Separate, But Connected: Sherlock Holmes

A couple of weeks ago, I described Escherich, the Gestapo detective in Hans Fallada’s Alone In Berlin, as ‘a fascist Maigret’. At the time, I considered talking about a fascist Sherlock Holmes, but something stopped me. At first glance, and certainly this was the interpretation Tim McInnerny placed on the character in his portrayal for the BBC radio dramatisation, Escherich’s arrogance and superiority complex are vintage Holmes: “He worked on the assumption that he was completely different from everyone else.” [pg. 390]

In so far as Holmes considers others at all, he operates on a similar basis. “Do you know, Watson,” he says in ‘The Adventure of the Copper Beaches’, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.” But as much as Holmes conceives of himself as different to others, it is at least in part not so much ego as simple statement of logical fact. In A Study In Scarlet, Watson, too, admits that, “I had no idea that such individuals exist outside of stories.”

Escherich’s worst sin is not to see himself as different so much as apart: after murdering a man he has attempted to frame for the distribution of Otto Quangel’s anti-Nazi postcards, he simply thinks, “The piece of shit, the little whimpering piece of shit.” [pg. 301]  On the other hand, Holmes, for all his at times cavalier approach to human feelings (harsh words to Watson, sham romances with servant girls), never loses sight of the importance of a shared humanity: approaching Christmas, we might remember his act of charity in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. This is a generosity and selflessness lost to Escherich, who questions the validity of the law only in his final moments. Holmes, on the other hand, is always aware that natural justice is higher than any human legal system.

Neither is it the case, of course, that in Maigret (of all detectives) we can perceive incipient fascism. It is more that, in his love of life’s pleasures – food, wine, camaraderie – there is something of Escherich’s desire for comfort. This all too human tendency to seek the easy life powers the narrative of Alone In Berlin, in which everyone is compromised by a brutal and brutalising regime, its agents most of all. Holmes, of course, was a super-human ascetic: he rarely ate and had apparently minimal need for comfort. The temptations of collaboration as depicted by Fallada would have had little appeal for Sherlock Holmes – but only, perhaps, because his is in reality an impossible character. Such is what ideals are made of.

 

Sherlock: A Life

One of the most consistently pleasurable aspects of re-reading Sherlock Holmes stories is that, in each of them, there will be a surprise: that Persian slipper, or that sly reference to a forbidden adventure. To the reader who returns to him sparingly, Sherlock Holmes will always surprise, and the stories always give the illusion of layers beneath. Partly this is a result of the inconsistencies present in Conan Doyle’s routinely slapdash continuity, but in large part it is to do with his skill as a writer, rather than his deficiencies: the duo at the heart of his stories, and the world in which they live, is so deftly blocked in with such tiny details that one develops the sense of looking into hidden corners rather than skating over the penny dreadful surface.

For the dedicated Sherlockian, I’d imagine, the problem is quite different: endless repetition and analysis of the stories catalogues each and every one of their kinks and details, leaving only the inconsistences to puzzle over, to beg time and again a return to the canon in search of the thread that joins it all together. This seems to me a sadder kind of appreciation, but for many it is addictive – Sherlockians the world over derive deep pleasure from returning endlessly to stories which possess no master narrative, and yet which may yet yield to one.

One of the best things about Nick Rennison’s Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorised Biography is the manner in which it captures both these experiences. On the one hand, its central conceit  – that Holmes was a real man, and that a definitive biography of him is therefore possible – is pure Great Game, offering the Sherlockian pleasures of intellectual leaps and forced links. On the other, Rennison’s constant return to creases in the individual stories themselves, and his insistence on connecting them, scatter-gun, to genuine Victorian social and cultural history, reminded me most of re-reading, for instance, The Three Garridebs – and rediscovering the filigree or two which can give the part-time devotee such pleasure.

The chapter in which Rennison theorises that Holmes and Mycroft planned the death of Moriarty all along, or the several in which he chronicles Holmes’s movements during the Great Hiatus, draw on both the great sweep and the telling detail to piece together a bravura piece of factional. Though the reader wearies at times of Rennison straining credibility, or his tendency to over-do the urge to render Holmes friend and servant to every famous Victorian you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t), that is also part of the strange frisson of the book: from the off, it’s so clearly a jeu d’esprit, a bit of sly fun, that every plate Rennison sets spinning deserves a round of applause in and of itself, even if the sight of all of them whirling around together might make you sick.

