Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Doyle didn't write the best Sherlock? What?

Had a good comment from John Foster this morning, well worth bringing forward into the main blog. John was referring to an earlier comment from Robert Perret who wrote: "Many of the best Sherlock Holmes stories didn't come from ACD's pen," and said "I'm really surprised you didn't go anywhere with that one, Brad."

Well, here I go, and I'm killing good 221B Con packing time to do it, so I guess I do have something to say.

When it comes to modern readers, I really don't see Robert's statement as blasphemous. Doyle's prose is 100% Victorian era and takes some intermediary fiction for many of us to step up to that table. And pastiches, as horrible as some of them might be, help us take that step. Of that, I am as certain as certain can be.

I know this because I myself didn't click with Doyle at first read. "Speckled Band" was in our eighth grade literature book, and I wasn't any more impressed with it than "The Most Dangerous Game" or "The Rocking Horse Winner" or "The Ransom of Red Chief." In fact, I think I liked some of those better. Sherlock Holmes didn't really just jump out from a single short story.

It wasn't until the post-Seven-Per-Cent Solution boom, when pastiches filled the bookshelves, that I really got into Sherlock Holmes. And how did I get there?

I was reading a lot of character crossover fiction. Peoria author Phil Farmer's Riverworld was a mandatory read around here, and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg came after that. Soon after, I was on to Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds. And I loved it.

You know how many people actively hate Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds? Tons. I probably would even hate it if I re-read it now. And I followed it with The Earthquake Machine and Hellbirds, which I hear even their own author isn't exactly proud of in his later years. But I loved those too. Because Sherlock Holmes is a great character who transcends Doyle's original material. There's a reason that writers who aren't exactly Conan Doyle use Sherlock, and it's because they know readers will know who he is without a skillful exposition. (And they love him too, most times.)

And after all that, I finally went back and read Conan Doyle, in order. A Study in Scarlet is a much better introduction to Sherlock than "Speckled Band," because that's what it was written as. Even The Sign of Four spends a lot of time introducing us to this marvelous character.  But some of us definitely need an on-ramp to get up to that interstate of Doyle.

Which is why even the much-maligned fan fiction has produced a whole lot of stories that are a better introduction to Sherlock Holmes for modern readers than Conan Doyle. The point that Robert Perret was making when he answered the question of "How many Doyle stories do you have to read to be a Sherlockian?" with "zero" in that original comment was that Sherlock Holmes has become so much more than just a character in sixty stories. Consider this . . .

If you imagine someone who somehow had read every single non-Doyle novel and short story of Sherlock Holmes, seen every single movie, but NEVER read Conan Doyle, would you deny that that person was a Sherlock Holmes fan, after all that time and devotion? Would you withold the title "Sherlockian" and think they had nothing to contribute to any Sherlock Holmes group in the world? I hope not. That person would be a great Sherlockian with knowledge I'd want to see in books and scholarly works of their own.

Sherlock Holmes is a legend. A cultural icon. So much more than just a literary character, even though those are his origins. And it's good to know the origins, that "Elementary, my dear Watson!" didn't get said and the calabash pipe didn't get smoked. But those facts aren't the keys to the kingdom, along with any other specific hoops. There are keys to the Sherlockian kingdom laying around all over the place.

Even in Sherlock Holmes's War of the Worlds. Yeah, it's not the best-looking key, but it opened the door for at least one of us. (Along with that Loch Ness monster in the Private Life preview, of course. Can't have too simple of a Sherlockian origin story.) The word "best" can take on different meanings for different purposes. So when it comes to the "best" Sherlock Holmes stories, I'm going to have to go with Robert. For a whole lot of people, their personal best may never even come close to Sherlock Holmes. (And it might even be an episode of Elementary. Frightening how much I'm looking forward to that show's return.)

Onward to 221B Con!

1 comment:

  1. I am interested in your thought experiment. Would someone read every pastiche and see a movie and not read ACD? It seems odd that with so much Sherlockian desire to avoid a single author? Even though I am an old school Sherlockian, I believe anyone can call themselves a Sherlockian, no requirements or creeds.