On trying to read the classics

I’ve started reading “classics” on the train. You know – those books that few people want to read, but  everyone wants to say they have read.

I’m a big fan of the BBC TV series “Sherlock” and the CBS series “Elementary” – I recommend you give them a shot if you haven’t already. And which red-blooded Englishman amongst us cannot admit to being partial to a bit of Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett on a Sunday afternoon?

I was interested to know how much material for Sherlock and Elementary came from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work, and what was so great about the original stories that has inspired film and TV makers for over a hundred years (the earliest example I could find of Sherlock Holmes in moving pictures was a silent short in 1900). It also comes up occasionally in pub quizzes, specialist subjects on Mastermind, or as references in other fiction. So I downloaded the books from Project Gutenberg and started reading them on my Kindle.

Good heavens, they’re dreadful.

Sherlock’s genius deductions from fluff on a shirt-collar and footprints in the semolina are contrived and implausible. He reaches spectacularly accurate conclusions when any of a hundred other conclusions would have been equally valid. If he were so concerned by that single loose piece of paper in the grate, why wasn’t he searching through the bins too?

The characters around him are paper-thin. They’re one-dimensional stereotypes. They’re either villains, foreigners, ‘mere’ women, bumbling detectives, or sycophants declaring “Amazing! Astounding!” at every opportunity.

The plot is often contrived, and frequently underwhelming. The dialogue is like a mountain climber in a corset – creaks a lot and difficult to follow. Women do little else but faint. The police are narrow minded. And inscrutable foreigners babble-on in their strange lingo and kill people with poison darts.

But something must have registered with scriptwriters, mustn’t it? What is it about ACD’s consulting detective which has made so much great TV? I can’t really claim that I know better than over a hundred years of film-making, and it is idiotic to dismiss such a canon of writing so trivially.

I think it is the premise of the stories that is the attraction, rather than the plot or dialogue. John Watson, as the narrator, is our eyes and ears into the world of someone whose intellect sees all, and yet is almost entirely incapable of empathy or emotion. He is in our world, and yet separate from it. We marvel at Sherlock’s razorlike deductive capabilities, and wonder what loose hair in the shagpile will reveal the murderer. It’s like CSI, but with added tea and biscuits.

And for all its faults, there is something engaging about the original texts, even after over a hundred years. I seem to have developed a routine: I read a few pages, mutter “bloody hell, this is drivel”, put it down and vow not to waste any more of my time on it … and then in a few hours, I’m wondering what is going to happen next and find myself reading it again.

It has started affecting how I look at people, too. On the train I often catch myself looking at smaller details about people sat opposite – wedding ring missing, but his finger still has the tanline. Recently divorced? But of course, he could equally be an engineer who isn’t allowed to wear jewellery on the shop floor and his ring is still in his pocket. But he isn’t built like an engineer, though … and so on.

Perhaps I’m judging ACD too harshly. I am able to judge it with the benefit of hindsight, getting it all the wrong way around. After all, Sherlock Holmes came first, and set the pattern for crime fiction. Slow-witted village constables, busybody housekeepers and inscrutable criminal masterminds seem a cliche now – but that’s because Sherlock Holmes was there first.

It is little wonder that there have been almost as many parodies as TV adaptations. The mechanics of Sherlock Holmes’ dialogue practically parodies itself:

Watson: “I say, Holmes! I realise that your razorlike intelligence is beyond compare and we humble onlookers must appear as ants next to your massive intellect, but must you play with that all night long as you consider your latest case?”

Holmes: “Ah, Watson, my dear old friend! I do apologise, but yes, this has been a tricky problem! But at last, I have the solution – so I shall put my trousers back on! Tell my trusty housekeeper she may serve us tea and biscuits.”

Watson: “I haven’t been able to get her out of the broom closet since she saw you ‘thinking’ about your problem earlier. But wait! You say you’ve cracked the case?”

Holmes: “Why, yes, of course! The killer was right under our noses all the time! It is quite elementary, really – Sir Montague Fartsmedley has been trying to put us off the scent all this time! For the inflatable banjo salesman who visited Lady Blatworthy in the disused Whoopee Cushion factory on that fateful night was none other than his own brother: Eleanor Pube-Gussett the second! Once I had deduced that, it followed that the reason the chicken-sexer’s pet wallaby behaved so strangely when he smelled Lady Blatworthy’s  knitted Balaclava was because the missing mouth-organ of Ponders End was secreted inside! The rest you know. What do you say to that, Watson?”

Watson: “Incredible, Holmes! Astounding! Your powers of deduction never cease to amaze me! I feel feeble for not seeing it all earlier! We can tell the Police Inspector that he can release the blind, deaf, one armed mute that he has been holding as prime-suspect all this time.” … etc …

ACD himself came to hate Sherlock, and tried to kill him off – only for the public to demand more. I wonder how he would feel now, to know that a creation that he hated and just wouldn’t die is now a staple of British culture? Sherlock is the poster-boy for British intellectual superiority. We secretly like him because he is Quintessentially English, abrupt and insulting, and spends most of his time stopping undereducated foreigners from committing dastardly crimes. Meanwhile, Americans think that everyone in England wears a deerstalker hat and smokes a pipe. They think of Sherlock as we do John Wayne.

Anyway … I’ve read the first two novels and am currently working through the first compilation of short stories. Time will tell whether I persist, or shout “sod it” for the last time.

And in my next episode of “Clueless blogger rants about established British literature, revealing him to be an ignorant troll” I discuss why you’re better off watching Lord of The Rings on Blu-Ray rather than trying to read the damn books.

Despite his razorlike intellect, even Holmes couldn't fathom how CrossCountry could charge *THAT* much for a Snickers bar.

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posted in Ranting by Oddbloke

1 Comment to "On trying to read the classics"

  1. Mulled Vine wrote:

    I have this constant pressure to be reading proper, classical literature, apart from a few exceptions, and generally disappointed by my inability to remain awake for more than one page.

    Granted, some of it is stunningly literate and beautiful, and to be studied and admired, but if I’m after a holiday read, then give me something contemporary any day!


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