“At the time of his death,” Rennison writes towards the end of his book, “Holmes was, paradoxically, both a forgotten man and one of the most famous people in the world.” This biography’s real purpose, of course, is to muddy the waters even further: to push deeper into myth the life of a detective who might never have lived – but about it is felt, as with Robin Hood, that he might have done. If Rennison doesn’t quite achieve Kate Summerscale’s feat in The Suspicions of Mister Whicher – of writing a book about a detective interesting to to an audience far wider than simply crime readers – he’s still fine company. As an example of abstruse reasoning from disparate and limited evidence, here is a biography of which Sherlock Holmes might have approved.

In Holmes’s Footsteps

Riding the rails...

Very busy indeed at the moment, in large part because we’re relocating. Regular readers of the Holmesiana on this blog will recall my giddy rush of excitement when I re-read ‘The Stockbroker’s Clerk‘: Holmes and Watson walk New Street and Corporation Street, no less – the main shopping streets of my home town. The Victorian buildings which remain on those streets would to this day be a perfect location for any future period dress production of the story; yet wherever you go, Holmes, it seems, will be there.

Huzzah.

Making A Hero: “The Great Game”

"The papers which this wretched youth had in his pocket were the plans of the Bruce-Partington missile."

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is at least two things: a collection of the first 12 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and an only intermittently successful 1939 film starring Basil Rathbone. Those short stories set a template which would be followed by all the great detective’s subsequent adventures, both by Conan Doyle and others; the film tried to splice a series of them together, and install as the orchestrating figure Holmes’s great nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

Moriarty plans to steal the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London; to do so, he must of course ensure that Sherlock Holmes is not on his tail, since the sleuth’s considerable deductive power would, if turned in full upon Moriarty’s organisation, inevitably discover his masterplan before it could be enacted. Therefore, Moriarty concocts a series of puzzles and diversions to absorb his enemy, famously and vainly hungry for intellectual activity of any sort. The plan very nearly works, although the film doesn’t.

It’s a surprise, then, that Steven Moffat chose this concept to form the basis of the final of his three TV movies. Moriarty has lurked in the background of the entire trilogy, but here he explicitly confirms that the time-sensitive puzzles Sherlock is faced with throughout the 90 minutes – a series of innocent people are strapped to bombs, which will go off if Holmes fails to crack the case – are deliberately designed to distract him from Moriarty’s grander purpose. It very nearly works, in no small part because Holmes is amoral and lacking in compassion – he makes the wrong choices using the wrong criteria and gets caught out.

We should, though, pause: Moriarty’s grander purpose is here quite different to that presented in ‘The Final Problem’. There, he was “the Napoleon of Crime […]  the organiser of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city.” Here, he is a criminal fixer, a clever wideboy hired to devise crimes that profit his client. This seems an acceptable modernisation, but grubbies Moriarty a little – instead of the controller, he is the controlled, or at the very least the hired help. One of the elements which adds to the dread of ‘The Final Problem’ is that Holmes is genuinely out of his depth; the Moriarty of Sherlock feels a more equal adversary, another very clever man for hire.

Moffat does, however, understand Moriarty’s role within the text: in an interview on BBC Breakfast this week, he said, “In a way Moriarty is the man who makes Sherlock a hero … he’s a rather amoral character Sherlock Holmes, so you want someone for him to respond to that turns him into the hero he’s sort of destined to be.” I’d be remiss not to point out that this is my opinion, too, and that I am therefore to some extent bound to cut Moffat some slack. But the conspiracy theory doing the rounds online – that Molly is Moriarty, and Jim her pawn – is attractive because Jim seems such a disappointment. Another man in a series full of men, for a start, but also too influenced by John Simm’s portrayal of the Master in Doctor Who: like Mark Gatiss’s Mycroft in the first episode, Andrew Scott’s turn as Moriarty feels over-played and cartoonish next to the work of Cumberbatch and Freeman.

