Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction

Murder Will Out: The Detective in FictionThe following is an excerpt from a book about the convention of the detective in mystery fiction. Bibliographic information: Binyon, T.J. Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 9-12. Print. PAGE 9 In 1886 a newly married young doctor who had recently set up in practice in Southsea, the residential quarter of Portsmouth, submitted a short novel which had already been rejected by four or five publishers to Ward, Lock & Co. They offered him twenty-five pounds for the copyright. After some hesitation he accepted the offer and A Study in Scarlet was published in Beeton?s Xmas Annual for 1887. The doctor was, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle, and A Study in Scarlet the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. Three other novels and five collections of short stories, the last published in 1927, make up the Sherlock Holmes canon. In these works Conan Doyle has taken the abstract idea of the detective provided by Poe, and has fleshed out both the main figure and his surroundings. Holmes?s environment is not a decaying Gothic mansion in a sketchily described Paris, a city Poe had never in fact visited, but the cozy, cluttered, late Victorian domestic interior of 221B Baker Street. His normal habitat is the streets and alleys of London, of which he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. Occasionally he ventures into the country, usually the Home Counties, though he has also penetrated as far as Devon (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Cornwall (The Adventure of the Devil?s Foot), and the north of England (The Adventure of the Priory School). The unnamed characterless narrator of Poe?s stories has become John H. Watson, MD, late of the Army Medical Department, who, invalided home after being wounded in Afghanistan, is introduced to Sherlock Holmes in the laboratory of Bart?s Hospital, and agrees to share the comfortable flat in Baker Street with him. The creation of Watson was, in fact, a PAGE 10 stroke of genius. However outr? the events he describes, the fact that they are mediated through his prosaic, stolid personality gives them a reality and a plausibility which they would otherwise lack. There are only three stories which are not narrated by Watson?one is told in the third person, the other two by Holmes himself?and all three are found in the last collection, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), universally considered the weakest, not so much for the conception of the stories as for their execution. It is obvious from the description of Holmes in the opening chapters of A Study in Scarlet that Conan Doyle originally intended to make his hero much more like Dupin?to create a pure detective who would be little more than animated reason. But almost immediately human traits began to creep in. Holmes can feel emotion: annoyance, anger, chagrin. He can admire a worthy adversary, as he admires Irene Adler for outwitting him in A Scandal in Bohemia. InA Study in Scarlet, Watson describes Holmes?s knowledge of literature as non-existent; yet Holmes is soon quoting Goethe and Flaubert, quizzing Watson on his knowledge of Carlyle, and recommending to him a book he describes as one of the most remarkable ever penned, Winwood Reade?s Martyrdom of Man. His corporeality and individuality are enhanced by his eccentricities. He keeps his cigars in the coal scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and unanswered correspondence transfixed with a jack-knife in the center of the mantelpiece, while the wall of his room is decorated with a patriotic V.R. done in bullet marks. Yet at the same time he is recognizably, like Dupin, a product of the romantic tradition. He is another proud, alienated hero, superior to and isolated from the rest of humanity; a sufferer from spleen and ennui, who alleviates the deadly boredom of existence with injections of cocaine and morphine; an aesthete, a music lover and amateur violinist who, during the intervals in the action, will drag the philistine Watson to concert hall and opera house. As well as introducing Holmes to the reading public, A Study in Scarlet made another notable contribution to the history of detective fiction: it popularized and perpetuated misuse of the term deduction, a misuse which is now so common as not to be worth avoiding. Strictly speaking, a deduction is an instance drawn out from a generality: If all Cretans are liars and the man before us is a Cretan, we deduce that he is a liar. This is very different from the mental leap made by Holmes when, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, he PAGE 11 infers from the amount of dust on a hat that its owner is no longer loved by his wife. Inferences partake of the nature of all circumstantial evidence: though the degree of probability increases as each successive inference supports its predecessors, certainty can never be obtained. It is remarkable, therefore, how seldom Holmes?s inferences?or deductions?prove incorrect. Indeed, they constitute his trade mark as a detective: that offhand, seemingly magical characterization of a visitor to Baker Street which then proves, on explanation, to be absurdly simple. The classical example must be the throw-away remark Holmes makes to Watson as the latter eyes Jabez Wilson, the pawnbroker client of The Red-Headed League: Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else. These showy displays of what, so Conan Doyle informs us, has come to be known as Sherlockholmitos in South America are most often irrelevant to the matter at hand; but they work marvelously well as introductions to the stories, with Holmes occasionally varying his method by exercising his deductive flair not on clients, but on objects belonging to them, such as Henry Baker?s hat in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Grant Munro?s pipe inThe Adventure of the Yellow Face, and Dr James Mortimer?s stick inThe Hound of the Baskervilles. Once, with unhappy results, he tries his hand on Watson?s watch, in The Sign of the Four. Holmes is the first of the great detectives. He is probably the greatest of them all, and certainly the best known. He has given society its popular image of a detective: a tall, thin, eagle-eyed figure in cloak and deerstalker, with a magnifying glass in one hand and pipe in the other. Yet, paradoxically, he is at the same time unique; his creation broke the mold. Any future great detective would have to be sharply differentiated from Holmes in method, appearance, eccentricity, or even nationality. There have, of course, been many parodies, pastiches, and attempts to add to the canon?most of the last type tending to involve Holmes with either Jack the Ripper or Edward VII. Parodies range from Mark Twain?s A Double-Barreled Detective Story, which transposes Holmes and his nephew, Fetlock Jones, to a Western setting, to Robert L. Fish?s 1960w stories of an inept Schlock Homes and his assistant Dr Watney. The most PAGE 12 sustained effort at pastiche is the series of stories?some seventy in all?by August Derleth about Solar Pons, the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street, the first of which, The Adventure of the Black Narcissus, was written in 1928. Derleth?s choice of name for his hero indicates a certain lack of empathy with the original; and, indeed, few, if any, pastiches have managed to achieve more than one of the four elements essential for a successful imitation of Doyle: authentic atmosphere, convincing plot, the Watsonian narrative tone, and an adequate amount of Sherlockholmitos.:

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