The Adventure of the Vacuumed Cat

Yeah, I’ve got Real Life Crit Group on Sunday, and a story I need to finish before then so I can, you know, get it critted. I’m up to the climactic scene, I’m kind of stuck for a detail. Normally I get those details by reading huge amounts of nonfiction, and then adding in showers or naps. So I ought to be using arcane methods of divination to figure out what nonfiction I need to read. Instead, of course, I’m writing a blog post.

I was, as I just mentioned yesterday, a victim of the Arthurian Virus. Around the same time, I also contracted a Sherlockian infection. It was mild compared to the Arthurian thing, but it left a lasting impression.

Before I recovered, I had ingested not only the entire Sherlockian Canon, but also The White Company and a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. It wasn’t nearly as hard-hitting as Arthur was–I was left able to appreciate most of the pastiches that occasionally hit the market (Carol Nelson Douglas FTW, IMO), but never amassed a collection or spent time tracking down related historical information. And I have to admit, besides the fake notes customarily tacked onto the front of pastiches about finding boxes of papers signed by Dr Watson, I have a decided aversion to The Game.

This desperately needs a cut. Don’t click unless you want to read nearly three thousand words of me blathering about Sherlock Holmes.

Anyway. Reading Sherlock Holmes from a modern perspective is…interesting. I enjoyed the original stories very much–but they’re so very Victorian. Even as a high schooler, the attitude towards women made me wince. And that’s even though, from all I can tell, those attitudes were in some ways strikingly progressive for their time. I love the fact that one of the few people to defeat Holmes was a woman–a woman whose intelligence he underestimated. But I wince every time I read the line about how…well, here:

When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. In the case of the Darlington Substitution Scandal it was of use to me, and also in the Arnsworth Castle business. A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box.

It’s hard to read that without wincing a bit. Doyle grew up surrounded by intelligent and formidable women, and it shows. But the prejudices of his time also show. Doyle himself thought the idea of women voting was absurd.

And then there’s the racism.

At the sound of his strident, angry cries there was movement in the huddled bundle upon the deck. It straightened itself into a little black man—the smallest I have ever seen—with a great, misshapen head and a shock of tangled, dishevelled hair. Holmes had already drawn his revolver, and I whipped out mine at the sight of this savage, distorted creature. He was wrapped in some sort of dark ulster or blanket, which left only his face exposed; but that face was enough to give a man a sleepless night. Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty. His small eyes glowed and burned with a sombre light, and his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with a half animal fury.

That’s The Sign of the Four. Of course, once again, Doyle could also be fairly progressive for his time. In “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” a white American woman married a Black man, who died, and she has hidden her child, lest her new husband find out and abandon her because her child is Black. The passage, where Holmes discovers this and the woman confesses, is today a trifle cringe-worthy, but having confessed:

“…and I ask you what is to become of us, my child and me?” She clasped her hands and waited for an answer.

It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door.

“We can talk it over more comfortably at home,” said he. “I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.”

I can think of writers who’d have played out that scene very differently–indeed, the entire scenario would have been set up along very different lines, given another suitably disposed author. Doyle is due some criticism, but also a few cookies. Like anyone, he was a product of the time and place he lived. (Important note–this does not exempt him from criticism.)

So, why do I read and enjoy Doyle–and Dickens and Carnacki the Ghost Finder, and so on, why do I enjoy those, and wince at the sexism and the racism but still say, “Well, there’s good there too,” but when I read Steampunk, I don’t make those allowances as easily? I haven’t totally worked out the answer–but what I’ve come up with so far is that I can look at the time and place Doyle was writing and say, “Yeah, well.” I read someone writing today and I think “Why don’t they know better?”

Which brings me to Sherlock.

I watched the first episode on PBS just, what, two weeks ago? And I said to myself, “Self, this is freaking awesome.” Watson’s psychosomatic limp–I giggled aloud. “Afghanistan or Iraq?” The whole deduction from Watson’s cell phone thing. Rachel–ha ha! All the nods to the originals (that I caught–like I said, I’m a fairly half-assed Sherlockian).