So this is a ‘series’ still very much finding its feet. I’m not of the mind that three television movies quite makes a series – and nor should it be judged on the same basis as one might judge 22 episodes of a US season. It’s possible to over-emphasise the connective tissue between these mysteries – Sarah appears in two episodes, as does Lestrade, but those previous appearances barely matter here. These movies are much more like the original stories themselves, or that Rathbone series, in that they share characters and refer to previous adventures, but rarely require deep knowledge of what has gone before. Nevertheless, tonally they have been very different internally, let alone when compared with each other. Moriarty, if he is to continue to be Sherlock’s nemesis, will need better to match the manner in which Holmes is played, as well as the manner in which he thinks.

Meanwhile, the canon references continue to abound: the Bruce-Partington plans, of course (complete with the old body-on-the-roof-of-a-train trick), but also Sherlock’s admission that he would be lost without his blogger (or his Boswell, as he may have said in an earlier age); this Sherlock, too, doesn’t care that the earth goes around the sun unless it has an impact on crimonology, and practices a kind of reverse psychology on a victim’s widow as he once would have done on a Covent Garden poultry merchant. He follows Watson without his friend’s knowledge, as he did in The Hound of the Baskervilles; five pips signal to him a terrible warning; and his great enemy is accompanied by at least one shadowy rifleman.

So this is a joyous fangasm of a writing effort, and the enthusiasm of the execution mostly makes up for its failures. (Did Sherlock really spot a gay man by sight? Must the only women on show be bitter, soppy or useless? And isn’t that cliffhanger a massive cheek – and cheat – after just three episodes, and an indeterminate period of time before the next episode is even written, much less filmed or scheduled?) It would be curmudgeonly not to admit that this Sherlock has been something of a triumph; but, like its titular character, it is not yet a heroic one. As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.

“I Go Where You Point Me”: ‘The Blind Banker’

Straight out of Paget.

One day when Dr. Somerton was down with a fever a little Andaman Islander was picked up by a convict-gang in the woods. He was sick to death, and had gone to a lonely place to die. I took him in hand, though he was as venomous as a young snake, and after a couple of months I got him all right and able to walk. He took a kind of fancy to me then, and would hardly go back to his woods, but was always hanging about my hut. I learned a little of his lingo from him, and this made him all the fonder of me.

[…] We earned a living at this time by my exhibiting poor Tonga at fairs and other such places as the black cannibal. He would eat raw meat and dance his war-dance: so we always had a hatful of pennies after a day’s work. [The Sign of Four, Chapter XII]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not averse to the casual Imperial racism of his time. Again and again, his stories featured natives or crudely drawn shadowy-yet-exotic parts foreign – of which Tonga, the dart-blowing ‘pygmy’ of The Sign of Four, is the most famously egregious example. Tonga is practically denied humanity, so savagely separate to the Victorian gentleman around him is he depicted as being. But Tonga isn’t the only one: in ‘The Three Gables‘, a “huge negro” with the improbable name of Steve Dixie barges into Holmes’s study in a flurry of malopropisms and comical misunderstandings; in ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge‘, a wife’s passionate, muderous nature is explained by her Brazilian heritage; ‘The Red Circle‘ assumes that all, or at the very least most, Italians are basically connected to the mafia.

That a 21st century writer should also resort to these sorts of ethnographic shorthand is troubling. True, the broad stereotypes of Conan Doyle are often extended to the English – who, where upper class, are all starched collars and upright dignity and, where working class, mangled vowels and questionable probity – and in part they are part of the fabric of the playful adventure story; but they are also relics of an earlier time, when, with half the globe red, other, more genuine, voices were rarely permitted. In ‘The Blind Banker’, the latest episode of the BBC’s new series, Sherlock, Steven Moffatt tries a little too hard to recreate the Victorian in the modern city.

His story starts – with echoes of ‘The Gloria Scott‘ – with an old university friend. It ends – recalling ‘The Veiled Lodger‘- with sinister circus performers. In between, there are all sorts of other references: the detailed knowledge, as with Henry Baker’s hat, of men’s accessories and their seasons; an enthusiasm for cryptography which matches that in ‘The Dancing Men‘; and a promising young police inspector for whose career Holmes has “high hopes” (for Dimmock read Hopkins). The affection for and knowledge of the original stories exhibited byMoffat cannot be questioned. In a curious way, this modern dress production has a Sherlock at its centre who is closer to Doyle’s than Rupert Everett’s more traditionally garbed Holmes in The Silk Stocking, also a BBC effort.

