(Note: This post has been updated as of 27 Jul at 10:26 AM. See below)
Quite some years ago I was involved in a catastrophic motorcycle accident that left me bed-bound for almost a year. In an effort to ease my forced confinement, my then father-in-law brought a gift: the Doubleday edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Although I managed a smile of gratitude, it crossed my mind that in buying me that collection of stories the not-so-old man had suffered a premature Senior Moment. A copyeditor for The New York Times, he and I had discussed literature often, and he was well aware of my distaste for, and contemptuous dismissal of, genre fiction in all its forms, yet here he was presenting me with two volumes worth of the stuff. Perhaps, I thought, it was a joke of some sort I hadn't quite caught on to, or perhaps he'd had not merely a premature Senior Moment, but gone stone-cold barking mad.
I decided to defer immediate judgment on the matter. As I was a virtual prisoner with nowhere to go and nothing but time on my hands, what could it hurt to at least give the things a read, or a try at a read, as the case might be. Time enough later for a final decision on the question of my father-in-law's mental competency.
So, beginning at the beginning, I turned to the opening novella-length story, A Study in Scarlet, and began to read.
In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the Army.
What odd but curiously pleasant syntax was the thought that immediately crossed my mind. The thought passed, I continued to read.
Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as assistant surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy's country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.
In context, just the names seemed to bristle with an exotic energy. Encouraged, I read on for the next two days straight with almost no sleep, during which time I read all sixty stories all 1300 pages of them and then went back to start reading them all over again.
I wasn't sure at just what point I'd become hooked, and even less sure of what it was that hooked me, but hooked I was, and the mystery of how that came about is for me today still a greater mystery than any Holmes and Watson ever undertook to unravel; one that, even after all these years, remains elusive of fully satisfactory solution.
Of one thing, however, I was certain: these stories were not litraschur. Heart of Darkness is litraschur. The Dead is litraschur. The Half-skinned Steer is litraschur. But The Adventure of the Speckled Band, or even the almost-novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles? No way. Not, at any rate, outside the halls of academe with its postmodern lit courses in which novels such as Stephen King's Pet Sematary and Spiderman comic books are considered litraschur.
But there I was and here I am. Hooked on works of detective fiction. Genre fiction. Prole-pandering-barely-worth-the-paper-they're-printed-on pulp fiction!
So, how to explain it. I mean, it really does require some sort of explanation. But as I've said, I can't explain it in any fully satisfactory way. Yes, it's true Conan Doyle makes astonishingly real his two central characters and the milieu in which they lived and worked; so real that one finds oneself needing to ferret out, when they're not explicitly given (and just to be certain, even when they are), the exact dates and physical locations of the stories' action. One somehow feels a compelling need to know that. And, yes, the stories chronicle a friendship rare today, and perhaps rare at any time. And, yes, the era of Holmes and Watson is wonderfully intimate, warmly romantic, and altogether appealing, especially to a 21st-century American. And, yes, the totally self-reliant character of Holmes is individualistic and nobly aristocratic, and his consummate skill in, and dedication to his profession superhuman even if somewhat unbelievable, all of which is laudable, inspiring, and exciting of admiration. The Holmes-Watson canon is all these things. But that's still not explanation enough, although it's surely an essential part of it.
The best I can muster as explanation and I'm fully cognizant my best is thoroughly inadequate is that the Holmes-Watson stories, even though technically detective fiction, each have the quality of being a chapter of a great and heroic if urbane saga; tales told orally around a pre-literate communal campfire; tales that tell of a time when a man's individual actions had comprehensible, direct, and immediate effect on his environment and those populating it without mediation, mitigation or intensification by technologies the workings of which are comprehensible only to experts; tales that tell of a time when one could "learn at a glance to distinguish the history of [a] man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs"; a time when "by a man's fingernails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boots, by his trouser-knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt-cuffs ... [his] calling is plainly revealed."
Such a time is now long past, and we know we'll never again see its like. We feel a quick pang of sorrow at that, and silently mourn its passing knowing there's nothing for it. We find, however, that we can be granted a meaningful measure of solace and pleasure by a well-told saga of its days of glory which saga is the Holmes-Watson canon. And that, I think, is the secret of the power of these stories, and an at least partial explanation for why a literary elitist such as myself senses something magic about them, and can find himself hooked helpless by that magic.
Too facile an explanation? Well, perhaps. But as I've said, the best I can muster.
Update (27 Jul at 10:26 AM): Weblogger Rick Coencas of Futurballa comments.