David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

Holmes: A Study in Scarlet

Goddamn it, __marcelo! It's your fault.

So I’m reading Sherlock Holmes again. It’s been a good few years since I read the Holmes stories, and I know a lot more about storytelling now, and about fandom, than I did back then. As a kid, I loved Holmes; as an adult, who occasionally scribbles stuff, I’m even more impressed.

Some comments on “A Study in Scarlet” in a minute, but first: Livia’s comments about what a weird, cracktastic Peter Wimsey LJ fandom would be like got me thinking about what LJ fandom would have been like for a whole bunch of properties that never got to experience it. (I wound up writing a post on that, then thinking better of it, because one of those properties was something we all should be really, really grateful never got a cracktastic LJ fandom, and mentioning it in public would a) offend a lot of people and b) put me on the path straight to hell.) Holmes got me thinking about it over again.

It would have been a weird LJ fandom. “A Study in Scarlet” appeared in 1887. It was a hit, but Conan Doyle was busy, and interested in other stuff – when he eventually (temporarily) killed Holmes off, it was so he could spend more time writing historical novels – so “The Sign of the Four” didn’t come out until 1890. After “The Sign of the Four,” Watson gets married and moves out of 221B Baker Street. The short stories in the Strand, which is where we always think of Holmes appearing, don’t start until 1891, and they run with Watson married and Holmes able to afford 221B on his own. So there’s a gap of three years after the first novel (and you think Harry Potter fans were starved for canon?), then another novel that changes the set-up of the series a bit (“what? Watson got MARRIED? oh noes! Holmes/Watson OTP!!!”), then a couple years of canon, then in 1893 Holmes DIES WTF, then in 1901 we get a flashback with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (OMG SO GOOD plz more!) then in 1903 Holmes comes back to life and the fans are OMG YAY. In the story in which Holmes returns (“The Adventure of the Empty House”) it turns out that Mary has died (literally, the only mention of her is the fact that she’s dead) and Watson moves in with Holmes again. You can *tell* Doyle did that to shut his readers up.

Modern fannish tropes didn’t exist at the time, but it would’ve been interesting to see the female-dominated fanfic culture go through Holmes. (Historically, Sherlockians have been overwhelmingly male -- though Dorothy L. Sayers counted herself among their number -- and their studies have tended more to the minute analysis of canon than the creation of participatory culture; though Holmes fanfic and pastiches certainly did exist, they were invariably parodies or case fic. Nothing like the stuff we see in fanfic today.)

Fanfic tends to be produced according to particular stages in continuity. In Batman fandom, for example, you could write a story with Dick, Jason, Tim, or Steph as Robin; each of those periods has a different set of characters, and of opportunities, for storytelling. If Holmes had had an active LJ fandom in the day, my bet is that most stories would have concentrated on the early canon. The stuff we never actually got to see, because Doyle married off Watson quickly, stories set (like “Baskervilles”) between “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of the Four.”. More time for slash; no annoying marriage in the way. Even in the gen, that’s how you picture Holmes and Watson: roommates and partners.

Anyway, here are the things that fans seem to do when establishing participatory aspects of a fan culture. At least, these are the things I do – as Holmes says, "from long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however."

  • look for inter-character dynamics and character traits that can be employed in characterization or used as story fodder.

    The Holmes/Watson dynamic is what sells the fandom, IMHO. It’s not just Holmes’s brilliance, but the way he interacts with Watson, who works to humanize him.

  • Identify potential reoccurring and supporting characters.

    This is a cottage industry in fanfic, which specializes in using underused characters. Holmes actually has a lot of great characters who recurred only sporadically (Gregson and Lestrade, the Irregulars), and characters who barely appeared (Watson’s school chums Stamford and Whitney.)

  • Identify potential narrative hooks.

    i.e., things mentioned but not developed by canon that could be expanded by the fandom into stories. Example: Watson’s life was saved in Afghanistan by his orderly Murray, who bundled him on a horse and got him to safety. This character is never mentioned again. You’d expect him to turn up and make life interesting for Holmes and Watson at some point, wouldn’t you?

  • Identify things that might become fanon.

    Subset of narrative hook; it might not be a story, but it’s good for a running gag or an idea that informs other stories.

To these, I’ll add my standard story generator: Identify things that characters have in common, particularly characters who don’t appear together, and explore that by putting them together in an appropriate situation. And the Holmes canon is chock full of underused characters who don’t get development or have scenes together. Even in fanfic! For example, I’m amazed that, as far as I can tell, there’s no Holmes fic in which Watson gets in trouble and Holmes and Watson's wife Mary must work together to save him. To me, Holmes-reluctantly-gets-to-know-Mary fic is screamingly obvious.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. From my experience in fandom, fanfic usually arises because there’s a fascination for the dynamic between two characters. And oh, man, do Holmes and Watson fit the bill. They’re really terrific as a team, and reading them with a writerly eye made me realize a few things that escaped me.

