An unmatched literary duo
Editor’s note: Besides being the author of many spy thrillers, novelist John le Carre is an inveterate Sherlock Holmes fan. This introduction will appear in a new annotated edition of Holmes stories published this month, accompanied by a foreword and extensive notes by editor Leslie S. Klinger, a lawyer and Holmes expert living in Malibu.
Dr. WATSON doesn’t write to you, he talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy, across a glowing fire. His voice has no barriers or affectations. It is clear, energetic and decent, the voice of a tweedy, no-nonsense colonial Britisher at ease with himself. Its owner is traveled. He has knocked about, as they say, browned his knees. Yet he remains an innocent abroad. He is a first-class chap, loyal to a fault, brave as a lion, and the salt of the earth. All the cliches fit him. But he is not a cliche.
Finer feelings confuse Dr. Watson. He is a stranger to art. Yet, like his creator, he is one of the greatest storytellers the world has ever listened to. On the rare occasions he leaves the stage to Holmes, we long for him to return. Holmes -- mercurial, brilliant, complex, turbulent Holmes -- is not safe out there alone. Oh, he manages. He can dissemble, go underground, disguise himself to the point where his own mother wouldn’t know him, he can act dead or dying, trawl opium dens, wrestle with Moriarty on a cliff’s edge, or dupe the Kaiser’s spy. But none of that changes the fact that when he is alone, he is only half the fellow he becomes the moment faithful Watson takes back the tale.
No amount of academic study, thank Heaven, no earnest dissertations from the literary bureaucracy, will ever explain why we love one writer’s voice above another’s. Partly it has to do with trust, partly with the good or bad manners of the narrator, partly with his authority or lack of it. And a little also with beauty, though not as much as we might like to think. As a reader, I insist on being beguiled early or not at all, which is why a lot of the books on my shelves remain mysteriously unread after Page 20. But once I submit to the author’s thrall, he can do me no wrong. From my childhood onward, Conan Doyle has had that power over me. I love his Brigadier Gerard, and his wicked pirate Sharkey, and his Professor Challenger, too, but I love Holmes and Watson best of all. He has the same power over my sons, and I look on with delight as one by one my grandchildren fall under his spell.
Peek up Conan Doyle’s literary sleeve and you will at first be disappointed; no fine turns of phrase, no clever adjectives that leap off the page, no arresting psychological insights. Instead, what you are looking at is a kind of narrative perfection: a perfect interplay between dialogue and description, perfect characterization and perfect timing. No wonder that, unlike other great storytellers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Conan Doyle translates without loss into practically any language.
Professional critics can’t lay a glove on Conan Doyle, and never could. They could mock his spiritualism, his magpie obsessions; they could declare the later Holmes to be no longer the man he once was. But nobody was listening then, and nobody is listening today. Now, as in his lifetime, cabdrivers, statesmen, academics and raggedy-arsed children sit spellbound at his feet -- proof, if proof were needed, that Doyle’s modesty of language conceals a profound tolerance of the human complexity. Even in his own day, Conan Doyle had many imitators, all vastly inferior, though successful. If one of them, by some awful accident, had spawned the wicked Professor Moriarty, it’s a pound to a penny, Moriarty would have been a scheming Jew; if Joseph Conrad, then [Moriarty would have been] an anguished Balkan radical hellbent on the destruction of industrial society. But Conan Doyle carried no such baggage. He knew that evil can live for itself alone. He has no need of hate or prejudice, and he was wise enough to give the Devil no labels.
Reflect for a moment on the cunning with which Doyle places the reader midway between his two great protagonists. Holmes the towering genius is miles ahead of us, and we know we shall never catch him up. We aren’t meant to, and of course, we don’t want to. But take heart: For we are smarter by a mile than that plodding Dr. Watson! And what is the result? The reader is delightfully trapped between his two champions. Is there anywhere in popular literature a sweeter portrait of what Thomas Mann sonorously called the relationship between the artist and the citizen? In Holmes, we are never allowed to forget the artist’s urge toward self-destruction. Through Watson, we are constantly reminded of our love of social stability.
No wonder, then, if the pairing of Holmes and Watson has triggered more imitators than any other duo in literature. Contemporary cop dramas draw on them repeatedly. They are almost single-handedly responsible for the buddy-buddy movie. The modern thriller would have been lost without them. With no Sherlock Holmes, would I ever have invented George Smiley? And with no Dr. Watson, would I ever have given Smiley his sidekick Peter Guillam? I would like to think so, but I doubt it very much.
I was 9 years old and at my second boarding school when the headmaster’s brother, a saintly man with a golden voice, read us “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” once a week in the junior common room before bedtime. He followed the next term with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and I can hear him now, and see his great bulk, with his bald head glinting before the coal fire.
It is Holmes, questioning Dr. Mortimer.
“A man’s or a woman’s?”
Dr. Mortimer looked
strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost
to a whisper as he answered.
“Mr. Holmes, they were
the footprints of a gigantic hound!”
Now read on. You have in your hand the Final Solution to the collected Sherlock Holmes stories, enriched by a lengthy and learned foreword. Do not be dismayed. Nobody writes of Holmes and Watson without love. *
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From the foreword The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes
IN December 1893, upon publication of “The Final Problem,” the last story of the second series, the public was shocked to learn that Conan Doyle and Watson had for over two years kept secret a fatal struggle between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, which had occurred in May 1891. The revelation of Holmes’ death horrified the nation, and young City men that month put mourning crepe on their silk hats or wore black armbands. One anguished correspondent wrote to Conan Doyle: “You brute!” “I was amazed,” Conan Doyle admitted, “at the concern expressed by the public.” The publisher of the Strand Magazine described Holmes’ death to his shareholders as the “dreadful event,” and 20,000 people reportedly canceled their subscriptions.
Conan Doyle turned away from Sherlock Holmes, with no regret. “Poor Holmes is dead and damned,” he was to say in 1896. -- Leslie S. Klinger