And that cipher, Dr. Watson? Who in Doyle isn’t much more than a framing device with a name? Was now a much more interesting character in his own right. It’s the first time one of the modern pastiches/adaptations actually made me interested in Watson. Lestrade–Lestrade is fantastic. He’s not just there to be not-quite-smart-enough alongside Holmes’ brilliance, he’s an actual character. And the obvious ways things had to change, to move Holmes up to the twenty-first century. Cell phones! “Not your housekeeper, Dear!” I was really enjoying that. All right, the moment of slut-shaming made me wince, but the rest? Was awesome.

I was annoyed that I’d have to wait a whole week for the next one, and it would be airing during trick-or-treating and I’d have to watch it on the website the next day. Except, while I was wandering around the internet I kind of tripped over some files that were just sitting there completely unattended and…*

So I watched the other two.

The second one had its moments–Holmes demanding to know if Watson remembered the graffiti, for instance, was very amusing. But. That opening bit, with Holmes fighting the guy who was supposed to be, I don’t know, an Arab or something? I mean, what? Not seriously?

We’re dealing with Chinese smugglers–who make origami? A Chinese shop that sells Lucky Cats? It’s not just a criminal gang, it’s a cult? It’s…Doyle was a product of his time. Surely a contemporary writer should know better? It really left a bad taste in my mouth.

Pondering this issue (instead of working on my own stories, of course), the best construction I could put on it was that it’s another sort of nod. Doyle didn’t do much research. Well, he did for his historical novel The White Company, which he felt was far superior to his Holmes stories, more Important Work, but he fairly famously didn’t check some of his facts for the Holmes stories, things that were pivotal to Holmes’ solutions. You can’t actually tell from a bike track which direction the bike was going. Snakes don’t have external ears and while they can sense vibrations, the one in “The Speckled Band” probably wouldn’t have heard its owner whistling for it.

He wasn’t even very consistent about internal details. Where did that Jezail bullet hit Watson anyway? What was Watson’s first name, who was the landlady at 221B? During what period was Watson married? These inconsistencies lend interest in The Game, to those who enjoy coming up with elaborate rationalizations, but if you ask me, they exist because Doyle just didn’t care very much about that sort of thing. He only cared about a good, lurid story. The result was, foreign locales get, well, casually treated if Doyle hadn’t ever actually visited them. Same with foreign cultures, and anyone who wasn’t familiarly English. (Which included Americans–he felt, IIRC, that the Revolution had been a mistake on the part of the British, and he looked forward to the happy day when Americans were re-united with the British Empire.)

It’s entirely possible that the second episode meant to nod to this directly, mixing up Chinese and Japanese, exoticizing the foreign villains. The more I think about it, the more certain I am that’s what was intended. But it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth, it doesn’t work so supremely well as the first episode.

I think part of why it didn’t work for me was the fact that “ironic” racism is, to put it mildly, a really difficult thing to pull off. To put it mildly. And then there’s the fact that the first and the third episodes struck me very much as someone having carefully, surgically removed Holmes from its original setting and grafted it seamlessly onto the present, in a way that’s astonishing just because the stitches are so deftly done, it looks like it could have been a whole piece to begin with even though you know it isn’t, even though you can see the stitches. Whereas the second feels to me like it’s constantly elbowing me in the ribs and saying “Look, I cut this patch out of a Victorian antique!” I mean, the elbowing is bad enough, but the bit they cut out is only my least favorite bit of that Victorian antique, the actually problematic part, and the patch job doesn’t seem to recognize that. I couldn’t go, “Yeah, yeah, I love that bit too!” like I did with 1 and 3. Because that was exactly the bit I didn’t love.

Don’t get me wrong, there were good moments. I just really, really hope they rethink the racism bit in the future. To put it mildly.

You’d think that would be all I have to say, but it isn’t! This story I’m working on isn’t going to not-write itself, you know. Okay, well, it is.

So anyway. Then I got to thinking–what is it people love so much about Holmes anyway?

Take Holmes away, and you’ve got some fairly conventional Victorian stories. Some nice Gothic touches, certainly. But very conventional. It’s not just Doyle’s touch that makes them so popular, because Doyle wrote other stuff, work he thought was much better than his Holmes stories, and while most of us more or less know of the existence of, say The Lost World, how many of us have read Micah Clarke or The White Company? We think of Doyle, we think of Holmes.

