BAKER STREET STUDIES reviewed by David Leslie Murray




The Times Literary Supplement (July 26, 1934, Issue 1695 p. 523)

BAKER STREET STUDIES. Edited by H. W. BELL (Constable. 7s. 6d. net.)

It proved, as we know, impossible to kill Sherlock Holmes, even with the aid of a precipice, a waterfall, a super-crook and that dear old ass Watson. Now it appears equally impossible to silence his Alexandrian commentators—not that we (as yet) feel positively murderous; but that after so much has been written by Mr. H. W. Bell, Mr. Thomas S. Blakeney, Mr. S. C. Roberts, and Mr. Vincent Starrett, whose private life of Sherlock Holmes we reviewed as lately as June 28 last, the joke may really be thought to be weary a little thin, even when in addition to Mr. Bell, Mr. Roberts, and Mr. Starrett (who now gives us the first biography of Holmes’s landlady) we are able to announce “The Return” of Miss Dorothy L. Sayers, Mr. Vernon Rendall, and (best of all) Father Ronald Knox, besides contributions from other authors of note.
However, to enter once more (and it would be amiss if it were the last time for a bit that we were called upon to do so) into the spirit of the game, we may remark, to begin with, that the contributors to this volume adopt an almost wholly uncritical attitude towards the text. Except for questioning a date or a name here and there they accept the Murray Revised Version in two volumes as apparently a canon not to be questioned. This is odd when we remember that Father Knox, whose right to be considered the founder of the science of Sherlockholmitos has not so far been successfully contested, opened the whole investigation with some very pregnant “historic doubts” concerning the authenticity of the volume called “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.” Since then the public has been invited to believe that “His Last Bow” and “The Casebook” are in bulk genuine stories of Sherlock Holmes! We cannot help observing that this refusal to discuss the texts lands the commentators of the present volume in insuperable difficulties. For instance, Mr. A. G. Macdonnell approaches the perennial problem of the great Moriarty myth from the point of view that it must be possible somehow to reconcile “The Valley of Fear” (which we have argued to be the work of the same Americanizing apocryphist who inserted the Mormon episode into “A Study in Scarlet”) with “The Final Problem.” It is impossible to make the statements about Moriarty in these two documents cohere by any manipulation of dates; and so Mr. Macdonnell is driven to the desperate device of supposing that Holmes invented the whole tale of Moriarty’s great criminal organization to cover up his own failures.  We find more reason in the commentator who asserted that Holmes and Moriarty were one and the same individual—for there is a strongly criminal taint in Sherlock Holmes as tradition presents him to us. We cannot agree with Mr. Vernon Rendall when in his delightfully written essay on “The Limitations of Sherlock Holmes” he declares that “Holmes was never on the wrong side.” What! Not when he robbed Irene Adler in the pay of the debauched King of Bohemia; not when he ran a faked racehorse (“Silver Blaze”); not when he blackmailed the Duke of Holdernesse for £6,000 (“The Priory School”); not when he released so many villains upon the public, in the exercise of his discretion of his whim? Father Knox seems to be coming near the dreadful truth when he shows here by a brilliant analysis of Mycroft Holmes’s conduct in the affair of “The Greek Interpreter” and in “The Final Problem” that Holmes’s brother was undoubtedly a crook. And Mycroft was Sherlock’s partner.
Noscitur a sociis—is it really possible that Sherlock Holmes led a double life as detective and criminal? This fearful question brings us back to the problem, primarily textual, were there one or two Sherlock Holmes’s? A good angle of approach to this puzzle is offered by Miss Helen Simpson’s very able and well informed attempt to make a plain tale of Dr. John Watson’s medical career. It is, to be frank, not a possible medical career; and if we read with this distinguished essay Mr. Bell’s note on “Dr. Watson’s Wound” we shall find it harder than ever to believe that the gunman (“Jim Watson”) with the limping leg who accompanied Sherlock Holmes on so many equivocal nocturnal expeditions can have been the Dr. John Watson who was wounded in the shoulder at Maiwand, and whose fragmentary Reminiscences (the Ur-Watson), lying at the basis of “A Study in Scarlet,” are really our only authentic contemporary source for the life of Holmes the detective.
Here Miss Dorothy Sayers, with her indefatigable zest in research, is a real help. For she, in the quest of “Holmes’s College Career,” has been digging the records of Cambridge University, and has—it seems quite possible—disinterred the real Sherlock Holmes. In the year 1874 a Sidney Sussex man, named Thomas Scott Holmes, obtained, it appears, a First Class in the Natural Sciences Tripos. (It is a mere coincidence that the first problem with which the detective Holmes ever dealt has come down to us under the title “The Gloria Scott”?) It seems to us quite possible that this Mr. Scott Holmes is identical with the clean-living athletic, scientifically-minded detective, refusing all knowledge unconnected with his job, whom we meet in “A Study in Scarlet” and who really cannot be the same as the languid dope friend and gourmet with a score of dilettante interests from old charters to ancient music whom we encounter in “The Sign of Four” and subsequent studies. The problem of “The Two Holmes’s” seems to us now the pressing one—there need be no hurry in publishing solutions.

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