Posner Reviews Annotated Sherlock Holmes

CSI: Baker Street
Richard A. Posner
The New Republic
October 11, 2004

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories
By Arthur Conan Doyle
Edited by Leslie S. Klinger
(W. W. Norton, 1,300 pp., $75)

Edmund Wilson once said that "the reading of detective stories is simply a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between smoking and crossword puzzles." His dictum has been much on my mind in reading The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. The two volumes of this massive work collect in more than one thousand pages all the Sherlock Holmes stories; and a third volume, to be published next year, will contain the four novels. This curious publishing enterprise has been my introduction to a strange phenomenon with which I had previously been unacquainted: the cult of Sherlock Holmes. I read a number of the Holmes stories (plus The Hound of the Baskervilles) when I was a young teen, and while I remember enjoying them I have never been minded to read them again, though I have since read numerous detective and adventure stories by such avatars of Conan Doyle as Agatha Christie and John Buchan. I was unaware that the methods of detection ascribed to Sherlock Holmes might be thought in some quarters a model for forensic reasoning.

The pages in the new annotated Holmes (remarkably, it has two predecessors) are double-columned. The inner column contains Doyle's text; the outer, in smaller print, the notes, which would be footnotes if they were printed below rather than beside the text. The side-byside format makes the text almost unreadable. At a guess, the notes are at least a quarter of the length of Doyle's text. It is therefore astonishing that the editor should state: "This is not a work for the serious student of Arthur Conan Doyle." But he is not being modest. The notes, apart from ones that merely record differences between different editions of the same story, are of two kinds. One (the more numerous) explains things that readers who know nothing about England, particularly Victorian England, might stumble over, such as the difference between a hansom and a landau or what the "Blue Ribbon Army" was (a temperance organization). These notes are well done, but there are too many of them. A reader who doesn't know what "mews," "Harris tweed," or "solicitor" means is not going to get very far in Sherlock Holmes; and there is no possible need for notes explaining what a Stradivarius is and who Paganini was.

The other kind of note presents conjectures, often fantastic, that proceed from the assumption that Holmes and Watson were real people, Watson being the Boswellian author of the stories and Doyle merely his literary agent. These notes speculate in sometimes tedious, sometimes hilarious detail about biographical data omitted from the stories, such as when Holmes was born, when (and whether) he died, whether he had a sex life, and what model of revolver Watson carries, the last being the subject of an entire appendix. Theories are spun to dispel the many inconsistencies among the stories, in the manner of a real biographer confronted by conflicting accounts of the person whose life he is writing. Actually, the inconsistencies among the Holmes stories are sometimes artistic liberties (as when, having killed Holmes off, Doyle decided to resurrect him and tried to give a plausible account of why Holmes had disappeared for the last three years if he had not been killed by Professor Moriarty after all), but more often they are simply mistakes. Thus a note to "The Speckled Band" points out that the railroad timetables of the day reveal that Holmes's client could not have arrived at Baker Street as early as she did from her home near Leatherhead. The note speculates that Watson (the nominal author of the Holmes stories, remember) changed the location of her home to protect her privacy but neglected to change the train times to conform.

The speculations reach a dizzying crescendo in regard to "The Final Problem," the story in which Holmes and Moriarty plunge to their presumed deaths in the Reichenbach Falls. Suggestions for what really happened include: "Holmes staged the entire affair to obtain a three-year rest-cure for his drug addiction"; "Holmes imagined Moriarty and travelled to the falls bent on suicide"; "Moriarty was invented by Holmes to explain his lack of success in an increasing number of cases; Holmes's ego would not allow him to admit that ordinary criminals had outsmarted him, so he invented a master criminal"; Moriarty eluded Holmes and "subsequently achieved moral rehabilitation and, assuming the name J. Edgar Hoover, pursued a career in law enforcement in the United States."

Omissions in a fictional character's biography can give rise to genuine interpretive puzzles. How many children has Lady Macbeth? The play doesn't say. And this is distinctly odd. If she has no children, why is Macbeth troubled at the thought that Banquo's progeny rather than his own will become kings of Scotland? But if she does have children, none of whom will inherit the throne, why is this fact, which certainly would have preyed on Macbeth given his dynastic ambitions, never mentioned? But the Sherlockians are not interested in literary interpretation; they want a consistent biographical account because they are committed to the pretense that Holmes, and Watson, and (less certainly) Moriarty, and the rest, are real people--including, on the strength of "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire," Count Dracula, for according to one Sherlockian, "Dracula and Moriarty were one and the same person, although Watson was unaware of the fact."

