Friday, April 9, 2021


Richard Brookhiser spent some of his COVID confinement reading Sherlock Holmes stories aloud to his wife. He writes "The stories vary in quality...but all satisfy. Why?" Part of his answer:
The primary, and obvious, reason is the immortal pair. Holmes is fascinating by himself: the law-enforcer who is a skillful house-breaker, the misanthrope and misogynist who can charm stable hands and old ladies, the loner who defends society, the man who sports personal items presented to him by two different European royal houses but who is familiar with waterfront opium dens. He is simultaneously benevolent and cold; when the KKK — one clue that this mid-century boy reader did not need to have explained — manages to kill one of his clients, Holmes is wounded as an outfoxed professional and moved by the horror of the deed.

Dr. Watson is a reader transported into the story. Though he cannot unravel the mysteries any faster than we can, he does have a field of expertise (besides medicine) — and that is Holmesology. He does not know what his friend is thinking, but he almost always knows that he is thinking, and he can tell whether those thoughts are fruitful or still stymied. Watson’s double function as “author” also applies the final coat of verisimilitude. ....

The stories thrive on their sense of place. The crime-fighters venture into the countryside, where, however small the town, there is an inn to serve as a base of operations, and a noble or at least centuries-old house in which they must operate. But their preferred habitat is the city — Holmes “loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people.” ....

The best, most vivid place is the era. The stories existed in real Victorian time when they first ran, but by the end of Doyle’s career they became nostalgic (the last ones appeared alongside flappers). A century-plus on, they are wholly so. .... (more)
Richard Brookhiser, "The Comforts of Holmes," National Review, April 19, 2021.

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