Thursday, 7 July 2011

What If Sherlock Holmes Had Never Returned From The Reichenbach Falls?

Earlier this year I watched a rather confused and disappointing drama, 'Reichenbach Falls' (2007).  The one-off drama based on an Ian Rakin short story was set in modern day Edinburgh and initially appeared to be about a detective inspector, Jim Buchan, working in the city whose former lover, Clara, is now wife of a successful author, Jack Harvey.  The detective begins to see the ghost of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and it transpires that the detective himself is not real, but a figment of the imagination of real-life author Jack Harvey.  Harvey plans to kill off his long-running character the way that Doyle did with Holmes in 'The Final Problem' (1893) when Holmes fell to his death battling Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.  Like Doyle, however, Harvey is encouraged to retrieve Buchan and so in his own mind, Buchan comes back to life, a life we see as if it was real.  Despite being based on an interesting concept, the drama was poorly made and left me very dissatisfied.  However, it did get me thinking about how literature would have been different if Doyle had not decided to bring Holmes back.

'The Final Problem' was the 24th Sherlock Holmes short story.  They had all featured in 'The Strand' magazine and had been collected as 'The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' (1892) and 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes' (1894), of which 'The Final Problem', set in 1891 is the last story.  There had also been two novels, 'A Study in Scarlet' (1887) and 'The Sign of Four' (1890).  Thus, quite an extensive collection which had attracted global popularity.  As I have noted before:  if you compare the Sherlock Holmes stories with most of its rival detective series, you see that the complexity of the mysteries combined with the amoral approach of Holmes made the character stand out.  However, you can also understand, why, after seven years, Doyle felt a need to move on to new characters. 

Interestingly in Michael Dibdin's story, 'The Last Sherlock Holmes Story' (1978), Holmes is a real man but turns out to have been Jack the Ripper and is killed at the time 'The Final Bow' is written.  Consequently the subsequent stories are 'made up' by Dr. John Watson, who in this book was also a real person.  I do wonder why authors are attracted to playing around with the reality/fiction of Holmes.  You see it again in the movie 'Without A Clue' (1988) in which Holmes is shown as a bumbling former actor who acts only as a figurehead for Watson's astute detective work.

Which stories would be missing, if after 1894, Doyle had not been persuaded to revive Holmes?  As it was Doyle took a break, not publishing a proper Holmes story until 1902, though the character was in the background of some short stories that Doyle wrote in the nine year period.  The main missing novel would have been 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1902), though it is set in 1889.  This is probably the best known of all Sherlock Holmes stories, certainly the one that has been dramatised the most.  Without it, a story which seems to sum up a Gothic flavour of Holmes and does not have the moral ambiguity of many of the stories, then Holmes would probably not be as accessible to general audiences, in particular in the USA.  The moral ambiguity has always set US audiences at unease, one reason why 'The Adventure of the Cardboard Box' (1892) which features adultery (and severed ears) was removed from US editions of 'The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes' (1894) and only appeared in 'His Last Bow' (1917), published 13 years later, when presumably American audiences could stomach it. 

With 'The Return of Sherlock Holmes' (1905) and the thirteen stories it featured would have been lost well known ones such as 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' (1903) [often used as an introduction to ciphers] and 'The Mystery of the Empty House' (1903) [featuring an air rifle and the bust of Holmes as a decoy].  'The Valley of Fear' (1915) is not at all well known and there has been no live action adaptation of it, bar 'The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes' (1935).  'His Last Bow' (1917) features eight stories, none not that well known to the general public, bar perhaps, 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' (1912) though more as a synonym for civil service inefficiency than for the story itself and to a lesser extent for relocating corpses in detective stories by dropping them on to railway carriage roofs.  In the final collection, 'The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes' (1927) among the 12 stories are ones like 'The Adventure of the Creeping Man' (1923)  [in which a man injects himself with serum derived from a monkey to keep himself young] which has fed into ideas of this kind; similarly 'The Adventure of the Illustrious Client' (1924) has informed many stories with its villain who misuses a string of women.

