shifter. There is no confusion of identity here, though, no worrisome loss of self when assuming another form. Under all his guises lurks the keen mind of Sherlock Holmes.
If you want to understand Sherlock Holmes—if you want to understand what sets him apart from the mass of amateur detectives that swarmed in his wake—you must realise this: Holmes is an untrammelled intellect. Any hypothesis, however attractive, that does not strictly arise from logical necessity and present an elucidative form has no interest him.
This is why he had no interest in whether or not the earth revolved around the sun; to build a slow, pure, logical system anything that cannot be proved by direct observation—and, more importantly, anything which has no direct bearing on that logical system—must be discarded. No, he has no time for speculative leaps, no interest in anything that can’t be simply, systemically ordered. And in 189- it still took quite a lot of maths and theorising to prove the earth went round the sun, whatever the textbooks say.
But what about emotions and finer feelings? What about love? Even Spock occasionally came unglued. Doesn’t Holmes love anybody? So there are whispers about Irene Adler, the spy and counterspy, whose picture Holmes keeps and whom he calls “the woman.” But here the gossip-mongers must be disappointed: his regard for Adler is Platonic—and that is the correct technical term for it—the regard of one bright intellect for another. He recognised a mind as sharp as his own, and honoured the memory of the encounter. His regard with Adler was precisely as his regard for Moriarity.
Well then—it must be said—what about Watson? Two men sharing a flat and clearly sharing a nudge nudge wink wink close friendship? Here, again, the tabloid reporters must leave discouraged. There’s little interpretive help to be had using today’s norms of suggestiveness. In the London of the 1890’s, the age of Wilde and the aesthetes, gay relationships were tabooed but hardly a secret. Nor is there anywhere in Watson’s records any of those innuendoes and double entendre the late-Victorians used to indicate such a relationship.
In fact, when looked at squarely, it seems that Holmes—for whom the impulses of the body were merely of secondary or even tertiary importance—may be, as Professor Tiffin has argued, literature’s most prominent asexual. His chief virtue is not love but humanitas, the civilised respect a gentleman shows his fellow-beings, a philosophy rather than emotion. His chief vice—and how often he falls prey to it!—is vanity: the sin of the mind.
Yet all his logic, for all his intellect, there is something of a mystic about him—a burning conviction like that of the great ascetics. If, as even Conan Doyle himself believed, there is another world besides this one, whether spiritual or intellectual, then Holmes has pursued it with devotion. His life was spent in excising the distractions and delusions of the physical realm—impulse and emotion, chaos and decay.
It is not quite mere fancy when he claims to have hovered over the Devonshire moors in spirit; the logical analysis of the map was for a time more real than strong coffee or black shag tobacco. When his mind is active, he ruthlessly denies his flesh, to the point that the good Doctor Watson is alarmed for his health. And when the intellect cannot be engaged with logic, still Holmes persists in tormenting his body and exacerbating his mind with the terrible cocaine.
Of all the great detectives, Hercule Poirot is perhaps Holmes’ spiritual successor—Poirot, with his need for solitude, his insistence on the supremacy of the mind, his conviction that “the little grey cells” could reconcile apparently contradictory facts and expose the secret desires and workings of the human heart. The fastidious Belgian differed from Holmes only in this: he chose not the way of the ascetic, but the libertine.
So how to account for Mr. Sherlock Holmes? It’s simple, really, simpler than perhaps we in these post-Freudian days would like. Holmes chose to set great intellect to the darkest problems of humanity: he has chosen to understand crime. Logically, purely, systematically, he tries to expose and rationalise the worst, most elaborate atrocities that Conan Doyle’s romantic mind could dream up.
We can approach Holmes most easily when he’s in Baker Street, sitting down to another breakfast from the indefatigable Mrs. Hudson, silver tea service on the table before him, laconically goading Watson into another botched attempt at deduction. And we thrill with him when his keen mind is animated by a fresh case. As the great Christopher Morley put it:
[W]e are epicures. We must begin in Baker Street; and best of all, if possible, let it be a stormy winter morning when Holmes routs Watson out of bed in haste. The doctor wakes to see that tall, ascetic figure by the bedside with a candle. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!”
But perhaps the greatest, most essential Sherlockian tableau—one which no film version can capture—comes when we are hardly aware of it, when he is seen the way he sees the world: entirely from without, distinctly Other. It comes from Watson’s own report, ironically written to Holmes, revealing the essence of the Great Detective and his intellectual project:
The moon was low upon the right, and the jagged pinnacle of a granite tor stood up against the lower curve of its silver disc. There, outlined as black as an ebony statue on that shining background, I saw the figure of a man upon the tor.
Do not think that it was a delusion, Holmes. I assure you that I have never in my life seen anything more clearly. As far as I could judge, the figure was that of a tall, thin man. He stood with his legs a little separated, his arms folded, his head bowed, as if he were brooding over that enormous wilderness of peat and granite which lay before him. He might have been the very spirit of that terrible place.
The image is redolent of Rodin’s Dante, dispassionately contemplating the circles of Hell. Holmes ventures into realms of darkness and terror, the nightmare and the phantasm; even Holmes fanfiction that flamboyantly allows fantasy and the supernatural has nothing on the original tales for sheer atmosphere and horror. Holmes is at his best not merely on the streets of Victorian London, but in the Gothic itself, surrounded by the tropes and topoi of the genre. The depraved dignity, the sinister foreigners, and dark hereditary secrets of The Sign of Four; the screaming maidens, dark, oppressive houses and hideous, creeping terror of “The Speckled Band”; the unutterable, rictus terror, the brooding atmosphere of black magic, of “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot”; and, best of all, the haunts and ghosts and doubles, the dark-eyed femmes fatale and the ancient, crumbling parchments, and the bleak, moonlit landscape where nameless things lurk, in The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Into this thicket of Gothic monstrosities Holmes strides, dispelling the shadows with the quick foil of his intellect, cowing the nightmare terrors and unspeakable acts into calm, logical order and progression. Holmes himself dispenses justice on the crimes and creatures of the night: he coolly, resolutely exposes them to their own helplessness and irrationality before a well-ordered mind. At the heart of every horror lies demonstrable fact, every fact is subject to the laws of reason, and reason litigates against the depravities of mankind.
So, ladies and gentlemen, raise your glass to a gentleman, artist, and ascetic—to a scourge of criminals and master of mysteries—to a great, pure intellect and a genius of terror—to the finest detective and logician our literature has known—ladies and gentlemen, to Sherlock Holmes.