Thursday, July 31, 2014

Summer of Sherlock: The Norwood Builder

In the summer of 1894, things just got weird on Baker Street.

Remember Sherlock Holmes? The guy who loved all those weird little puzzles presented by humanity interacting in its great metropolis. A found Christmas goose and hat, a near-sighted girl with a boyfriend who took off . . . he seemed to take joy in digging up the truth in all sorts of situations. But after a few years off, suddenly he's bitching that Moriarty isn't around to make crime more interesting, and refers to himself as "out-of-work."

Remember Dr. Watson? The guy who used to have a wife and attempt to practice medicine? He's given up the medical profession and moved back into Holmes's rooms, recruited as a partner . . . for that business Holmes is out-of-work at.

This Sherlock Holmes, who has talked Dr. Watson into giving up his own life, is also perversely happy to see a ruined mess of a young man show up on the run from the police and a murder charge. There have been many who suspected Sherlock Holmes was not the same man when he returned from his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls, ever since Father Ronald Knox pointed it out in the 1920s, and "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder," by itself is a case that lends credence to that theory.

Even Inspector Lestrade seems to have lost confidence in Sherlock Holmes in this case, advising him to give it up at one point without even telling him why. And if Lestrade wasn't concern enough, consider this: Sherlock Holmes seems to be unsure if he has the stuff to solve it. Sure, he talks a good game, but when Watson sees him the second morning of the case, he has spent a sleepless night and looks "pale and harassed." Holmes actually seems like he spent more of the night worrying about not being able to solve it than actually thinking it over and over like he used to, back in the pre-Moriarty days.

And here's where it gets really weird: The first story of Sherlock Holmes's return to life after his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls is the tale of his reappearance, a necessary choice. The second? "Norwood Builder," a tale of  *** SPOILER ALERT FOR THE HUNDRED YEAR OLD STORY *** a man who fakes his own death. Almost like Watson is trying to cement the idea of Sherlock Holmes faking his death (with that wacky "reversing his shoes" ploy) in the heads of his readers by kind of going, "See, people fake their deaths all the time." Which then makes one wonder, what if the tale that Holmes faked his own death is the actual fake-out in this cycle?

At the end of the tale, Sherlock Holmes asked the villain how he pulled off a part of his plot involving burned bones: "By the way, what was it you put into the woodpile besides your old trousers? A dead dog, or rabbits, or what?" When no answer is forthcoming, Holmes then actually advises Watson, "If ever you write an account, Watson, you can make rabbits serve your turn."

In other words, "Just make something up, Watson!" like the threshold of fiction has already been well crossed in some much larger violation of Watson's sharing the truth with the reader.

Of all the stories in the Summer of Sherlock so far, I think this is my least favorite for all those doubts that it casts upon our trusted friends Holmes and Watson. Were these details perhaps a touch of shading by an angry literary agent who was grumpy enough at Holmes's return to do a little malign editing of Watson's words? Or was this indeed a second Holmes pushed upon the public? It is a very uncomfortable choice.

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