Monday, May 14, 2018

Sherlock Holmes stories without Sherlock.

There have always been a case or two in the Sherlockian Canon where Sherlock Holmes's participation seemed minimal. But since the all-seeing Howard Ostrom recently turned up a Sherlock-less adaption of "Copper Beeches" on Vimeo, I'm starting to fear for our friend.

I mean, we all know that part of the success of Conan Doyle's work has always been that he used Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson as a framing device to tell other people's stories. The characters they encounter aren't mere cardboard murder-of-the-week stereotypes. Henry Baker is fascinating in his own right as we hear of his lost Christmas goose.  Mary Sutherland is not just all about her missing boyfriend -- she's interesting in her own right, as a typist with an inheritance and a mother who remarried a younger man.

How many stories of the Canon are so well told that they could exist with Sherlock Holmes, as was done with that video of "Copper Beeches?" Quite a few, if you think about it.

Sherlock's failures, like "Five Orange Pips" and "The Yellow Face," come quickly to mind. Events easily proceed as they did without Holmes on the case. "Engineer's Thumb" could have had Victor Hatherly going to any doctor then trying to backtrack to the place he was injured -- that blazing house at the end is pretty obvious where the crime happened. Professor Presbury still gets chomped by his dog Roy in "The Creeping Man," and maybe the landlady in "The Veiled Lodger" just gets her friend Mrs. Hudson to talk her tenant out of suicide.

Yes, many a tale involves unravelling the clever crime and capturing a criminal who "would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for that darned Sherlock Holmes!" Holmes is vital to all the facts coming out in plenty of cases.

But, as many a pasticheur has failed to recognize over the years, the stories were never really about Sherlock Holmes . . . with the possible exception of A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of the Four, where much had to be made of Holmes's business to fill a novel's length. It's the other character's stories that make Conan Doyle's originals so great. Sherlock Holmes is just the marvelous device that ties them all together and makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Because some of those parts? Not so good, as we all well know.)

I doubt that many creators are going to go to the trouble to make Sherlock Holmes stories without Sherlock Holmes, since he's the star people are coming to see. Writers who have tried to use Holmes to introduce their own spin-off character often find it hard to get publishers to let them usher Holmes out, once he's appeared. But it's always good to be reminded just how good those stories were by themselves, before Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson became the icing on the cake.

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