“A Study in Scarlet” opens with Watson fresh back from Afghanistan, where he was wounded at the Battle of Maiwand. He made it back to Peshawar, began to recover, and then caught enteric fever and nearly died. So he’s invalided out with a disability pension. Before long, though, he realizes he’s running out of money, so he looks for a roommate. An old schoolmate, Stamford, whom Watson meets by chance, mentions that he knows a fellow who’s looking for a roommate.

"I should like to meet him," I said. "If I am to lodge with anyone, I should prefer a man of studious and quiet habits. I am not strong enough yet to stand much noise or excitement. I had enough of both in Afghanistan to last me for the remainder of my natural existence."

Oh, Watson. If you only knew.

Stamford takes Watson to meet Holmes at the laboratory:

This was a lofty chamber, lined and littered with countless bottles. Broad, low tables were scattered about, which bristled with retorts, test-tubes, and little Bunsen lamps,
with their blue flickering flames. There was only one student in the room, who was bending over a distant table absorbed in his work. At the sound of our steps he glanced round and sprang to his feet with a cry of pleasure. "I've found it! I've found it," he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. "I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by haemoglobin, and by nothing else." Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features.

"Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said Stamford, introducing us.

"How are you?" he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

Is that a great introduction for Holmes, or what?

Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. "I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street," he said, "which would suit us down to the ground. You don't mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?"

"I always smoke `ship's' myself," I answered.

"That's good enough. I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?"

"By no means."

"Let me see -- what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don't open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I'll soon be right. What have you to confess now? It's just as well for two fellows to know the worst of one another before they begin to live together."

I laughed at this cross-examination. "I keep a bull pup," I said, "and I object to rows because my nerves are shaken, and I get up at all sorts of ungodly hours, and I am extremely lazy. I have another set of vices when I'm well, but those are the principal ones at present."

You like the guys already, don’t you? And not just because all the slashers in the audience perked up at Watson’s comment that “I have another set of vices when I’m well.”

Holmes and Watson seemed younger than I remembered. Because they are. At the time of “A Study in Scarlet,” they’re in their mid-to-to late twenties, or very early thirties at the absolute most. (The story is set in 1881; Watson completed medical training and entered Army service in 1878, and his fanon birth year is 1852. Holmes fandom, just so you know, *invented* fanon.) While we tend to picture Watson stout, he’s actually quite thin and easily tired, due to his illness, so he sleeps in a lot. Holmes is a university student who works in a hospital laboratory and pursues independent coursework in anatomy and chemistry. So you’ve got a sick war veteran and an eccentric consulting-detective trying to make a name for himself, both of them young men, rather than the middle-aged men I’ve always pictured in the roles. I’m often annoyed by studios casting young and pretty, but that might actually work here, and would certainly result in a different Holmes and Watson than we’ve seen before. (Reading Holmes’s dialog, I keep seeing David Tennant. He doesn’t look anything like Holmes, but the voice is surprisingly plausible.)

And the banter. Good grief, the banter. Watson and Holmes banter a lot. And it’s terrific, especially as the characters come to know each other. I’m reading around haphazardly now, and so far my favorite is in the opening scene of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” which I’ll post about in a bit. (Gregson and Lestrade also bicker in “A Study in Scarlet,” which is cute, but they don’t appear together too often.) Banter always suckers fans, and the Holmes-Watson dynamic has suckered people into writing pastiches for over a century.

The best thing about their interaction, though, is the way they work together to overcome their separate character flaws. The first time you really see this is in the scene where Holmes receives a message inviting him to the scene of the eponymous murder. Holmes initially is reluctant to go, because Gregson and Lestrade will just take the credit, and the murder can’t be that interesting anyway. This sets the stage for a terrific reversal: Watson, who’s been lazing about on his disability pension, sleeping in every morning, not going out much –- and Doyle details all this in the early part of the story, and uses it to build the characters of his principals, because the only thing the shut-in Watson does, pretty much, is study Holmes -- Watson becomes the one who stands up and prods Holmes into action to go solve the mystery.

"Surely there is not a moment to be lost," I cried, "shall I go and order you a cab?"

"I'm not sure about whether I shall go. I am the most incurably lazy devil that ever stood in shoe leather -- that is, when the fit is on me, for I can be spry enough at times."

"Why, it is just such a chance as you have been longing for."

"My dear fellow, what does it matter to me. Supposing I unravel the whole matter, you may be sure that Gregson, Lestrade, and Co. will pocket all the credit. That comes of being an unofficial personage."

"But he begs you to help him."

"Yes. He knows that I am his superior, and acknowledges it to me; but he would cut his tongue out before he would own it to any third person. However, we may as well go and have a look. I shall work it out on my own hook. I may have a laugh at them if I have nothing else. Come on!"

He hustled on his overcoat, and bustled about in a way that showed that an energetic fit had superseded the apathetic one.

"Get your hat," he said.

