Saturday, May 5, 2012

Crime Read Along: A Study in Scarlet

The background information post on Study in Scarlet concludes by asking what Sherlock Holmes means to you.
I think it is hard at this point to sort out all the various Sherlock Holmes's. He is such a frequent actor in other people's novels that I am surprised when I go back and re-read the "real" Holmes stories to see the differences from the composite character in my head. I adore the depiction of Holmes in Laurie King's Mary Russell novels. He is so clever and crafty, but so human at the same time. I found the Robert Downey Jr. version quite off-putting. Holmes should not be a superhero. I think the genius of the character is that he is so brilliant and yet so flawed.

The discussion post inspired the following thoughts on the novel.

In general I enjoyed the novel. It would probably inspire more reading of the Holmes cannon except that I have already read most of it (all the stories and Hound of the Baskervilles). The section about the Mormons didn't fit well into the narrative from a stylistic perspective. It did paint a harsh picture of the Mormons, but that is not unlike many modern books about them (some purporting to be true). As examples I suggest Under the Banner of Heaven The 19th Wife, and The Lonely Polygamist. I did think it was interesting that the whole section served to vilify, not the killer Holmes and Watson were seeking, but the victims. That twist of good guys/bad guys is an element of modern crime writing and while I thought it was done quite awkwardly here I was struck by the presence of this modern element in a classic work.

As far as the un-PC-ness of classic literature, I think it can be jarring for the reader and can detract from the enjoyment of a classic novel when things that are inappropriate to modern ears are just part of the narrative. In any novel (old, new, or in-between) a character may say or do something that is socially unacceptable to illustrate something the author wants you to know about that character. It provides a short-hand between the reader and the author to communicate an aspect of the character. When you read books from another time, the things that are mutually understood as acceptable, or not, are no longer common between the reader and the writer and this can be jarring and result in a mistaken understanding of the characters. I think the reader has to be aware of this and not impose their modern sensibilities on an earlier time. They also need to have a grounding in the time period they are reading about it they are going to appreciate the subtleties of a classic work. (Strong footnotes can help with this which makes Penguin Classics a good choice.) I am a huge believer in the freedom-to-read, so I think anything is "appropriate" for anyone who wants to read it, but an understanding of context can make it a more profitable reading experience.

I liked the presentation of the Holmes/Watson friendship and thought the bit with the newspaper article Watson thought was ridiculous and Holmes had written was quite funny. As I read it I was completely picturing the characters in the new (in the US anyway) Masterpiece Mystery version of Holmes. In the first episode of that (A Study in Pink) they depict this meeting and it was pretty close to the book.

I think Doyle firmly placed this book in it's literary context by referring to Poe and Gaboriau. There was a certain amount of excess in this novel that I don't recall being as prevalent in the stories. Stuff that Doyle put in and didn't do anything with, like the bull pup Watson says he keeps and that never comes up again, or the fact that the body is found with an edition of the Decameron in the pocket but we never find out why the drunken Mormon on the run from someone who intends to kill him, is carrying around a 14th-century book of tales. Character motivations were a little slap-dash overall.

Overall I think the Sherlock Holmes stories get better and more tightly structured as they go along. This novel sets the beginning of what becomes a long series of wonderful adventure stories with mysteries (though not usually murders) at their center.

The May title in the read-along will be The Man in the Queue by Josepine Tey (check in May 8th, discussion, may 22nd).

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