If further examples are needed to demonstrate the wildness of the Sherlockians' speculations, consider the claim that Irene Adler, the retired opera singer who figures in "A Scandal in Bohemia," had been "trained to become the first female rabbi," or that she had a tryst with Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls and "fell into the falls, perhaps committing suicide," or that she and Holmes had an affair that produced a son--the (fictional) detective Nero Wolfe. Needless to say, it has been argued, of course with no evidence, that Holmes and Watson had a homosexual relationship, and also that Holmes was a woman.

Sherlock Holmes is not the first fictional character to give rise to a cult. But the others, such as Falstaff and Leopold Bloom, have tended to be likable, or at least lifelike, figures. Not icy, didactic, condescending, inhumanly self-sufficient, and therefore (the speculations concerning Irene Adler notwithstanding) sexless Sherlock--a social isolate, monologuist, and know-it-all, whose principal pleasure in life besides solving crimes is making a fool of his stooge, Dr. Watson. He treats Watson with no consideration, summoning him from his medical practice or his wife with a snap of the fingers to do drudge work, such as carrying a pistol. (Watson is Holmes's "muscle.") What is worse, Holmes assiduously endeavors to keep the poor man utterly clueless, so that, unable to close the intellectual chasm that yawns between them by even a hair's breadth, he shall remain ever abjectly worshipful of Holmes's genius. Rather than share insights with Watson as an investigation proceeds, so that Watson can play more than a flunky's role, Holmes keeps him in the dark until the very end of each story, when he reveals the solution to his awed companion. Holmes is God, Watson his congregation.

There is method in this from the author's standpoint: if Watson knew where an investigation was leading, this would not only dim Holmes's star but also help the reader to guess the solution to the crime puzzle. Doyle may also have misunderstood the nature of genius, specifically scientific genius; I will come back to that in a moment. My present point is only to register surprise, given Holmes's character, that there are so many Sherlock Holmes groupies and so many books, articles, and web pages dedicated to this absurd obsession.

There is a curious fracture in the Holmes stories. On the one hand, they are early and distinguished examples of the ingeniously plotted detective story--the genre perfected by Agatha Christie--where the point is to baffle the reader by scattering false clues and endowing the villain with fiendish cleverness. On the other hand, they are part of a recognizable Victorian-Edwardian genre of grown-up boys' books, the sort of thing one finds done to perfection in the best novels of H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan. Such books are written for men as well as older boys, but for men who have remained in touch, as it were, with their boyish selves. The heroes are physically strong, fearless and imperturbable, chivalrous, well-born, pure in heart (the young are idealistic), pitted against unmitigated evil (young people tend to see things in black-and-white terms), adept at disguises (which kids love), and homosocial (never homosexual--it's just that, like boys, the heroes of such books bond only with other males). All these are Sherlock Holmes's characteristics as well. His world-class antagonist, Moriarty, is a figure straight out of the boys' books: "He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order. He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them."

Unlike the Holmes stories, the boys' books tend to be set in exotic locales; but the exotic enters the Holmes stories in the form of the victims and the perpetrators of crime who come from abroad or are involved in the affairs of the British Empire, a distinct presence in the stories. The ratio of detection to action is of course higher, but still there is a deep affinity. (One critic has noted perceptively that the relationship between Holmes and Watson is modeled on that between the older and younger boys in English public schools.) This helps to explain the Holmes cult. Holmes is for the immature.

Knowing little about the cult of Sherlock Holmes, and having only a faint recollection of stories read a halfcentury ago, I naively believed that the publication of an annotated edition meant that the forensic methods depicted in the stories might hold some legal or philosophical interest. Sherlock himself is insistent that he owes his success in solving crimes to his scientific and logical methods. Among his other accomplishments, he is a trained chemist who conducts important scientific experiments when he is not investigating crimes. He tells Watson that the key to solving crimes is collecting and analyzing data, and that the difference between Watson and him is that Watson merely sees, but he observes.

Actually Holmes's methods are not scientific or logical, and they bear little resemblance to the methods used to investigate crimes. He employs none of the scientific tools of criminal investigation that were available in his time, unless a magnifying glass is considered a tool of science. A person who was scientific in his approach to solving crimes would have been guided by theories about the motives and the character of criminals, the demographic characteristics of the criminal class, the frequency of different sorts of crime, and the characteristic methods employed by the various types of criminal. Holmes has no such theories. Anyway, they would do him no good: the only crimes he investigates are ones that are sui generis. They are the only ones that can be relied on to baffle a reader of detective stories.