To me, as a writer, that’s terrific. Doyle has Watson rise out of the rut he’s been in, not because Holmes pulls him, but because *he has to get out of it to push Holmes.* It makes Watson change from a passive character into an active one, and I didn’t realize how well it was done before. And then, of course, Holmes invites him to come along, and the partnership is formed.

I’d forgotten how witty the stories are. Here’s a bit describing the newspapers’ take on the murder case in “A Study in Scarlet:”

The _Daily Telegraph_ remarked that . . . [t]he German name of the victim, the absence of all other motive, and the sinister inscription on the wall, all pointed to its perpetration by political refugees and revolutionists. … the article concluded by admonishing the Government and advocating a closer watch over foreigners in England.

The _Standard_ commented upon the fact that lawless outrages of the sort usually occurred under a Liberal Administration. They arose from the unsettling of the minds of the masses, and the consequent weakening of all authority….

The _Daily News_ observed that there was no doubt as to the crime being a political one. The despotism and hatred of Liberalism which animated the Continental Governments had had the effect of driving to our shores a number of men who might have made excellent citizens were they not soured by the recollection of all that they had undergone.

Go on, tell me that’s not fall-down funny. Some things don’t change much in a hundred and twenty years, do they?

And Holmes is full of snark:

"Gregson is the smartest of the Scotland Yarders," my friend remarked; "he and Lestrade are the pick of a bad lot. They are both quick and energetic, but conventional – shockingly so. They have their knives into one another, too. They are as jealous as a pair of professional beauties. There will be some fun over this case if they are both put upon the scent."

I mean, full of snark. This is when they meet Gregson, right after Holmes bitches about the exterior of the crime scene being disturbed and Gregson offers the excuse that they’ve had a lot to do:

Holmes glanced at me and raised his eyebrows sardonically. "With two such men as yourself and Lestrade upon the ground, there will not be much for a third party to find out," he said.

Dude, that’s *cold.* And Gregson is so oblivious that he takes it as a compliment.

Watson is also quite an interesting character. He is very far from a buffoon. In the early part of the story, when he’s trying to figure out what exactly Holmes is trying to do with his life, he doesn’t pry.

He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him. I enumerated in my own mind all the various points upon which he had shown me that he was exceptionally well-informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down.

This leads to Watson’s famous list: “Sherlock Holmes – his limits.” We tend to remember that Watson’s list is incorrect (he lists Holmes’s knowledge of literature as “Nil,” when Holmes actually enjoys antiquarian books and drops literary quotes, including Goethe, on occasion), but I was struck by the fact that Watson’s methodology was really very smart. He’s not a dumb man, our Dr. Watson – he listed the symptoms he observed, then tried to diagnose the condition. It’s not his fault that Sherlock Holmes was well outside his professional experience.

Another character bit I liked: although Watson doesn’t dwell on it, it’s clear that his military experience and near death have affected him deeply. He tries to rest while Holmes goes out to a concert, and instead finds himself dwelling on the murder and unable to sleep.

He was very late in returning -- so late, that I knew that the concert could not have detained him all the time. Dinner was on the table before he appeared.

"It was magnificent," he said, as he took his seat. "Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood."

"That's rather a broad idea," I remarked.

"One's ideas must be as broad as Nature if they are to interpret Nature," he answered. "What's the matter? You're not looking quite yourself. This Brixton Road affair has upset you."

"To tell the truth, it has," I said. "I ought to be more case-hardened after my Afghan experiences. I saw my own comrades hacked to pieces at Maiwand without losing my nerve."

"I can understand. There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination there is no horror. Have you seen the evening paper?"

Admit it: you just went *awwwww.* Watson is unsettled; Holmes notices, says something gently supportive, and then goes on with business as usual. That’s a really nice, human moment. I like it a lot. Holmes has to humanize himself for a moment for Watson’s sake. In a Holmesian way.

The murder in “A Study in Scarlet” is probably the least interesting part of the story. It’s not that exciting as a crime, or a death scene, and the backstory abandons our main characters to deliver a flashback combined with an anti-Mormon screed. (Annoyingly, the backstory is detailed by one character, but begins well before he arrives on the scene.) But it’s a decent introduction to the characters, and to the dynamic that would make Holmes and Watson a winning combination.

(And one day Tim Drake drops in, because he got ripped out of his universe by accident and got installed in one where Higher Powers felt he’d sort of fit in. Plus, Cass and Holmes practice baritsu. Damn it, Marcelo!)
Tags: books, holmes, meta, reviews, writing

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  • Newtown: a tactical assessment

    I'm going to talk about the Newtown, Connecticut murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in two posts. This is the first one. In this one, I'll talk…

  • belated Aurora post

    At the midnight premiere of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES in Aurora, Colorado, a theater patron exited the theater through the emergency door and went to his…

  • female athletic poses

    I've thought for a while that scanty female clothing in comics isn't nearly as much of a problem as the porntastic posing. There are male superheroes…