The Five ‘But’s of Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic series Sherlock Holmes was a literary revolution back in its Victorian days because it was the first to successfully introduced a scientific approach to crime. Now inspires a plethora of modern remakes in film. It’s popular–is and was–without a doubt. But….

There’s no shame in not boarding the band wagon. There are reasons to not like the original Sherlock Holmes, just like we can’t all like vanilla ice cream and dislike asparagus.

I borrowed a friend’s Sherlock Holmes collection–she read it in three weeks, and my challenge is to read it in less. Turned out that the challenge wasn’t so much to read 619 pages of the Treasury edition, but…to suffer through formulaic monotony and various other traits that made me pine for Wuthering Heights. (Another blog post perhaps, but it was my first one star on GoodReads.)

holmes

Considering the vast popularity of the Sherlock Holmes series and its lead character, let’s address how someone could grow weary of the original series:

  1. Almost all dialogue. Maybe I’m a big fan of the “show, don’t tell” strategy to writing, or I’m a bit of a misanthrope who wants to tell the characters to get over themselves, but I find having almost every sentence within quotation marks exhausting. Roughly half of the short stories have three characters (Holmes, Watson, and a client) standing or sitting in a room, the client rattling the backstory.  Frequently there are quotes within quotes. Sometimes the plot revolves around an almost petty issue so the dialogue sounds like gossip or someone who lacks the spine to resolve their own issues. Instead, little things go unchecked and spiral out of control. I never cared for soap opera.
  2. Too convenient. The other half of the stories have Holmes explaining step by step the solution to the problem with a deus ex machina quality, like the stars aligned just so that Holmes has everything he needs to promptly reach the right conclusion. Forgo any outliers or natural element of randomness. No one reads this for immersion. Granted, page for page, most of Sherlock Holmes are serialized short stories, so I can’t hold this part against the plot too much.
  3. Stiff characters and language. While it is amusing to read with a BBC accent, and many people love the English elite culture of the Victorian era, I found it all too stuffy. Impersonal. Tunnel visioned. Everyone other than Holmes is colorless and shown next to him as complete imbeciles. Rarely is there someone who is more than an audience in a room. Outside of the round-about aristocratic dialogue, Doyle’s writing is of no particular artistry or literary value. He wrote in a technical and plain voice. Like a transcript.
  4. Formulaic monotony. This is something many mysteries are guilty–even praised–for, so this point may apply to why some people don’t like reading or watching many mysteries. The pace of each story is the same. The plot devices are often the same. What varies are names, professions, the murder weapon…just things. Ordinary, sensory things. Things that don’t transcend the paper it’s written on. Maybe one day I’ll come back here and know how to describe it better. But…it does lead me to 5.
  5. Lack of depth. Intellectually, I need more depth: more over arching concepts, more character development (was there any character development?), more layers. Sherlock’s mannerisms were interesting the first 50 pages but redundant the rest.

 

I had to look up what the literary value of the stories were because I couldn’t deduce them myself. Sherlock was popular because Doyle was the first to write a successful mystery novel using a scientific approach. Others, including Edgar Allen Poe, published early but didn’t rise to main stream success.

 

It’s one of those things where if you’re impressed with the main novelty of the story–in this case, Sherlock’s power of deduction–you’ll love the story. Just spend some time on a news channel or Facebook and you’ll notice that one dimensional novelties go viral. They can be fun and interesting, and (or “but?”) brief in passing. However, I suppose depending on one’s personality and interests, what is sensational to a majority can be gimmicky to a minority.

Analyzing aside, as I read I just wanted to get out of the city, get away from melodramatic clients, and take to the rest of the world. Or perhaps just read a Verne adventure. Or plunge into the depths of the human psyche and the universe with Carl Sagan.

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