Books, sherlock holmes

“Powers That Are Hardly Human”

We have had some dramatic entrances andc exists upon our small stage at Baker Street, but I cannot recollect anything more sudden and startling than the first appearance of Thorneycroft Huxtable, M.A., Ph.D., etc.

"I heard him chuckle as the light fell upon a patched Dunlop tyre."

"I heard him chuckle as the light fell upon a patched Dunlop tyre."

The Priory School recalls Silver Blaze, with Holmes ranging over large expanses of countryside and finding his solution in the lay of the land. Here, too, he extols the virtue of imagination: agreeing at one point with Watson that his proposed solution is impossible, he insists that “we have solved some worse problems” and that the material at their disposal is enough to fit a story to the facts. “Avery different Holmes, this active, alert man, from the introspective and pallid dreamer of Baker Street,” Watson observes, and he does indeed treat us to quintessential country Holmes – quick-witted, physically active, commanding.

The story does, though, start slowly – Dr. Huxtable’s initial recapitulation of events drags, and the section in which Holmes analyses a map (in my text, with marks on it which spoil later discoveries) seems a poor substitute for what we get later: the hike across the moor, and the analysis of tracks. Holmes spots faked tracks and the tell-tale pressures of faster and slowly bicycles. He also performs an ersatz post-mortem, analysing a crime scene using only his own critical faculties.

Holmes’s scouring of his map is faultless, and ultimately leads him to his final clue. In many cases, the great detective seems to make great leaps of logic, trusting in his own instinct. Here, he simply explores the immediate area around the crime scene until things fall into place. It is a satisfyingly forensic style, although it perhaps lacks the drama and wonder of his other method.(It also raises the question, if the story’s kidnappers were trying to hide their victim, why they should try to do so in such plain sight, but Conan Doyle does his best to explain this – only slightly better, it must be said, that his explanation of why a man doomed for the gallows might not tell tales of his co-conspirators.)

Holmes makes no less than £12,000 in this case – a quite remarkable sum, but perhaps unusual given that his client is said to be possibly the richest subject of the Crown. Still, he finds time to give a characteristically pungent moral lecture to his client, and again to assert his unofficial position as an excuse for what might be called ‘alegal’ practices. The key to these moments, though, is his unswaying moral conviction: Holmes dresses down Covent Garden gamblers and Peak District Dukes alike, and though despite what Watson calls his “frugal tastes” Holmes often displays the assumptions of a country squire, he nevertheless lacks prejudice. He is always consistent in his morality, if often not rigorous in his attention to the detail of law.

Holmes was at first reluctant to take on this case – only a combination of handsome reward and severity of consequence persuades him to go as far north as we have seen him trek. Once there, however, he rather succeeds in being at his alert, imperious and dynamic best. If the story itself at times drags, its more laboured moments are easily skipped. The story gives moments very much worth the effort: as is quite often the case, though Conan Doyle may not be in total control, Sherlock Holmes most certainly is.


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