The New Statesman and Nation (July 21, 1934)
The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. By Vincent Starrett. Nicholson and Watson. 8s. 6d.
“Granted the opportunity, gentlemen—one might cry, in paraphrase of Doctor Bell—of recovering a single day out of the irrecoverable past, how would you choose to spend that sorcerous gift? With Master Shakespeare in his tiring room? With Villon and his companions of the cockle shell? Riding with Rupert or barging it with Cleopatra up the Nile? Or would you choose to squander it on a chase with Sherlock Holmes after a visit to the rooms in Baker Street? There can only be one possible answer, gentlemen, to the question.”
Since the passage is taken from Mr. Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the answer can only be what we fear it to be, and, as such, must give rise to a real anxiety about the author’s condition. There are other passages in this book which suggest that it is fitter material for an analyst than a reviewer, but it may be possible to discover the more superficial processes at work behind this extraordinary cult.
Detective stories are not in themselves a dangerous drug. They provide sedentary readers with the illusion that life is exciting, that violence and crime lurk in the dull routine, in the tube, the club-house, the local garden party; and, besides stimulating the imagination, they add an intellectual problem—“who did it?”—as harmless as a good cross-word puzzle. They set up no toxin, they are easily procurable, nor is it possible to take more than one at a time.
Why should the Holmes and Watson stories differ from these as much as heroin and morphia from bromide and aspirin, and reduce their addicts to the maudlin state of Mr. Starrett or the pedagogy of Father Knox?
Like other detective fiction they affect both intellect and imagination, but in a more deleterious way. The appeal to the imagination is one of period; “what a picture they disclose of London at the century’s end,” writes Mr. Starrett. “Is it too much to claim that social historians in the years to come are more likely to return to Watson than to the dull McCarthy, and the sardonic Strachey?” and he quotes William Bolitho on Sherlock Holmes: “He is the fog in that crying old street, Baker Street, the glow of sea-coal in the grates, where the English servant brings in to you tea and muffins and snug napkins of odorous toast.” He is in fact a sentimental transatlantic evocation of quaint old mother England, like the beefeaters or the Cheshire Cheese, and the nineties are the enviable period in which culminated the tired distinction of old races, the corrupt European tradition. “Cabs slurring through the mud,” continues William Bolitho, “sounds and sights and presences of the old nineties in Baker Street—that time and that place which above all thought itself final and that nothing different was ever going to happen again.”
This stampede back to the Watson womb is not as distressing as the effects on the intellect of the Holmes legend. It is a pity that Wilde and the Yellow Book aren’t good enough for Mr. Starrett, that Max Beerbohm weakly chose Enoch Soames to write about and not some delightful landlady in the “crying old street.” But, granted the nineties are chosen for an escape, a spiritual home, it is in detective stories, which must convey a great deal of information about people in a very short space, that the circumstantial detail, the minutiae of living can be studied.
It is this detail which has appealed to what the “sardonic Strachey” called “the pedantry of incomplete academic persons.” As an undergraduate, Father Knox read a paper on Sherlock Holmes in which he analysed the structure of the stories and the characteristics of Doctor Watson in the language of German exegesis and the Higher Criticism. The early burlesques of Sherlock Holmes were chiefly crude parodies in which ordinary scribblers hit back with schoolboy facetiousness at the superior person. Father Knox’s was a perfectly legitimate piece of undergraduate brilliance, intended to illustrate the havoc the Germans could make of the testaments. It was enlarged and reprinted in the Essays on Satire where the emphasis was placed on the discrepancies in the life of Dr. Watson, and the youthful squib became the occupation of grown men. There is a nostalgia for scholarship. The satisfactions of meticulous research seem enhanced when viewed by the imaginative writer, to whom “the dons on the dais serene” appear like a stately liner to a man tossing on a fishing smack. Those who have visited a senior common room on Sunday morning, when the pipes are puffing and the dons sit round solving Torquemada in little syndicates, will have plumbed something of the shallows of academic whimsy—and how much greater is the academic whimsy of these outsiders who wish to recapture the feel of scholarship, the security of their early days! For the commentators on Doctor Watson are chiefly those who have been in and out of colleges without actually belonging to them, just as Baron Corvo was in and out of seminaries.
Thus the Watson cult now combines an intellectual with an emotional escape. Back to Baker Street, where there are muffins still for tea, a settled income for the middle classes, no danger of getting run over, and Mother Watson, the goddess of Mediocrity, triumphant, of Not having to make up one’s mind, there to welcome us; and back also to the common room, the metaphysical limericks, the acrostics (“can anyone think of a main besides the Spanish main?”) and the homeliness of exact knowledge. Two examination papers are included in Mr. Starrett’s book, one from Punch, and one from Life and Letters, which can be attempted by readers of the appropriate mental age.
The list of contributors to the subject is an imposing one. Those who have written articles on Holmes and Watson include, in America, William Bolitho, Stephen Bénet, Heywood Broun and Christopher Morley; in England, Sir James Barrie, Edward Shanks, E. V. Knox, Ronald Knox and A. A. Milne. There must be room for many other contemporary essayists in that paradise of the soft-boiled.
What is the place in literature of Conan Doyle’s books when the homesickness and precious fooling they engender is set aside? As far as detective fiction is concerned, the stories are hopelessly out of date. They are not funny, nor probable, nor thrilling, nor intellectually honest. They contributed far less to the art than their predecessor The Moonstone, and to the great claim of the modern detective story, that it is the most perfectly constructed form of contemporary writing, they can make no pretence.
Mr. Starrett’s book will not enhance their reputation. While the Knoxes, S. C. Roberts, H. W. Bell and Thomas S. Blakeney are scholars at play, he is an amiable middlebrow, concerned not with the intricacies of textual criticism but with the emotional fervours of a labour of love. He is a bibliophile and full of information on the “untold tales of Dr. Watson” and the first editions of his hero. “Over one’s bookcase, holding the first editions, hangs the original of a favourite illustration . . . no doubt there are better pictures in the Louvre, but at the moment one would not care to trade.” It is not, however, the gem of Holmes drawings, which he calls “a most whimsical conception.” This is the “memorable picture” of which his description deserves quotation, partly because it illustrates his style (“casual” is the operative word) partly because his sense of humour is Mr. Starrett’s most unreassuring symptom.
Possibly the most humourous libel ever perpetrated upon the name and fame of Mr. Sherlock Holmes was a drawing that appeared a decade or so ago in a leading comic journal. One remembers it with happiness. With the utmost consternation depicted on his familiar features, the great detective is shown upon a pebbled beach, his hand clapped wildly to his brow, while his tragic eyes consider all the stones that lie around him. Millions and millions of them, far as the eye can reach. And underneath the print the artist’s casual comment: “Portrait of a celebrated detective regretting his rash decision to leave no stone unturned.”
There is only a glimpse of the real story, the tragedy in the Jamesian sense—the struggle of Conan Doyle to kill off the character who was making him so much money in order to devote his time to “serious” work. The results were to be expected. The money flowed in with each revival of the world-famous character. The author grew more self-conscious. The critics more severe. The fans, who were young in the nineties, found in the later stories a great falling-off. As a Cornish boatman remarked; “when Sherlock Holmes fell over that cliff he may not have killed himself but he never was quite the same man afterwards.”