Such crimes can be solved only by the inspired guess. The villain in "The Speckled Band," Dr. Roylott, lived for many years in India, and, having a "passion also for Indian animals, which are sent over to him by a correspondent," had acquired for his English estate a cheetah and a baboon. Now, baboons happen not to be native to India, and this has given the cultists fits trying to explain away what is doubtless a simple error by a busy author. A note tells us that "either Dr. Roylott's `Indian correspondent' was acquiring animals abroad or [another character's] identification of the animals is mistaken." The first suggested explanation is inconsistent with Roylott's passion for Indian animals and the second with the fact that Holmes and Watson see the baboon. Holmes guesses--correctly, of course--that if Roylott obtained two wild animals from India, maybe he obtained a third--a poisonous snake. This is not a logical or scientific demonstration, or even a product of careful observation; it is a shot in the dark.

The stories were written when England was still the world's leading scientific nation. Science had enormous prestige and fascinated the educated public, so Doyle was clever to cast Holmes as a scientific thinker. But really he is a caricature of a scientific thinker. He is cold-blooded, hyper-rational, and a complete loner, and he notices, and records in his memory, everything in his field of perception. These are not the defining characteristics of the real scientist. What defines scientific method is a commitment to confronting hypotheses with objective (that is, observer-independent) data that may falsify them. The detection of crime can be scientific in this sense. The detective may suspect someone, but he must be prepared to abandon the hypothesis of guilt if fingerprint evidence, DNA evidence, the reliable confession of someone else, or other persuasive evidence falsifies the hypothesis. Being unwilling to work with other people because you are too proud to accept assistance or because you despise their intelligence, and having a garbage-pail memory: those are not essential or even common characteristics of successful scientists.

The observational acuity of which Holmes is so proud is epistemic nonsense. Invariably upon first meeting a prospective client, Holmes will recite to an amazed Watson after the person leaves all that he learned about the person from the scuff marks on his shoes, the calluses on his fingers, and so forth; and this is taken as a sign of Holmes's perspicacity. The reductio ad absurdum is Holmes's wowing Watson by "deducing" that the window in Watson's bedroom is on the right side of the room from the fact that the left side of Watson's face is not shaven as smoothly as the right, implying that the sunlight was coming in from the right in the morning when he was shaving. But only if Watson was facing north--and no points of the compass are mentioned--would the window on his right be facing east and thus admitting the morning sunlight. And there's a deeper problem. The sun's position is irrelevant; the window just has to be to the right of the mirror as one faces it for the outside light to hit Watson's right cheek.

In the real world, when you meet a prospective client for the first time, you listen attentively to the client's story rather than study his person for features that almost certainly are irrelevant to the purpose of the encounter. Since we are here in a make-believe world, Holmes's random observations are always pertinent to his investigation except when adduced to demonstrate Holmes's genius, as in the case of Watson's asymmetric shaving. In real life they would be irrelevant, a distraction, a sign of vanity. There are a near-infinite number of data points in our visual and auditory fields, and you cannot take them all in at once, as Holmes claims to do. Holmes conceives of the mind as a tabula rasa, explaining in "The Cardboard Box" that "we approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations." But that is not how the mind works. There is always pre-selection: you notice the things that are relevant to some interest of yours. I have lived in the same house for thirty-five years and I have never noticed how many stairs there are between the basement and the first floor, the first floor and the second floor, and so on. This is not because I am unobservant; it is because I have no use for such knowledge.

The Holmes stories and the Holmes persona seem to me wildly overrated, and this annotated edition an eccentric venture, though no more so than the online worlds of which it is the print counterpart. People are entitled to their harmless obsessions, and one would have to be as humorless as Holmes himself not to smile at the vision of Moriarty morphing into J. Edgar Hoover. The further away in time we get from the Victorian era (most of the best Holmes stories were written in the 1890s), the more appeal the stories have as period pieces. The best of them, such as "The Red-Headed League," "The Speckled Band," "The Naval Treaty," and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," can still be recommended to American teenagers as entertaining introductions to Victorian England. But that's all.

Richard A. Posner is a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School . He is the author of, among other works, Law and Literature (Harvard University Press).

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Richard A. Posner