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A Mystery Needful Of Solution

Posted by acdtest on May 15, 2002

A Mystery Needful Of Solution

efore writing (manufacturing would be a more accurate term) my own, I never read a murder mystery all the way through. No need to. Got whodunit by page 50 or so. No point reading further. Or so I’ve elsewhere said on this weblog. Well, it’s not exactly true that I never read a murder mystery all the way through, but it’s an often-made-by-me slip, the reason for which will become clear by the time this little piece reaches its close.

Quite some years ago I was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident that left me bed-bound for almost a year. In an effort to ease my forced confinement, my then father-in-law brought a gift: The Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Although I managed a smile of gratitude as I accepted the unexpected present, it crossed my mind that in buying me that collection of stories the not-so-old man had suffered a premature Senior Moment. A copyeditor for the New York Times, he and I had discussed literature often, and he was well aware of my distaste for, and contemptuous dismissal of, genre fiction in all its forms, yet here he was presenting me with two volumes worth of the stuff. Perhaps, I thought, it was a joke of some sort I hadn’t quite yet caught on to, or perhaps he’d not had merely a premature Senior Moment, but had gone stone-cold barking mad.

I wisely decided to defer immediate judgment on the matter. As I was a virtual prisoner with nowhere to go and nothing but time on my hands, what could it hurt to at least give the things a read, or a try at a read, as the case might be. Time enough later for a final decision on the question of my father-in-law’s mental competency.

So, beginning at the beginning, I turned to the opening novella-length story, A Study in Scarlet, and began to read.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.

What odd but curiously pleasant syntax was the thought that crossed my mind, and the thought passed, I continued to read.

Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as assistant surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

Just the names seemed to bristle with an exotic energy, and encouraged, I read on…for the next two days straight with almost no sleep, during which time I read all sixty stories — all 1300 pages of them — and then went back to start reading them all over again.

I wasn’t sure at just what point I’d become hooked, and even less sure of what it was that hooked me, but hooked I was, and the mystery of how that came about is for me today still a greater mystery than any Holmes and Watson ever undertook to unravel; one that even after all these years remains elusive of fully satisfactory solution.

One thing was certain, and for me still a source of some wonderment: These stories are surely not litraschur. Heart of Darkness is litraschur. The Dead is litraschur. The Half-skinned Steer is litraschur. But The Adventure of the Speckled Band, or even the almost-novel The Hound of the Baskervilles? No way. Not, at any rate, outside the halls of academe with its postmodern lit courses in which novels such as Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and Spiderman comic books are considered litraschur.

But there I was — and here I am. Hooked on…on…works of detective fiction(!). Genre fiction(!!). Prole-pandering-barely-worth-the-paper-they’re-printed-on pulp fiction(!!!).

Jesus.

So, how to explain it. I mean, it really does need some sort of explanation or other. But as I’ve said, I can’t explain it in any fully satisfactory way. Yes, it’s true Conan Doyle makes astonishingly real his two central characters and the milieu in which they lived and worked — so real that one finds oneself needing to ferret out, when they’re not explicitly given (and just to be certain, even when they are), the exact dates and physical locations of the stories’ action. One just feels a burning need to know that. And, yes, the stories chronicle a friendship rare today, and perhaps rare at any time. And, yes, the era of Holmes and Watson is wonderfully intimate, warmly romantic, and altogether appealing, especially to 21st-century Americans. And, yes, the totally self-reliant character of Holmes is individualistic and nobly aristocratic (nobly, that is, if one has escaped being contaminated by things postmodern and PC), and his consummate skill in, and dedication to, his profession superhuman even if somewhat unbelievable, all of which is laudable, inspiring and exciting of admiration. The Holmes-Watson canon is all these things. But that still doesn’t provide the explanation looked for, although it’s surely part of it.

The best I can muster as explanation — and I’m fully cognizant my best is thoroughly inadequate — is that the Holmes-Watson stories, even though technically detective fiction, each have the quality of being a chapter of a great and heroic if urbane saga; tales told orally around a pre-literate communal campfire which tell of a time when a man’s individual actions had comprehensible, direct and immediate effect on his environment and those populating it, without mediation, mitigation or intensification by technologies the workings of which are comprehensible only to experts; a time when one could “learn at a glance to distinguish the history of [a] man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs”; a time when “by a man’s fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs…a man’s calling is plainly revealed.”

Such a time is long past, and we know we’ll never again see its like. We feel a quiet sorrow at that, and mourn its passing, but know there’s nothing for it. We find, however, we can be granted a meaningful measure of solace and pleasure by a well-told saga of its days of glory, which is the Holmes-Watson canon. And that, I think, is the secret of the power of these stories, and an at least partial explanation for why a literary elitist such as myself senses something magic about them, and can find himself hooked by that magic. And, for me, that lifts them above, and makes them different from, all other members of their genre in my experience.

As I said, thoroughly inadequate, but the best I can muster.

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