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Holmes & his commentators


According to Hazlitt, if we wish to know the force of human genius, we have only to read Shakespeare, but if we wish to know the futility of human learning, we have only to read his commentators.

doyleconanArthur Conan Doyle

Something similar might almost be said — almost, but not quite — of Sherlock Holmes and his commentators.  The gulf is not nearly as great as that between Shakespeare and his critics, of course, but if literary genius is required in order to create a mythological world that is more real and alluring to readers than any reality itself, that once read is never forgotten, that for a century has inspired the devotion of the literary and the unliterary unlike, and that is vastly and innocently entertaining without being wholly devoid of instruction, then Conan Doyle had such genius to a very considerable degree.

He created some of the most memorable and witty dialogue in the whole of literature.  Who can forget Holmes's interview with Moriarty in The Final Problem?  Or Dr. Mortimer's first interview with Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles?

"Glad to meet you, sir [said Dr Mortimer].  You interest me very much, Mr Holmes.  I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well marked supra-orbital development.  Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure?  A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum.  It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull."

Sherlock Holmes waved our strange visitor into a chair. 

Only the heart of someone without a sense of irony, or utterly indifferent to felicities of language, would not to be lifted by this passage.

"You are an enthusiast in your line of thought, I perceive, as I am in mine," said he.  "I observe from your forefinger that you make your own cigarettes.  Have no hesitation in lighting one."

The man drew out a paper and tobacco and twirled the one up in the other with surprising dexterity.  He had long, quivering fingers as agile and restless as the antennae of an insect.

Holmes was silent, but his little darting glances showed me the interest he took in our curious companion.  "I presume, sir," said he at last, "that it was not merely for the purpose of examining my skull that you have done me the honour to call here last night and again today?"

Only the heart of someone without a sense of irony, or utterly indifferent to felicities of language, would not to be lifted by this passage.  Four lines of dialogue from Silver Blaze are immortal; they burn themselves into our memory and never lose their impact, however many times they are read:

"Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

"The dog did nothing in the night-time."

"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

All art, said Walter Pater, aspires to the condition of music; this dialogue comes as near to music as it is possible for dialogue to come.

Its rhythmic beauty, indeed, invites imitation, which on occasion I have even tried myself.  Once, a prison officer asked me whether I would agree to see a prisoner in my clinic, and he brought the prisoner's medication with him to show me.  I looked at it.

"He is a sex offender, I perceive," I said.  "And he walks with a stick."

"Oh, so you know him already, sir," said the officer.

"On the contrary," I replied, "I've never seen him in my life."

"Then how do you know … ?"

"That he's a sex offender and he walks with a stick?  His medication is for angina and blood pressure.  That means that he is probably of a certain age.  Most prisoners of that age are sex offenders, and most sex offenders walk with a stick in the hope that their invalidism will deter other prisoners from assaulting them."



The prison officer, not a literary type, got the reference and called me Sherlock for several days afterwards.

Almost from the first, the canon, as it became known, was the subject of what Sherlockians are apt to call the Higher Criticism.  The first manifestation of this playful pedantry occurred as early as 1902; by 1911, when Ronald Knox published his "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," it was already an established genre — and His Last BowThe Valley of Fear, and The Memoirs were yet to be written.  This suggests to me that one of the explanations frequently given for the enduring fascination of Holmes, namely that it is a nostalgia for an age of certainty, is wide of the mark.  Much as it pains me to do so, I invoke Jung here: Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, et al., appeal to something very deep within us.

Books about Holmes and Watson continue to pour from the press.  It would be possible, in the secondhand-bookshop area of London, to buy five hundred such works in the space of a quarter of an hour, if you could carry them; the prices such volumes command ($400 for Knox's Essays in Satire, admittedly with the very rare dust cover, in which Knox's Holmes essay was first published in book form) attest either to the number or the affluence, or, of course, to both, of the Sherlockians.  University professors feel no shame, quite the reverse, in devoting their leisure hours to Sherlockian scholarship, and producing recondite volumes such as The Intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, in which a professor of psychology, John Radford, had the temerity to estimate the great detective's I.Q. Oddly enough, he does not consider the question of Conan Doyle's I.Q., the reason being that he adopts the standard conceit of the Sherlockians, namely that Holmes was a historical figure, and that Conan Doyle was at most a jobbing literary agent.  Indeed, in discussing the work of an eminent professor of psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital, Michael Shepherd, who wrote a brilliant essay comparing the methods and behavior of Holmes with those of Sigmund Freud, much to the detriment of the latter, Professor Radford remarks:

Shepherd seems to have fallen a victim to the modern fallacy, or heresy, call it what you will, that denies the historical reality of Sherlock Holmes, imagining that all of Watson's canonical works were in fact the product of his literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle.

The willing suspension of disbelief could hardly go further; playfulness tips over into psychosis.

The phenomenon is worldwide.  The Japanese are particularly enthusiastic Sherlockians: you can see parties of them being fleeced at the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street every day of the year.  (221B never existed, of course, until an entrepreneur thought of opening a museum with that number.  Incidentally, it is symptomatic of Conan Doyle's genius that 221B is exactly right, poetically speaking, and superior to any other number that you can think of.) There is even a Japanese learned journal, the Shoso-In Bulletin, devoted to the finer points of canonical exegesis.

