Sunday, November 11, 2012

The tedium of homicide

This morning I decided to perform that basic Sherlockian exercise of counting murders in the original sixty Sherlock Holmes stories. Or more specifically, the cases that started with Holmes investigating a murder. If you've ever done this, or read an article by someone who has, you know that the murder-to-non-murder ratio in Sherlock Holmes's caseload is about half.

Sure, sometimes a blackmail case ends in someone getting killed. Missing persons can turn up dead. And if you're a man whose life Holmes is trying to protect, your chances of being murdered increase over those if you just possessed a vagina. Sherlock Holmes, a true Sherlockian knows, was not a homicide investigator.

Legions of detectives inspired by Holmes have been homicide investigators, and for good reason. Homicide is to mystery what profanity is to stand-up comedy: the easiest way to get a reaction out of your audience. The less-skilled practitioner of the trade tends to take that easy route. But Conan Doyle, whose skills were far above most of those who followed, did not take that easier route.

One of the reasons we love Sherlock Holmes in those original stories is that certain reality of the cases. Sherlockians research Holmes as a historical character because he seems to live in the same world that we do. And the world we live in is not filled with weekly murder sprees, especially ones that tend to strike the wealthy. That key point has always been a point of amusement for poking fun at Jessica Fletcher of the old Murder, She Wrote TV series, where the little Maine town of Cabot Cove seemed to be an ongoing deathtrap for two hundred and sixty-four episodes.

Some of the greatest Sherlock Holmes mysteries came from questions like "Why did the people paying me because I had red hair stop paying me?" and "Should I take a governess job if they make me get my hair cut?" (Doyle seemed to like hair-related mysteries.) Neighbors or tenants wearing masks, odd employment opportunities, and the ever-popular missing jewels provided Holmes with puzzles that broke up the endless slog from corpse to corpse that other detectives favored.

But for Sherlock Holmes to be Sherlock Holmes, sometimes he has to investigate some quirky little life mystery that doesn't start with a dead body. Modern writers of the master detective should really look into that . . . just to set themselves apart from the pack, if nothing else. It takes a little more thought than homicide, but aren't such challenges always worth the effort?

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