Books, sherlock holmes

“The Work Is Its Own Reward”

“From the point of view of the criminal expert,” said Mr. Sherlock Holmes, “London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of Professor Moriarty.”

"A little, wizened man darted out..."

"A little, wizened man darted out..."

The Norwood Builder is the first proper glimpse of Holmes readers in 1903 would have enjoyed in a decade (barring The Hound of the Baskervilles). Here is the great detective, accepting a consultation and working a normal case in much the way he had done 10 years before, in the adventures collected in Memoirs. The complaint quoted above is more in character for the detached problem-solver than the crusader for justice of The Final Problem. This story very much gives us back the Holmes of earlier stories, right down to Watson sharing rooms with him again. And yet it adds too a few new crinkles – Conan Doyle might even be enjoying himself a little.

There are firstly some lovely moments of rivalry between amateur and professional: “It is Lestrade’s little cock-a-doodle of victory,” Holmes sighs at a gloating telegram from Scotland Yard, and the climax of the story is a memorable bit of Holmesian theatre put on principally to put Lestrade back in his place.  “You are too many for me when you begin to get on your theories, Mr Holmes,” Lestrade laughs at one point, and in that laugh we see the change in their relationship: though rivals, they are now also somewhat affectionate friends. At the end of the story, Lestrade is not annoyed or embarrassed by Holmes, but rather takes the ribbing in good sport. It’s a nice touch, and one of those little twists of characterisation which grant the Holmes stories more depth than they perhaps sometimes earn.

The way in which Holmes ‘solves’ this case undoubtedly shows some of these habitual weaknesses: it is built almost entirely on supposition and circumstantial links. Even the closing words of the story, in which Holmes guesses that the animal remains found in a wood-pile outside the Norwood house were rabbits, is total guesswork, as if Conan Doyle is himself aware of the flaws in his narrative. To his credit, the clues – a spurned lover and some over-sized cheques – are for once included in the investigation, yet Holmes’s crucial measuring of the corridor is decidedly less prominent, until of course he reveals that he did it. Holmes’s explanation of how a thumbprint might be forged strains credulity, but his conviction that it is faked is at least based in his well-known love of painstaking detail.

Indeed, there might be a better explanation for Holmes’s curious intent in trying his luck and pinning hopes on theories with the vaguest of evidence. “All my instincts are one way and all the facts are the other,” Holmes at one point opines, and it seems fair to say that he sticks to the case largely because he has been hired to do so: the story refers to McFarlane as Holmes’s “client” with unusual frequency, and the detective’s commitment to the case resemble’s a legal brief’s. If he is ultimately proven right, it is tenacity more than skill which sees Holmes crack the case, however dramatically. He declines to be mentioned in the papers, but of course this is part of his plan to remain incognito (remember, the adventure is dated 1894, whilst Watson is ostensibly writing it up, finally freed to do so, many years later).

All this makes for a story more complex than it might at first seem: strong characterisation (including a decidedly cavalier Holmes), a colder view of the detective’s profession than we are perhaps used to, and the final twist – never quite dismissed out of hand, though he is denounced a villain in the usual moralistic fashion – that the whole ‘crime’ was merely a big practical joke (“that is for the jury to decide,” Holmes shrugs). A return, certainly – but a by no means a retread.


7 thoughts on ““The Work Is Its Own Reward”

  1. Mark Loper says:

    This was the very first Sherlock Holmes story I ever read. It was part of a English class many, many years ago. I remember being impressed that Holmes didn’t miss a beat when Oldacre refused to tell what he had burned up I the woodpile:

    “By the way, what was it you put into the wood pile besides your old trousers? A dead dog, or rabbits, or what? You won’t tell? Dear me, how very unkind of you! Well, well, I dare say that a couple of rabbits would account both for the blood and for the charred ashes. If ever you write an account, Watson, you can make rabbits serve your turn.”

    On second reading I was more impressed with Holmes being unequivocal about the thumb mark not being on the wall the previous day.