So it is that a story set in the modern milieu of London – all gherkins, grafitti and chow mein – nevertheless feels somehow as one with our inherited image of the great detective. Partly this is the wardrobe – Watson wears cardigans which serve the function of waistcoats, Holmes great winter coats and a scarf tied like a louche cravat – and partly it is the set dressing, which leaves 221B practically unchanged from the one inhabited by Jeremy Brett. But there is also the question of tone and topic, and here ‘The Blind Banker’ pays homage to the wrong parts of Doyle. It centres on, yep, an exotic crime syndicate; its members, yes, are the sort of racial types which might have troubled Allan Quatermain – stealthy assassins and ruthless, heavily accented, ‘generals’. It’s a nifty transposition, but unworthy of the hip, modern spin the series seeks to give the concept.

Elsewhere, there’s much to enjoy, although the dialogue is not as sharp as in the series opener. Cumberbatch and Freeman remain splendid in the main roles, and the central mystery is decidedly more difficult and engaging than in ‘Study in Pink’ (though that ain’t saying a lot). The action sequences aren’t bad, either. But the episode also feels not quite as tight as the premiere, and that silly Chinaman stuff undermines the whole edifice. (Oh, there’s an indeterminately ethnic swordsman at the start, too.) If Sherlock is to maintain its credibility as an anti-period piece, it needs to be more like ‘The Yellow Face‘, in which Conan Doyle showed compassion – rather than condescension – for the denizens of a multicultural England.

The Police Don’t Consult Amateurs

Sherlock and John.

During my long acquaintance with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, his communiques were never less than terse and to the point, lacking entirely any concession to the niceties of polite conversation. Constrained not just by their medium, but by their composer’s own natural efficiency of expression, they tended at times even towards the terse. Were it not for my intimate association with the world’s only consulting detective, I would often have considered his messages rude, even obstinate, and certainly not the product of a gentlemanly mind aware to the importance of decorum and manners. But my familiarity with my friend’s particular eccentricities of thought and behaviour led me to forgive him his fondness for the imperative. Sherlock Holmes prized above all information: clean, unencumbered, unmediated data. His preferred means of communicating that information, and his abiding preference for the laconic, were merely functions of his greater qualities.

It’s unlikely that John Watson would write in this way on his blog; but were he for some inexplicable reason to ape the precise prose of the Victorian adventure story, what would be striking is the way in which his description of his friend Sherlock Holmes’s enthusiasm for text messaging could be read, in a different context, as a reliance on the telegram. Plus ça change, you might say.

The BBC’s new Sherlock Holmes series, as surely everyone knows by now, is set in the modern day – a return to the approach of those ’40s Rathbone movies which dropped the great detective into the middle of World War II and left him to it. What saves the series, written by Doctor Who supremo Steven Moffat and co-created with Mark Gatiss, from the worst excesses of those patchy productions is its clever refiguring of the original stories. Like Guy Ritchie’s version late last year, this Sherlock at first appears to bear only superficial resemblance to the popular, let alone canonical, image of Holmes; but, like Ritchie’s, this Holmes is deep down the same character in skewed contexts.

Thus the text messaging. On one level, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a thoroughly modern SMS addict, firing off 160-character messages almost constantly; on another, his addiction teaches us something about his character, as well as his milieu – that he is distant and distanced, preferring communication at one remove and which has the additional benefit of forcing the elision of all but the most necessary information; but yet further, the SMS is a the modern telegram – priced by the space it takes up, delivered practically immediately, perfect for the issuing of diktats and summonses. This depth of reference makes Sherlock a complex and clever drama, aware of the power its source material bestows, rather than desperate to ditch it.

Martin Freeman’s Watson, too, gets similar treatment: like his Victorian forebear, he is recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In a nod to Sherlockians who have puzzled for a century about the curious flight of the Jezail bullet which wounded him, this Watson has a phantom limp which resolves into his real wound – in the shoulder. These separate instances are dealt with lightly and deftly, making perfect, immediate sense to the initiate but also adding a wealth of reference, allusion and just plain smarts to what could have easily been a fairly brainless series. Only an over-done and unnecessary running ‘joke’ that Holmes and Watson had nothing to fear if they wanted to be big gay buddies (why the constant re-iteration?) rings a truly clumsy note.

