My first entry of the year in the ‘I can’t believe I haven’t read this yet’ column. I’m usually fairly adamant about reading source material before seeing adaptations of it, but with Sherlock Holmes, the many adaptations are so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to avoid. Holmes and Watson have been on my screen in many forms since I was a child, through to the modern sensation that is Benadryl Cabbagepatch’s take on Sherlock on the BBC, so it’s going to be impossible to talk about my experience of this book without taking into account how that experience has been shaped by films and TV.
One of the first surprises for me was that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes is really charming. It seems to be popular to go with a much more abrasive and socially dysfunctional take on the character in modern adaptations. Bumblebee Crimpysnitch’s Sherlock, and Hugh Laurie’s House (a thinly disguised Holmes), have probably cemented this version of the character in many viewers’ minds, but less contemporary and famous iterations of the character have been pretty rough around the edges as well. I can see the seeds of that personality in the original stories, where Holmes certainly has his snippier moments, but for the most part his social graces are fine, and he can be quite deeply tender. I really like this charming and erudite Holmes, and although I enjoy the BBC show, I find myself wanting to peek into the alternate reality where Bumberstump Crispycream gets to play the gracious original flavour Sherlock.
The other surprise is that the relationship between Holmes and Watson really isn’t all that turbulent. There’s a simple brotherly love here that waxes and wanes as they are separated and brought back together by life events, but never fades, and the occasions they have to be mildly put out at each other (well, usually Watson being mildly put out at Holmes) never seem to erode the easy trust they place in one another. It’s a fine bromance, and honestly, I kind of prefer it to the angst that many adaptations have felt the need to inject.
I thought that reading this many similarly-formatted stories back to back might reduce my enjoyment due to the repetitiveness, but that ended up not being an issue at all. Some of the mysteries are clever, and some are obvious, but few of them are the primary focus of my enjoyment; instead, it’s Doyle’s incredible way with characterisation that made this such a page-turner. Some of my favourite stories were the ones where he wandered entirely off course into an extended interlude on the backgrounds of characters we’d never see again, such as the family that saw the founding of Salt Lake City or the Pinkerton who went undercover in a corrupted Masonic lodge.
While I preferred the original Holmes and Watson to many of their cinematic and literary successors, I was a little disappointed to find that many of the secondary characters who seem so iconic are actually little more than footnotes in the original tales, such as Moriarty, Mycroft, and Irene Adler. Moriarty in particular has developed a legend way beyond anything justified in the book, where he is only even mentioned a couple of times outside of the Reichenbach Falls. It’s hardly the fault of the author that the people who have added to his canvas have left me wanting more from the original work, but nonetheless, I do.
Towards the end, there is a dip in the quality of the tales — after the Hound of the Baskervilles, worth every second of its fame, nothing is quite as compelling because Sherlock seems to become an increasingly erratic character, as though Doyle lost touch with his voice. I closed the book feeling like it was a good time for it to be over before it overstayed its welcome. It will be a while before I can turn to any of the other authors who have continued in his footsteps and furthered Holmes’s story, though, because that voice, while he had it, was inimitable.