Street apostles. For SHERLOCK HOLMES is a character who
magnificently transcends the need for apology. What is it that has given
him this opulent estate? For what excellent reasons do we forgive
shortcomings we could condone in no one else? Why do we call his very
absurdities beloved? The quality is at once simple and difficult to
define—and one that many abler technical achievements sorely want.
Lacking a single mot juste we may speak tentatively of "flavor." Or, to
choose a hardier word, "gusto." One hesitates to use the overworked
phrase "born story-teller"; yet Doyle's almost naive zest was certainly
For it is not intricacy or bafflement that causes the tales to be read and re-read with a never diminishing thrill, when the slick product of to-day is forgotten in an hour. It is the "romantic reality" of their comfortable, nostalgic British heartiness. It is the small boy in all of us, sitting before an open fire, with the winter wind howling around the windows, a-wriggle with sheer pleasure. It is the "snug peril" of fin de siecle Baker Street, with hansom cabs rumbling distantly on wet cobblestones, and Moriarty and his minions lurking in the fog. It is the warmth behind drawn curtains, the reek of strong tobacco, the patriotic "V" done in bullet-pocks on the wall, the gasogene, the spirit lamp, the dressing-gown, the violin—and the "needle." It is the inevitable bell, the summons to duty and high adventure. It is "Sherlockismus," in the happy Carrollism of Father Knox:
"... How do you know that?"
"I followed you."
"I saw no one."
"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you."
It is the detective on all fours, nose to the ground, tracing a criminal's spoor with small animal sounds of happiness, like the human bloodhound he is. It is the triumphal return to 22'i-B, the "mission of humane vengeance" accomplished, the chase at end, the task well done. It is HOLMES, beginning the explanation over one of Mrs. Hudson's late suppers. It is Watson's wide-eyed and penultimate, "Marvelousl" It is SHERLOCK'S final and superb, "Elementary!"
William Bolitho came close to the heart of the secret when he wrote of HOLMES: "He is more than a book. He is the spirit of a town and a time." Vincent Starrett has suggested the mood and the emotion even more imaginatively:
Granted the opportunity, gentlemen—one might cry, in paraphrase of Dr. Bell—of recovering a single day out of the irrevocable past, how would you choose to spend that sorcerous gift? With Master Shakespeare in his tiring room? With Villon and his companions of the cockleshell? Riding with Rupert or barging it with Cleopatra up the Nile? Or would you choose to squander it on a chase with SHERLOCK HOLMES after a visit to the rooms in Baker Street? There can be only one possible answer, gentlemen, to the question
To the devotion SHERLOCK HOLMES has
inspired in his readers, from the great to the humble, there are
testimonials without end. None of these is more touching than the
belief, held for years by thousands, that he was an actual, living human
being—a circumstance that constitutes one of the most unusual chapters
in literary history. Countless troubled letters, by the testimony of the
postal authorities, have been addressed with appealing faith to "Mr.
Sherlock Holmes, 221-6, Baker Street, London." Early in the century a
party of visiting French school-boys was taken on an educational tour of
the metropolis. Asked what historic sight they chose to see first, they
replied with one accord: "The house where SHERLOCK HOLMES lives." When
Doyle announced in one of the later stories that HOLMES was retiring
from London to keep bees in Sussex, the mail was swelled with
applications from would-be housekeepers and friendly advice from
apiarists, amateur and professional. During the First World War, Doyle
(in his late fifties, a government observer and propagandist) was
introduced to a French general who shall be nameless. What rank, the
general suddenly demanded, did SHERLOCK HOLMES hold in the English army?
Searching vainly for humor in his questioner's face, Sir Arthur could
only stammer in halting French that the detective was "too old" for
active service. The legend of HOLMES' reality has been swelled by other
enthusiastic if more sophisticated readers who know well enough that
their hero never lived in flesh and blood, but who like to keep up the
pretense that he did: high tribute in itself. Already a railway
locomotive—running, of course, out of the Baker Street Station—has been
named in his honor; and movements are frequently set on foot to erect a
statue to his memory. Countless readers have visited Baker Street and
photographed and mapped it end-to-end. Prolonged debates have raged over
the most likely location of the mythical 221-6. (Good cases may be made
out for several sites, but the weight of SHERLOCKIAN authority seems to
favor the present No. in.) And in far off New York to-day an assorted
group of devoted HOLMES enthusiasts, headed by bonhommous Christopher
Morley as Gasogene and Tantalus, and calling themselves the Baker Street
Irregulars, foregather at appropriately uncertain intervals to dine and
hear reports of scholarly research in the Sacred Writings and other
matters of Conanical import. "221-6 Culture" is the Morleyesque phrase
for the nostalgic pastime.
Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942 Layout © R.D. Collins
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