    “Only this: that I know that that mark was not there when I examined the hall yesterday.

    He knew it wasn’t there!

    I thought for a moment that Doyle had screwed up with the thumb-mark, that it would be reversed if it was taken from a wax pressing but, alas, the pressing itself would be reversed and the wall print would be correct.

  2. danhartland says:

    I think it’s the fragility of the wax pressing – and the completeness of fingerprint it might have achieved – which I couldn’t quite believe, although all conditions being optimum it isn’t impossible, no.

    As you say, what impresses about the story is very much Holmes’s wild confidence in the face of the impossible. It’s quite a well written story, which in that way supports Holmes’s leaps in much the way that The Resident Patient did, so we can let it all pass. I like you have early memories of it – largely from this.

    • Mark Loper says:

      I never thought much about the incredulity of transferring the thumb-print, it seemed conceivable. I just remember thinking how extraordinarily cool Holmes was!

      I haven’t done a Norwood Builder critique yet but don’t see any glaring holes except (possibly) the writing Oldacre did on the train. If it was erratic as it apparently was, it would have been obvious to Lestrade, McFarlen, Watson, and anyone else instead of being a “clue” which only Holmes could pick out. Remember, it ranged from legible to unreadable.

      As an aside, I never thought Jeremy Brett ever captured Holmes. He always portrayed him as condescending and I just never saw Holmes that way. I know a lot of people basically think he is Holmes. Toward the end, he got too heavy to even be considered as a plausible Holmes. I thought he wasn’t tall enough either. Holmes was probably only six feet tall but he was taller than most everyone else. I imagine at the turn of the century, six feet was well above average.

      Concerning the book, no I haven’t catalogued the quotes yet. I did start but ran into a problem right out of the chute. In “Scarlet” Holmes says:

      “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

      But in the same story he admits to having read Poe and Lecoq and “a queer old book I picked up at a stall yesterday—‘De Jure inter Gentes’—published in Latin at Liege in the Lowlands, in 1642.” And quotes a “Roman miser” (the Latin at the end of the story, which I haven’t yet deciphered or determined who the Roman miser is).

      “Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo
      Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplar in arca.”

      And of course, Holmes introduces multiple philosophers and authors throughout the cannon. I’m sure he would argue that they were all necessary to further his understand of crime.

      BTW, I have the Winwood Reede book “The Martyrdom of Man” which Holmes so highly recommends to Watson but haven’t read it yet.

      • danhartland says:

        The writing is one of those things which seems odd to everyone around Holmes, but – and he points this out during the story – others lack his imagination to apply a particular significance to it (c.f. Silver Blaze). So I can buy Lestrade thinking ‘huh, that’s weird’, and yet not figuring out the implications. He does, after all, stick to the material facts.

        The trick with your book, of course, would be to depict the way in which Holmes’s imagination works – why he retains the information he does and how he uses it. He requires raw material of all sorts – being so inveterate a polymath – to build theories. The frivolous and the ephemeral are not for him (we do not see him read contemporary novels or visit the music hall, for example), but nor does he restrict himself to purely crimonological fodder of purely material interest: such would be to turn into Lestrade.

  3. Mark Loper says:

    Whoa! ! Just researched the “Roman Miser” mentioned at the end of Scarlet.

    Apparently it’s this:

    The quotation is from Horace, Book 1, Satire 1.

    “The public hisses at me, but I applaud myself in my own house, and simultaneously contemplate the money in my chest.”

    Which speaks directly to the issue of wealth and Holmes.

    • danhartland says:

      It’s Watson, of course, who quotes Horace – perhaps he’s looking forward, too, to his future literary sales!

      • Mark Loper says:

        I gotta start reading these things closer.

        Yes, indeed it was Watson who quoted Horace… and since Holmes never takes anything into his brain-attic that is not useful to his trade, we can’t even be sure he was familiar with the quote or even Horace (though, he probably would have been familiar with Latin).

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