It’s Holmes we’re interested in. Watson’s just the frame for Holmes’ picture, Lestrade, Gregson–they’re only there to contrast with Holmes’ genius, his justified arrogance thrown in relief against their self-deluding confidence. The stories are fairly conventional, if lurid. What we love is Holmes’ flights of deduction. It’s like a magic trick. Show him your pocket watch and he’ll tell you all about your dead, drunk brother. Show him a hat, and he’ll tell you its owner’s wife no longer loves him. But like a magic trick, there’s a logical explanation, a chain of reasoning behind it, and the recitation of that chain of reasoning is itself entertaining, one of the things we love about Sherlock Holmes.

The stories present Holmes as supremely rational. His arrogance is not sociopathy–Sherlock‘s Holmes calls himself a “high-functioning sociopath”** but I don’t think Doyle’s is, by any stretch of the imagination. No, Doyle’s Holmes is supremely rational, arrogant because he knows he’s smarter than anyone around him. Really, he’s kind of a jerk, but he’s a really really smart jerk, and he uses his powers on the side of justice and Victorian morality, so that’s all right, then.

Put that way, I’m not sure why I like Holmes so much, but I do.

It’s that “supremely rational” I’ve been pondering. Here’s Doyle’s Holmes:

From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it.

“The writer,” if you haven’t already read A Study in Scarlet, is Holmes himself.

Here’s the thing–from a drop of water, you might infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara–maybe. If you knew enough about water. If you knew there was enough water in the world to produce either or both. Certainly if you were intimately familiar with only the Atlantic, a sample of Nile water wouldn’t really allow you to infer much about the Nile beyond what you generally might know about water. You could figure out some things, but you couldn’t go from there to crocodiles and Egypt. That idea–that from one drop of water, from one small sample of information, one can infer the existence of essentially everything else in the universe, isn’t really true. Holmes isn’t relentlessly logical, not really. If he were relentlessly logical he’d never have underestimated Irene Adler, for one thing. No, what he is, is hyper-aware of the details and associations of the social and physical context he lives in.*** Hop into your cross-universe time machine and ask Holmes to deduce your occupation from your appearance, and how far do you think he’d get?

I wonder if part of Holmes’ popularity at the time Doyle was writing didn’t involve a sort of unstated assumption that the society they (we!) lived in was merely a logical outcome of the nature of the universe itself. And now, of course, we still perhaps enjoy that assumption, and still love the magic trick, and there’s something attractive about the arrogant genius who uses his powers for Good. I’m not sure just what it is that’s attractive about it, but it’s there.

Well, I’ve wasted plenty of time. Vacuumed that cat utterly dustless, wouldn’t you say? I think I’d better get myself another cup of tea and actually apply my brain to my actual work.


*Don’t fret, I’ve ordered the DVD.

**Incidentally, rather like the originals, there are some odd holes in Sherlock. Both “psychopath” and “sociopath” are terms that have very fuzzy meanings, both in ordinary conversation and in psychology. Meanings have shifted, legal definitions don’t necessarily match current theories, and as a result splitting hairs about whether this Sherlock is one or the other strikes me as kind of silly and meaningless. It was an amusing line, nonetheless.

***Which is exactly why he underestimated Irene Adler. And why we wince when Holmes declares of the large-hatted man whose wife no longer loves him because she hasn’t cleaned his hat in weeks (because a loving wife is a good maid!) that he must be an intellectual because his head is so big. Phrenology FTW!

****And here’s another of Doyle’s odd holes–in order for Holmes to function, he needs as much miscellaneous information as possible. No detail should be too small or too irrelevant. And yet, in The Sign of the Four (and again in Sherlock, updated a bit) he tells Watson that he only has room for important information, that politics and art and society gossip and astronomy are useless to him. They’re not, of course–politics and art and society gossip are all overtly useful to him. And while astronomy never is in Doyle’s stories (that I recall), it’s trivial to construct situations in which it would be. As demonstrated already, yes, but I bet you could come up with more with five minutes’ thinking.