One interesting factor is that, given Holmes survived at the Reichenbach Falls, it is easy to imagine that Moriarty did too.  With 'The Final Problem' both Holmes and Moriarty were proven to be mortal and fallible.  Once this incident was recast by 'The Mystery of the Empty House', as different to what readers had been previously been told, then it opened up an acceptance of both heroes and villains who, despite appearing to have died or be killed, actually can re-appear in later stories.  I think if the Holmes sequence had stopped with the 'The Final Problem' then it would have been far harder for writers of everything from children's cartoon series to James Bond movies, to have a villain who keeps coming back.  A 'norm' of so much popular fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries would be missing with Holmes and Moriarty's clear deaths casting such a shadow.  Moriarty has become the basis of the 'super-villain' trope apparent in so much of our fiction.  It may be a stretch to see Holmes as the first 'superhero' (Superman did not appear until 1938, 11 years after the last Sherlock Holmes story) but his combat and intellectual skills and apparent invulnerability seem to have laid the foundations for such approaches being tolerated in popular culture.  With no resurrection for Holmes and the chance that Moriarty, some day, could come back too, then these elements would be missing from popular writing or certainly delayed.

Without these 35 latter stories, the Holmes canon certainly would be a lot smaller.  However, aside from 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' it would only have been particular fans of the stories who would have noted an overt difference.  There would have been a cultural impact as I have noted, because so many writers of books and movies have been influenced by elements of these later stories: the nature of villains, the use of ciphers and hazards of toying with nature.  However, I still think Holmes would be well known.  In addition, whilst the bulk of the Holmes stories appeared after Queen Victoria had died, we still tend to think of him as a Victorian detective (primarily as most of the later stories are still set during her reign).  It is clear that sensibilities were changing, particularly by the late 1920s, not least due to the brutality of the First World War.  This had a heavy personal impact on Doyle himself, turning him to spiritualism, a topic he wrote about 1918-30; it is believed his interest in the movement developed following the death of his wife in 1906, his son in 1918, his brother in 1919, and subsequently two brothers-in-law and two nephews in the early 1920s.

Without Holmes, much of Doyle's other work may be more prominent than it has been.  From 1889 onwards Doyle wrote 39 non-Holmes novels, but who has heard of Raffles Haw [E.W. Hornung, Doyle's brother-in-law wrote the Raffles, gentleman burglar, novels 1903-9], Stark Munro or Brigadier Gerard?  When have their stories been dramatised? The only other non-Holmes character who has received much attention has been Professor Challenger stories (5 novels 1912-29; one featuring spiritualism). Doyle also wrote 12 non-fiction books, though after 1918 these tended to focus on spiritualism and fairies rather than contemporary warfare and colonialism as they had 1900-16. 

Doyle killed off Holmes because he felt the stories were too much of a distraction from his historical novels, of which he wrote seven 1888-1906, the best known of which is 'The White Company' (1891), but even that is obscure compared to any of the Holmes stories.  Perhaps without Holmes to 'distract' him, Doyle would have developed other characters and written more historically-set novels, turning him into looking more like Sir Walter Scott than simply a detective novelist.  It is quite possible he would have written more non-fiction too. 

If Doyle had not killed Holmes off in 1894 and had a break of at least six years before returning to him, but instead had kept writing them through the second half of the 1890s, then the quality may have faded or by 1902, he may have been burnt out and we would have found Holmes killed once again.  The break probably did the canon good.  However, the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing shows how one success can distort everything about the rest of his output.  In writing terms, Doyle was probably right to end Holmes in 1894.  As the makers of many television series today know, it is always best to go out on a high note.  This is not to say that the latter stories are of any lesser quality, and in fact, many tropes that we recognise in contemporary fiction originate, to a great extent, from many Holmes stories even though this might not often be recognised.  Thus, without these stories, whilst we might not notice it, many of the stories around today could be different.  

Even within the Holmes stories, the removal of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' would have probably meant greater focus on the other stories, perhaps sanitised to give them a clearer morality.  Certainly without that single novel, we would have seen far fewer dramatisations of Sherlock Holmes stories in subsequent decades.  In many ways, I am ambivalent over whether Doyle was right to resurrect Holmes.  I am not a fan of 'The Hound of the Baskervilles', feeling it jars badly with the nature of the stories before and after it.  I guess I have to come down on the side of approval of the revival of Holmes per se, as I know that, without that return, we would have missed out on a sizeable number of excellent short stories.

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