None of which is to say that Sherlock is without its hiccups – though its casting, locations and wardrobe are all in the main superb, feeding on the characters’ heritage without compromising its contemporary relevance, all this grit and grain is at times flattened out by unsure execution. In particular, the central mystery felt stretched – perhaps deliberately, it was significantly less interesting or indeed complex than the character introductions, and much agonising was put on screen about a solution which Doyles’s Holmes would probably have arrived at before the opening sitting room scene was over. Furthermore, Mark Gatiss’s performance felt as if it had snuck in from a different series – camp and knowing, it seemed rather to betray the tone of the rest of the episode. Gatiss’s shtick is far more entertaining the less you’ve seen of it.

These are uncharitable gripes, however: Sherlock was a triumph, almost immediately dispelling preconceptions whilst also playing with them, making use of our storied knowledge of Holmes whilst also forbidding us to judge this new version on anything but his own terms. It is a fiendish balancing act to pull off, but the writer and his cast did so with aplomb. If a story about, in DI Lestrade’s words, a great man becoming a good man may not be the most revolutionary of concepts – and if Holmes-as-sociopath under-sells the compassion and decency which has been part of all the most successful versions of Holmes (Doyle’s not least among them, natch) – it’s far too soon to doubt an approach which, in the series’ first episode, worked by and large so impossibly well.

“It Suits My Purpose”: Doyle, Holmes, and Milverton

"Milverton had glided as quick as a rat to the site of the room..."

This blog enjoyed one of those periodic – but inexplicable – spikes yesterday, for the phrase ‘charles augustus milverton’. Milverton is, of course, the only Sherlock Holmes villain named in the title of the story in which he appears. When I read the story last year, what struck me was the seediness of the affair: the unctuous Milverton, his amoral blackmail racket, Holmes’s own descent into moral ambiguity. It’s a story very strong in characterisation – its villain is no rent-a-crook, and remains one of the most memorable of all Holmes’s nemeses. But Holmes and Watson, too, get some fine moments: when Watson insists he join Holmes in robbing Milverton’s home, the good doctor huffs at his conceited friend that, “Other people besides you have self-respect, and even reputations.” Rarely does Watson get lines like that.

This is all for the best, because the story itself is pretty weak, resolved as it is by the arrival of a character mentioned not at all until her very moment of entrance. Though Milverton crosses swords with Holmes on the subject of one of the latter’s aristocratic clients, his undoing – entirely without any input or influence from our hero – is a quite separate tale, and engineered by a wronged woman who remains, thanks to good old circumspect Watson, nameless. The only satisfaction we have is the story’s atmosphere.

This is set early on when Holmes, far from a man uncharmed by criminal competency (he praised Moriarty, remember, with the remarkable sobriquet ‘the Napoleon of crime’), calls Milverton, plainly and without adornment, “The worst man in London.” Though he admits that “the fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more savoury trade”, Holmes’s disdain is clear for the manner in which the blackmailer preys on the private indiscretions of those unfortunate enough to possess an acquaintance willing to sell secrets for cash. Milverton “methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order to add to his already swollen money-bags.” Rarely, Watson notes, has Holmes spoken with such intensity.

That intensity may have been Conan Doyle’s: published in 1904, the story was written whilst his first wife, Louisa, became increasingly ill with tuberculosis; for consolation, Conan Doyle turned to Jean Leckie, whom he married a year after Louisa’s death in 1906. The passionate denunciation of those who would profit from the painful complications of a gentleman’s private affairs may therefore be unsurprising, particularly given that Milverton is based on Charles Augustus Howell, a real life blackmailer who died in mysterious circumstances in 1890. Milverton is a potent mix of true life study and darkest fears made flesh. It is he who makes this otherwise akward story dance – thus, one assumes, the searches.

“Genus and Species”: Sherlock Holmes’s Old Age

The bees did speak to him, after a fashion. The featureless drone, the sonic blank that others heard was to him a shifting narrative, rich, inflected, variable and distinct as the separated stones of a featureless grey shingle.

