“To the man who loves art for its own sake,” remarked Sherlock Holmes, tossing aside the advertisement sheet of the Daily Telegraph, “it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived.
The Copper Beeches begins in a vein approaching the metatextual. Holmes, bored and listless, takes it upon himself to critique Watson’s literary style. His deconstruction is a delight to read: “Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell.” Of course, both Watson and Conan Doyle know their readership (whom Holmes refers to as “the great unobservant public”); but for Holmes so pointedly to dispute the very form through which we know him is one of the peculiar tricks which gives him such life.
It is also testament to Conan Doyle, who rather too regularly is dismissed as an unsophisticated writer. It is true, certainly, that he can be sensationalist and unsubtle. But the cleverness of his characterisation, and the frames inside which he encloses his narratives, point to a writer thinking more and more clearly about his craft.
Indeed, the plot of this tale is not a little preposterous – a plucky governess is asked to change her appearance by a mysterious but charismatic country gent, who pays her 120 pounds a year for the inconvenience – but where other authors (and, at his weakest in earlier stories, Conan Doyle) might trust in the spectacle of it, this Holmes story like many others augments it with something richer: Watson’s narrative style, his peculiar lapses and Holmes’s strident egotism.
The governess in question, too, is well drawn: a woman, for once, with brains as well as beauty, she might be patronised throughout by Holmes (“You seem to me to have acted all through this matter like a very brave and sensible girl, Miss Hunter.”), but is fundamentally a canny and perceptive woman. Watson displays something of a soft spot for her (another of those scattered hints that he is something of a ladies’ man), and she forms a very strong central presence in the story, a shrewd move when much of its action is in truth narrated by her.
Holmes, of course, loses interest in Hunter the instant he solves the mystery (which, in this case, is not nearly as difficult as suggested by Holmes’s wonderful exclamation, “Data! data! data! I can’t make bricks without clay!”). Still, what we are left with upon finishing this, the last of the stories collected under the heading ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes‘, is the impression of a detective – and a writer of yarns – at the top of their game.
There is much here which will come again later – Holmes’s monomania, a baying hound, and the terror of the isolated English countryside. It marks the close of the first round of stories, and in many ways it also marks their perfection of form. If Conan Doyle will still improve, what he has concluded is a process of definition. Here we see the Holmes that has become so famous. It is impossible not to like what we see.