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Howard Haycraft

Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 3

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 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 a factor.
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.
Some one has accurately said that more has been written about HOLMES (exclusive of the stories themselves) than any other character in fiction. A good half-dozen full-size published volumes are already given to his career and personality, and the number grows constantly, while the essays and magazine articles amount literally to hundreds; even Watson is achieving a respectable list of memorabilia in his own right. As Harry Hansen has pointed out, there is no other instance in literary annals where the character rather than the author is the subject of such fervid admiration.
But if, as these circumstances would seem to suggest, HOLMES-worship has become something of a cult in late years, it is certainly defensible as the most innocent and least harmful of all its kind. Its unashamed insistence that what-never-was always-will-be stands in oddly human fashion for a Higher Sanity in a too-real world.
Two solid external factors that have contributed to the unequalled fame of HOLMES are the illustrations and the numerous stage and screen plays made from the stories. Of these, special mention must be accorded the closely related conceptions of Frederic Dorr Steele, on the easel, and the late beloved William Gillette, in his own famous dramatizations, behind the footlights. (Gillette's one original venture into detection, The Astounding Crime on Torrington Road, written in his later years, should be better known to connoisseurs as an unorthodox but gripping tour de force.) These two, perhaps, have done more than any one else save Doyle himself to make the angular features and pipe and deerstalker cap that signify the sleuth more readily recognizable around the globe to-day than the face of many a living statesman or titan of affairs.
It is a pleasure to urge once more, upon all readers who may be interested in delving further into HOLMESIAN lore, Vincent Starrett's both inspired and restrained Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, happily still in print at the date of this writing. A mellow and imaginative handbook of SHERLOCKIAN research in itself, it is supplemented by an equally valuable bibliography of the subject.
Too many ecstatic superlatives—and the present writer has no doubt been guilty of his share—have been heaped on the gaunt brow of the Southsea physician's chance creation. Yet .when all these are removed, SHERLOCK HOLMES still remains the world's best-known and best loved fictional detective. But for the tales in which he appeared, the detective story as we know it to-day might never have developed or only in a vastly different and certainly less pleasurable form

Chapter 4 Page 1

 

Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942     Layout © R.D. Collins
Howard Haycraft

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