The Final Solution

I read Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution five years ago, when it was first published, but it is better than I remembered. It is profoundly elegiac, emphasising again and again its protagonist’s decrepitude, the short time left to his broken body, and that body’s increasing uselessness in the interim. The 89 year-old man at the centre of this tender novella, of course, is Sherlock Holmes. It is 1944, and Holmes has been in retirement on the South Downs longer than he was in practice on Baker Street; he has come to spend almost all of his time with his bees. He is as much a myth amongst the local populace as the half-mad hermit as he is across a nation which has half-forgotten the great detective’s exploits.

When he visits London, in search of a young Jewish boy’s lost parrot, Holmes is astounded not so much by the destruction of the Blitz but by the city’s remarkable resilience: it has not died, but changed. Characters in the story lament a fading Empire, and Holmes is a relic of an earlier time of rectitude and colonialism, as distant to his fellow villagers as the age of Shakespeare. It’s a moving setting for a Holmes story, and though the old man finds some of his old fire, he is within this mise en scene a diminished figure.

The Holocaust hovers, undiscovered, over the narrative; but, of course, it is also the unsolvable mystery, a horror so awful that it is beyond the human reason of which Holmes is so noted a champion. The detective has the sense of all this, and has grown fatalistic in his old age: “One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things.” [pg. 125]

Thus the elegy: Chabon’s affection for the Holmes stories shines through this narrative, offering a last hurrah for a man who defies the post-modernism of our own fractured world. It’s also full of Chabon’s dry wit, possessing a wryness fitting for a pastiche. If it is hard to see Sherlock Holmes in his dotage, it warms the heart to see him still willing and able as late as the Second World War – and comforting to know there is still humour and humanity in an age which would baffle his love of unity.

Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes

"The Seven Per-Cent Solution"

One of the questions I kept coming back to last year was how the in many ways slight, in some ways clumsy, in every way uneven, stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle continue to command such attention. His prose style is perhaps unfairly maligned – that narration contains many subtelties of voice which help create the characters of both Watson and Holmes – but could surely never be called beautiful. His stories are very often rehashes, or remixes, of earlier ones. Even his sense of plot and pace is at best variable. And yet something about those stories keeps many coming back – nostalgia for childhood reading, you might say. Maybe so, maybe so.

The question poses itself again having read Nicholas Meyer’s Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (Abigail, this is your cue). This is the first time I’ve read it, though I’ve seen snatches of it before – notably the passage in which Meyer’s Watson dismisses whole swathes of the Casebook as forgery and drivel. It is expert stuff in many ways – Meyer’s apeing of Conan Doyle’s voice is for the most part spot on, and even in those parts where it necessarily departs from the original texts it still manages a sort of spiritual fidelity. It is also replete with footnotes and the sort of Great Game-playing Sherlockians go wild for. I pointed out in my reading of The Final Problem and The Empty House that these stories make Holmes into something close to a superhero; in playing the Great Game, Meyer must pretend that Holmes was real, and therefore such derring-do becomes simply unbelievable. How, then, to explain away the ridiculous mythic quality of those stories?

Simple: Meyer, or rather Holmes, uses the seven-per-cent solution. The novel is a story of cold turkey, in which Holmes is weaned from his cocaine addiction by Sigmund Freud, whose techniques of small observations leading to grand deductions, of course, bear some superficial comparison with Holmes’s. It’s a neat conceit, although inevitably it diminishes Holmes in many ways; but humanising the great detective is Meyer’s main aim, and in so doing it seems clear he influenced the Holmes who would feature in the Granada TV adaptations. Brett’s Holmes – mercurial, maddened, repressed – is to a great extent Meyer’s. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution must have been a shock to Sherlockians of the 1970s who were still completely sold on Basil Rathbone.

All of which is to say that the novel is good fun, clever hokum. It is deeply respectful of the source texts, but not afraid to ask them to grow outwards. Meyer fills in some gaps left by Conan Doyle; he prises some further apart; he has a ball, and he never once disrespects the canon whilst doing it. Meyer’s Watson is Conan Doyle’s with just a little added freedom – dictating his last story on his pre-war deathbed, Victorian propriety is now less of a concern. And yet. For all that fun, the book never quite has the warmth, depth or density of one of the original stories. It is a pastiche; it isn’t meant to. At the same time, though, the lengths to which Meyer goes to echo Conan Doyle, and the extent to which he ultimately fails in complete replication, begs that same old question: what is it about those stories?

More on this as I go through other non-canon works, no doubt…