It’s Elementary

Here’s a sort of follow-up to my old post about my troubles attempting to read Tolkien. But this is in a much more positive light.

Back in, I think, third grade, I attempted to read The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for a book report… which turned out to be a big mistake. At that age, I just couldn’t get into the book, and I couldn’t really absorb what I was reading. I was in love with the idea of Sherlock Holmes, this brilliant detective in a deerstalker, with a pipe and a magnifying glass (my personal image of the man, when i was a child). I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes… but I couldn’t read the book.

Flash-forward ten years or so, and we get to me, now in college and having spent the first part of my summer blazing through A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and half of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. I’ve got a lot left, of course, which is quite a good thing for me. I’ve taken a bit of a break, since I found my reading slowing down, not from lack of interest, but I guess just because I’d been reading so much Sherlock that I needed a break. I’ll get into some of the stuff I’ve been reading since then at another time, but for now, back to Holmes.

I honestly haven’t really thought much about Sherlock Holmes since that time. Sure, I knew the character, but I didn’t think much about reading the stories or anything like that. Then Robert Downey, Jr. took the role with Jude Law as his Watson, a brilliant duo in a brilliant interpretation, and something about this steampunk-infused action/mystery was captivating from the start. Still the idea to read the source material didn’t really enter my head. Not long after this, the sequel was released, which was almost as good as the original. And still, the idea hadn’t occurred to me… until the craze over the BBC’s Sherlock finally got to me. Within a matter of days I’d watch all six episodes and the unaired pilot, and then dug out my two-volume The Complete Sherlock Holmes so that I could finally read the stories that started it all. And finally, finally I truly became entranced by the tales of the character who I so long ago wanted to be.

I don’t suppose that I really need to review the stories; they’re eternal classics, so even if I were to slander them, who would believe me? But any praise I could give Doyle has all already been said, so I dare not repeat it. But I will relate an interesting thing I noticed a day or two ago. It has also been noted before, but I feel obliged to put it in regardless.

For my birthday my girlfriend gave me the fancy Barnes & Noble Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. You know the one, the big leather-bound (though I doubt it’s real leather) hardcover with the silver-edged pages. Though I would like to read all of the stories and poems in it, I don’t feel like reading it cover to cover right now, so I just picked one from the contents and started there. I went first to skim “The Raven,” my favorite poem, then to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” the famous tale said to be the first modern detective story, and which is mentioned both by Doyle through Watson in one of the Holmes stories, and by Doyle academics, who compare the two detectives. And it cannot be denied by anyone who has read both that Doyle was quite clearly and indisputably inspired by Poe. There is a scene in “Rue Morgue” where the detective, Dupin and the narrator are walking, and Dupin makes a casual remark… which, as it turns out, is a reply to what the narrator was thinking. Dupin proceeds to tell the narrator how he was able, by observing his friend, to deduce his train of thought and formulate a reply to an unspoken observation. There is a scene in one of the Holmes stories which follows this exact formula to the letter. Surely this is not coincidence.

Of course, one must also notice that both Holmes and Dupin have a close friend who joins them on investigations and records the adventures, and both are brilliant detectives who deduce the most incredible things from the smallest details. Even though the outcome of “Rue Morgue” is very strange, and though possible, most likely not something that would appear in a Holmes tale, if one were to change the names to those which Doyle used, it would only perhaps be Poe’s style of writing which would indicate that this is in fact not a Holmes tale.

Nevertheless, I find that I have an incredible and growing respect for Doyle, who created one of the most iconic characters of all time and built around him such brilliant tales and such a perfectly written, perfectly human universe that there can be no doubt; the tales of Sherlock Holmes are truly some of the greatest in the history of literature.

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