There is a very meta conversation in the opening of 1891's "A Case of Identity." On the surface, it seems as though Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are discussing crime. Holmes is arguing that reality, with all "the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generations," would "make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."
Watson does not agree. "We have in our police reports realism pushed to its extreme limits, and yet the result is . . . neither fascinating nor artistic."
"A certain selection and discretion must be used in producing a realistic effect," Holmes replies. "This is wanting in the police report, where more stress is laid perhaps upon the platitudes of the magistrate than the details . . . ."
In other words, isn't of showing you what happened, the magistrate is telling you what happened. And "Show, don't tell!" is an old writing dictum said to go back as far as Anton Chekov.
Holmes is defending his statement that basically, truth is stranger than fiction -- a line Mark Twain would write about six years later: "Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." And, interestingly, Sherlock Holmes is saying that the police reports don't produce "a realistic effect" in their writing . . . which is odd, since they are about reality.
What Sherlock actually seems to be doing here is giving the fledgling writer Watson some tips. The discussion occurs a few weeks after the two dealt with "A Scandal in Bohemia," the first short story Watson ever published, so that thought may well have some merit. Watson does not chronicle what conversation was going on between them when Holmes first states that "life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent." Was Sherlock trying to talk John out of writing up "Scandal," as it wasn't that interesting?
The opening of "A Case of Identity" is very interesting in that it isn't a discussion about crime, it's a discussion about writing. And one with some great advice contained within.
For those in or near Peoria, the discussion of "A Case of Identity" continues this Thursday night at the North Branch library at 6:30. Join us if you're in the neighborhood!