Skip to main content

Sherlock Holmes is a lot better when you have context and a decent vocabulary.

Depending on what you'd call my initial attempts as a kid, I either just re-read A Study in Scarlet and The Return of Sherlock Holmes, or I just read them for the first time.  It's the latest in my efforts to get reacquainted with Sherlock Holmes, a character who's beloved by the world, but whose appeal has eluded me for most of my life.

The last time I tried tackling any of Doyle's work, I think I was ten or eleven.  I found his stories mystifying.  It seemed like he was constantly talking over my head, although I grasped the basic concepts (i.e., Sherlock is smart, the cops are dumb).  What shocked me more than anything was how dull and drab it all was.  Sherlock is just prowling foggy streets and talking a lot?  Where's the fun in that?


So I put my copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes down and left it there for twenty years.  Waiting tends to make a difference.

I'm always amazed by how much better stories are when I read them as an adult.  Everything I've ever dismissed as boring or slow in my youth is now riveting.  Growing old is kinda rad.

The first thing that helps is just that I know what more words mean, so I don't have to stop reading every two minutes to grab a dictionary.  More importantly, I've grown more fluent in story tropes and connotation, so the little clues and implications that get dropped here and there strike home.  I'm also just a better reader in general - for example, Doyle is a big fan of omitting dialogue indicators (I am, too), which can be tough if you haven't read a lot.

I have a much greater sense of consequence and significance now, too.  A good example: A Study in Scarlet eventually details the misadventures of a frontiersman and his adopted daughter in nineteenth century Utah, where they come into a disagreement with the Latter Day Saints.  As a kid, I had no concept of what any of that meant.  Mormons, Adventists, Baptists, Methodists, whatever, they were all the same thing, right?  But reading the story as an adult, I felt an immediate suspicion and dread when the Mormons are introduced and start talking about "devotion."  It's the kind of "you know what comes next" uneasiness that Doyle absolutely intended when he introduced them.

Sherlock himself is overall a much funnier person.  He's a total douchebag with no concept of self-awareness whatsoever, despite his obvious talents and genius.  He's kinda like if Data and House, MD had a baby. I always understood that he was an arrogant archetype, but I never fully grasped how he was the butt of jokes here and there, and I appreciate that so much more now.

I do still have one major beef with Sherlock, though.  Despite the fun logical leaps and bounds he makes, the stories I've read so far are completely lacking in suspense.  You always know ahead of time that yes, Sherlock will, in fact, solve the case, and no, you're not going to be able to figure it out before him.  I don't think that a good mystery needs to be solvable by the reader, but if you're going to spend so much time on its solution, the reader should at least feel like an active participant in the investigation.

Instead, you're always kept in the dark while Sherlock does a lot of nonsense and then puts it all together at the last minute.  Most of the time, he reveals information he gathered totally outside of what you've seen, so the effect is basically just him pulling clues out of his ass.  There's always something he learned while Watson was napping, or when Watson was too tired to accompany Sherlock on a stakeout, or something he just happened to know off the top of his head because his brain is 90% bullshit.

It gets tiresome after awhile.  I don't mind it when he has a big reveal, but the ones that resonate much more are the ones where you are actively engaged on any level whatsoever with the progress of the case - like "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons."

I won't pretend to be an expert on the evolution of mystery and suspense over the ages, but it's fascinating to see how Sherlock has influenced literature and how modern mysteries now approach their climactic reveals.  We still like the rogue, super-genius detective, but we've eschewed the pseudo-academic ramblings that make up half of Sherlock's bag of tricks.  I'm hooked enough now that I want to find out what else he has in there. It's probably going to be more familiar than I expect.