Sherlock Holmes and his Times. A review of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katharine Green
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[ 601 Sherlock Holmes and his Times1 A review of The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle London: J. Murray, 1929. Pp. 1336. The Leavenworth Case, by Anna Katharine Green London: Gollancz, 1928. Pp. 319. The Criterion: A Literary Review, 8 (Apr 1929) 552-56 It might seem that Father Knox, in his definitive Studies in Sherlock Holmes (V, “Essays in Satire,” pp. 145 ff.) had said the last word on Sherlock Holmes:2 yet he overlooks several interesting points, and commits one gross error in saying that Rouletabille was the natural son of Ballmeyer, when it is essential to the plot of The Yellow Room and The Lady in Black that he should be the legitimate son (his parents were married, if my memory is correct, in Cincinnati, Ohio);3 and says himself that a full examination would occupy two terms’ lectures.4 There may therefore be a few matters still unexplored. One is this: why do these stories, in spite of their obvious defects from our present high standards of detective fiction, reread so much better than The Leavenworth Case? I believe that The Leavenworth Case was the first detective story that I ever read; and that must be nearly thirty years ago. I wish that Messrs. Gollancz,5 instead of merely reprinting it without explanations, had prefaced it with a biographical notice of Mrs. Green, the author.6 She deserves that honour. It is true that she wrote only one other tale which at all approaches The Leavenworth Case, and I have forgotten its name; but she was deservedly popular towards the end of the nineteenth century, at a time when good detective fiction was not plentiful as blackberries.7 This book is still readable; but it is unfair to its author to present it among the fiction of the year without an explanation. It is still more interesting, now, as a document upon sentimental taste in New York in the eighties and nineties, than as detective fiction.8 We have now come to a point of time at which it begins to be possible to separate with some assurance the permanent from the transitory in detective 1929 602 ] fiction. We have two standard works by which to judge: The Moonstone of Wilkie Collins and The Murder of Marie Rôget of Poe. Edwin Drood may be a third, but that would be in the same type as Collins.9 These stories are at least as interesting as they ever were. Sherlock Holmes is almost as interesting as he was, but with a distinct shade of difference; The Leavenworth Case has faded. Why? The detective interest is a special one. Marie Rôget is the purest of all detectivestories,foritdependsuponno“human”interestorinterestofdetail. Mr. Crofts, at his best, as in The Cask, succeeds by his thorough devotion to the detective interest; his characters are just real enough to make the story work; had he tried to make them more human and humorous he might have ruined his story.10 The love-interest, in The Cask, is a postulate; it does not have to be developed, and puts no strain upon the author. But a writer may, like Collins – and that is his peculiar merit – reinforce detective interest by other interests. Collins had a wider gift for drama and fiction. The one thing not to do is to muddle the interests; as, to arouse detective hopes and provide only human satisfactions – or vice versa. It is here that Mrs. Green failed. She did not realize that unless one can create permanent human beings, one had better leave one’s figures as sketchy as possible. She had great ability of the detective fiction order, but no firm control. Possibly, for her time, the public was not educated up to The Cask or The Benson Case.11 Yet her contemporary, Holmes, survives. Both books “date,” but there are two ways of dating. Sherlock Holmes reminds us always of the pleasant externals of nineteenth-century London. I believe he may continue to do so even for those who cannot remember the nineteenth century; though I cannot imagine what it would be like to read him for the first time in this volume, without the old illustrations.12 I wish that Messrs. Murray13 would bring out another volume with the old illustrations: I cannot even remember the name of the artist: but I remember the hansom cabs, the queer bowlers, Holmes’s fore-and-aft cap, Holmes in a frock...