Sherlock Holmes resurrection centennial

In honor of the one hundredth anniversary of the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes, here is an illustration from the original edition of “The Adventure of the Empty House,” published in the October 1903 issue of The Strand.

Holmes and Watson.jpg

For those unfamiliar with Holmesiana, Arthur Conan Doyle, after publishing 24 sensationally popular Holmes stories in The Strand starting in 1891, tired of his hero and apparently killed him off in a duel with the evil Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, as portrayed in “The Final Problem,” published in 1893. Holmes fans were appalled and shocked, even attacking Conan Doyle as the murderer of his own fictional creation. Under continuing pressure from the public to bring back the detective, Conan Doyle published The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901. Hound, however, was not a resurrection, as the story took place before the period of The Final Problem. Finally, in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Conan Doyle gave into the inevitable. As the story opens, three years have passed since Holmes’s apparent death plunge from Reichenbach Falls, and Dr. Watson is carrying on sadly but stalwartly without his remarkable friend. One day an old, white-haired book collector comes into Watson’s study and says to him:

“Well, sir, if it isn’t too great a liberty, I am a neighbour of yours, for you’ll find my little bookshop at the corner of Church Street, and very happy to see you, I am sure. Maybe you collect yourself, sir. Here’s British Birds, and Catullus, and The Holy War–a bargain, every one of them. With five volumes you could just fill that gap on that second shelf. It looks untidy, does it not, sir?”

I moved my head to look at the cabinet behind me. When I turned again, Sherlock Holmes was standing smiling at me across my study table. I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life. Certainly a gray mist swirled before my eyes, and when it cleared I found my collar-ends undone and the tingling after-taste of brandy upon my lips. Holmes was bending over my chair, his flask in his hand.

“My dear Watson,” said the well-remembered voice, “I owe you a thousand apologies. I had no idea that you would be so affected.”

I gripped him by the arms.

“Holmes!” I cried. “Is it really you? Can it indeed be that you are alive? Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”

“Wait a moment,” said he. “Are you sure that you are really fit to discuss things? I have given you a serious shock by my unnecessarily dramatic reappearance.”

“I am all right, but indeed, Holmes, I can hardly believe my eyes. Good heavens! to think that you—you of all men—should be standing in my study.” Again I gripped him by the sleeve, and felt the thin, sinewy arm beneath it. “Well, you’re not a spirit, anyhow,” said I. “My dear chap, I’m overjoyed to see you. Sit down, and tell me how you came alive out of that dreadful chasm.”

Why should traditionalists care about these familiar figures of Holmes and Watson? The short answer is that they are heroes of our civilization. At a later point I will have more to say about this. In the meantime, may I recommend Conan Doyle’s stories, as well as the marvelous British tv series starring Jeremy Brett, which is available on video.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 30, 2003 03:39 PM | Send

I’m odd-man-out on Mr. Brett’s portrayal. It seems that most Sherlockians regard him as the best actor to have played Mr. Holmes, but I am not able to relate.

Basil Rathbone remains the quintessential Sherlock in my opinion. With 14 movies, and over 200 radio shows (Petri Wine!) Mr. Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are a consistent delight.

Unfortunately, there is no Rathbone/Bruce movie on The Final Problem as there is for Mr. Brett. But a similar plotline is used at the beginning of “The Spider Lady.” And the storyline is also carried into the radio series, with a few focusin on Mr. Holmes’s adventures while he was ‘dead.’

I have to say that the old British 1/2 hour TV series with Ronald Howard and H. Marion Crawford are also quite enjoyable.

Of course, nothing replaces reading the complete works. :-)

Posted by: Joel on September 30, 2003 3:56 PM

Make that “The Spider Woman.” Close but no cigar. :-/

Posted by: Joel on September 30, 2003 3:59 PM

I can understand why Joel may not like Jeremy Brett’s performance. I didn’t watch the series when it was originally broadcast, between 1984 and 1994, because when I would glance briefly at it I would be put off by something about Brett, he seemed cold and unpleasant. (Also, in the later years of the series, Brett was ill—he died of heart failure in 1995—and his appearance changed markedly.) Then, last month, I began seeing many of the episodes on video, as well as reading the stories, and Brett’s interpretation of Holmes began to make complete sense. He is bringing out the inward dimension of the character, which Rathbone, for all his external mastery of the character, didn’t touch. It is Holmes’s inner drive, the drive of a genius or artist working under the pressure of a consuming creative process, which explains his abrupt and quirky outer behavior and even his affectations. Brett makes Holmes real and multi-dimensional.

Rathbone’s Holmes is a remarkable and resourceful man, but still a normal man. He blends easily in social situations, there is an unstated sexual tension between him and the female characters. But Brett’s Holmes—like Conan Doyle’s Holmes—is not a part of normal humanity; he is emotionally deficient, asexual. And this is his fascination. He does all these great things for mankind, saving people from terrible dangers, finding the truth, foiling villains, yet he himself stands apart from the rest of mankind. He is, at bottom, a strange being, though of course completely moral and upright. (In contemporary fiction, anyone who is odd like Holmes would also be disordered, which is not true of Holmes, with the exception of his cocaine habit which he eventually gives up.) I think all of that is in the stories but Brett brings it out.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 30, 2003 4:31 PM

I agree that Mr. Brett does have something to commend his performance. I think a good example of his ‘abrubt and quirky outer behavior’ could be seen in the tongue-lashing he gave to Col. Moran after his plan to assassinate the ‘resurrected’ Mr. Holmes was foiled, (in the movie version of the story in discussion.)

My father in fact agrees with your assessment of Mr. Brett. Just hard for me to think of him as “the best” overall.

I don’t mean to say that his portrayal had no merit in its own right. I guess just having been raised on Mr. Rathbone’s interpretation has fused him in the mind’s eye, even when reading the stories. (When you think of Robin Hood, don’t you think of Errol Flynn? Or Zorro - Tyrone Power?) ;-) If Mr. Rathbone doesn’t incorporate the inner dimension of the Holmes character in the Brett fashion, he still showcases the examples of ‘deductive reasoning’ quite well.

EXCELLENT idea running a thread on Sherlock Holmes! :-)

Posted by: Joel on September 30, 2003 5:07 PM

The popular idea of Holmes is as a pure deductive thinker, a reasoning machine. But what the popular idea misses is the energy that drives that deduction. It is the energy of the daimonic. Holmes’s quest for knowledge and truth is a passionate drive, though he himself denies the passions, always putting down Watson/Doyle’s stories of his adventures as too “romantic,” insufficiently focussed on the real matter, which is deduction. Also, Holmes is engaged in an inner contest with the forces of evil. This is felt most strongly in the Brett version of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

He is not, pace the popular view, a self-contained, unemotional, thinking machine. But his emotions come out in unusual ways. I feel this dimension of the character is all there in the stories, but Brett is the first actor to bring it out.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on September 30, 2003 5:41 PM

I first read Holmes at age 12 when I found an anthology in the school library. I had never read anything like it. My favorites are The Sign Of Four and The Hound Of The Baskervilles. The Empty House also is a joy to read. The Holmes canon is indeed part of our civilization.

Both Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett show in their portrayals of Holmes how a great actor can indeed bring a character to life. I prefer the Brett series because the Rathbone films have Nigel Bruce playing Watson as a bumbler, not how he was in Doyle. The Brett films pretty much transfer Doyle direct to film which works well.

I also liked Murder By Decree (1979) with Christopher Plummer and James Mason. Good atmosphere with Holmes and Watson pursuing Jack the Ripper.

Posted by: David on October 1, 2003 2:12 PM
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