Tuesday, October 27, 2015

“Come, Watson, come!" he cried. "The game is afoot.”

In Commentary Terry Teachout reviews "a new collection of Holmes stories—homages, pastiches, parodies, [and] spoofs...": The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories and considers what accounts for the enduring popularity of Holmes and Watson.
Is there a character in 19th-century prose fiction who remains more familiar to the general public than Sherlock Holmes? While Captain Ahab, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Count Dracula, Huckleberry Finn, Jekyll and Hyde, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Uncle Tom are still widely known by name, most of them are well on the way to becoming symbolic figures who are better known as concepts (and as TV and movie characters) than as creations of literary art. Yet the world’s first private consulting detective lives on, not only as embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller on television but on paper as well. When last I looked, the paperback edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes ranked No. 5,650 in sales on Amazon, a more than respectable figure for two fat volumes of novels and short stories originally published between 1887 and 1921 by an author whose other books are forgotten. ....

What keeps Sherlock Holmes alive? As is customarily the case with serial literature, the most important element of the appeal of the Holmes stories is the personality of their principal character, closely followed by his relationship with his amanuensis. Saturnine, sardonic, and inexplicably indifferent to women, rational to a fault yet afflicted by an ennui so profound that he must resort to cocaine in order to dispel it, Holmes is the very model of an English eccentric, exotic everywhere but in his native land.

To have created him was a considerable feat of the romantic imagination. To have paired him with Dr. Watson, the retired army surgeon who narrates all but a handful of the stories, was a stroke of something not unlike genius. It is Watson’s phlegmatic good humor that roots the fantastic adventures of Holmes and his clients in the quotidian world of Victorian London....

...[A]nother source of Holmes’s perennial appeal, which is that he is, in common with most other fictional detectives of the 19th and early-20th centuries, a fundamentally reassuring presence, one whose phenomenal crime-solving abilities remind us that the encroaching disorder of the world around us need not be irresistible. .... [more]
Teachout's final judgement is that the original stories by Conan Doyle are not "classic—merely memorable."