Although, as every schoolboy knows, the canon can be enjoyed on a first reading without the assistance of any scholarly apparatus, Sherlockians nevertheless like to imagine that their researches lead to a deeper, more subtle appreciation of this immense body of work.  The final volume of a new annotated version of the canon, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, has just been published. [1]  The question is whether it serves any useful purpose.

At least two previous annotated versions of the canon are in existence: the first, William S. Baring-Gould's of 1967, and the second, the Oxford Sherlock Holmes of 1993.  It is now possible, therefore, to indulge in meta-Sherlockian scholarship, by comparing the annotations of all three versions.

First, however, comes the comparison of the books as physical artifacts.  Baring-Gould comes in two volumes, Klinger in three, and the Oxford in nine.  Both the Baring-Gould and Klinger volumes are so enormous that only a person interested in body-building would, or could, take them to bed.  You can't tuck yourself up with Klinger, who is probably best read on a lectern.  The Oxford version is a comfortable size, can be slipped into a pocket, and is moreover the most pleasantly printed of the three.

It comes, however, without any illustrations, and the iconography of Sherlock Holmes is, of course, an important sub-specialty of Sherlockian scholarship.  Personally, I do not miss the illustrations: for me, a page of print is worth a thousand pictures, to adapt slightly Mao Tse-tung's famous dictum, but I acknowledge that others might feel differently.  The introductory essays in the Oxford version, though, are singularly dull, uninformative, and often arch; it takes skill, of a kind, to write boringly of Sherlock Holmes.  The annotations in the Oxford version sometimes combine pedantry with inaccuracy, which is a most unfortunate combination.  The editor of The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, assumes that the reader has a very restricted vocabulary, and that therefore a word such as "magnate" requires definition; unfortunately, the definition he supplies is wrong.

Of course, different editors cannot be expected to agree on what should be annotated.  For example, neither Baring-Gould nor the Oxford version remarks on the middle initial of Dr. Watson, revealed in the first line of the first page of the first work in the canon, A Study in Scarlet.  Here Klinger scores decisively, for the question of what the H stands for is an important one for all true Sherlockians.  Klinger rightly points us in the direction of Dorothy L. Sayers's brilliant essay (the finest single piece of Sherlockian commentary known to me) on the subject.  She argues that the H stands for Hamish, because Hamish is Scots for James, and one of Dr. Watson's later wives calls him, on one occasion, James rather than John.  This is the kind of thing that wives do: call their husbands by cognates of their middle name; thus Sayers, incisively wielding an Okhamite razor, solves two mysteries with one conjecture.  Incidentally, it is far from clear from the internal evidence alone how many wives Watson actually had, and this has been a matter for serious Sherlockian debate.

The last volume of Klinger's annotated edition contains the four long stories.  Baring-Gould arranged his edition differently, according to the supposed chronology of the sixty-two cases published.  The Oxford version simply reproduces the volumes as Conan Doyle first published them.  This somewhat complicates comparison.  Nevertheless, the effort must be made.

Let us take the famous and crucial passage in A Study in Scarlet in which Dr. Watson enumerates the contradictory intellectual limitations of his newfound friend, Sherlock Holmes.  It seems to me that all three versions do not do justice to the subtlety of Dr. Watson's characterization: both Baring-Gould and Klinger quote, with apparent approval, Edgar W. Smith's remark with regard to Dr. Watson, "Knowledge of Sherlock Holmes — nil."

Watson remarks of Holmes's knowledge of astronomy that it is nil.  Holmes neither knows nor cares whether the sun revolves around the earth, or vice versa; he says that it matters not a jot.  (Camus says exactly the same thing in The Myth of Sisyphus, incidentally.) This is surely odd in someone with some scientific interest, knowledge, and even training.  Does it mean, as Klinger suggests at one point, that Holmes is having Watson on, treating him as a gullible fool and laughing up his sleeve at him?

Again, Watson says of Holmes, "Knowledge of literature — nil."  Holmes has never heard of Carlyle, we are told by Watson.  Here both Baring-Gould and Klinger state that most commentators believe that Holmes was merely feigning ignorance in order to get Watson to shut up, though only Klinger feels it necessary to inform modern readers who Carlyle actually was.  After all, for an educated man of Holmes's day never to have heard of Carlyle, and to have asked who he was and what he had done, is a little like an educated man nowadays asking who Michael Moore is and what he has done.  On this point, Holmes's ignorance of Carlyle, the Oxford annotated version provides a footnote of startling opacity (if, that is, opacity can startle): "this is an attack on Philistine medical scientists, and possibly some Jesuits; but it is also ironic with Holmes the creature being ignorant of the uses and values of his creator."

The annotator goes on to state, without providing any evidence whatsoever (but probably to display his own profound erudition), that when Conan Doyle wrote this passage, he had in mind J. A. Froude's biography of Carlyle.  It would be hard to find a less illuminating or more useless footnote, though no doubt such a one could be found after an extensive search in a large library.

The fact that, at the end of The Sign of Four, Holmes quotes lines from Goethe in German seems to belie his total ignorance of literature.  (Only Baring-Gould points out that Watson omits a comma in his transcription of the lines.) Yet this is not quite conclusive evidence in favor of the argument that Holmes was stringing Watson along and merely pretending to be ignorant: I once knew a highly intelligent man who was profoundly ignorant of most of literature, who yet could quote the novels of Trollope appositely and with great facility.  It is not unusual for people to be well-informed on one or several subjects, and yet be completely ignorant of the kind of things that "everybody knows."  I hesitate to tread here where so many Sherlockians have entered, but is it not possible that Holmes was suffering from a forme fruste of Asperger's syndrome?  In this syndrome, people who have no social skills and are unable to express normal human feeling for others display an intense, obsessional interest in apparently worthless inanimate objects, of which they may make a collection.  An interest in tobacco ash might easily fall into this category (I am not so sure about the motets of Lassus, however, about which Holmes also writes a monograph); since there are degrees of Asperger's syndrome, the fact that on one occasion Holmes reveals deep but hitherto hidden feelings for Watson would not entirely discredit the diagnosis.

Indeed, Holmes would be a much more interesting character if his profound knowledge of the recondite were unmatched by any possession of the kind of general knowledge that any reasonably well-educated person might be expected to possess; if he were simply a walking encyclopedia, he would be a phenomenon, but not an interesting one.  I therefore think that Watson and Conan Doyle were far cannier than most of the commentators — confirming, in this instance, Hazlitt's dictum.  What exactly are annotations for, especially of stories that so patently explain themselves as the Sherlock Holmes stories (indeed, if they did not, their continued popularity would be inexplicable)?  When Watson says of Holmes that "His conclusions were as infallible as so many propositions of Euclid," do we really need to be told that Euclid was a Greek geometer?  Apparently we do, at least in the opinion of the editors of all three annotated versions.  It seems that the general reader may be assumed to know almost nothing.  Perhaps this is a subtle commentary on the state of modern education.

In normal circumstances, annotations should clarify points of obscurity, explain references that may no longer be current, and suggest deeper understanding of the text than would be likely on a straightforward reading.  In this respect, all three versions sometimes fail.  For example, none of the versions makes much of the irony of the passage I have quoted when Dr. Mortimer meets Sherlock Holmes for the first time.  Dr. Mortimer's fascination with Holmes's skull is not because of his belief in phrenology — he is not feeling the bumps that supposedly correspond, for example, to fidelity or discretion — as Klinger avers.  On the contrary, Dr. Mortimer is clearly a follower of Cesare Lombroso, the Italian anthropologist and criminologist who thought that criminality was inscribed in the physical characteristics of the criminal (however absurd this idea might be, it is sometimes difficult to rid oneself of it entirely while visiting a prison).  Thus Dr. Mortimer is inspecting Holmes to estimate his criminal propensities or otherwise, an irony that would probably have been understood by the story's original readers, for at the time Lombroso was very famous.

It is all the more surprising that Klinger makes nothing of it, since only a page or two before he (alone of the commentators) correctly refers to Lombroso as the inspiration for Dr. Mortimer's article entitled "Some Freaks of Atavism," which Dr. Watson finds referred to in Dr. Mortimer's entry in the Medical Directory.

All that this goes to show, however, is that the higher criticism of the canon can never come to an end — which is precisely its delight.  It is a form of completely innocent scholasticism, upon the results of which nothing whatever depends.  It allows entry into a world of erudition without any corresponding social responsibility whatever.  A man may sift the Talmudic literature and come to the conclusion that to flush a lavatory on the Sabbath day is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, which is certainly an inconvenience, or sift the Hadith and come to the conclusion that the beheading of infidels is not merely permitted but obligatory, which is certainly a sadistic pleasure, but however much people may argue about what the H in John H. Watson stands for, they will never come to blows, nor does anything depend upon the answer given.  The possibilities of such argument are endless, for there can never be proof.  The scholasticism of the higher criticism is in effect a platonic form of pleasure in learning.  It is the exercise of intellect and imagination for its own sake.

If it were not that I had so many other interests and obligations, I could almost become a Sherlockian myself.  It is not often, after all, that one can be certain that one's pursuits both require intelligence and are entirely innocent.  Depend upon it, Sir, that a man is seldom so innocently employed as in reenacting the death of Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.


  1. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Leslie S. Klinger; W. W. Norton, 992 pages, $49.95. 


newcritTheodore Dalrymple.  "Holmes & his commentators."  The New Criterion (November, 2005).

Reprinted with permission of The New Criterion.

The Author

Dalrymple5Dalrymple3Theodore Dalrymple is a former psychiatrist and prison doctor. He lives in France and is the author of, The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd, The Proper Procedure and Other Stories, Out Into The Beautiful World, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality, Farewell Fear, Our Culture, What's Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, and So Little Done.

Copyright © 2005 The New Criterion
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