Monday, January 05, 2009

The Bantam Classic Sherlock Holmes!

Our book today is the wonderful Bantam Classic 2-volume Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Short Stories. Of course the Holmes canon has had as many editions as Arthur Conan Doyle had hairs on his head, and there are merits to a great many of them. Several have reprinted the iconic Sidney Paget illustrations that originally accompanied the Holmes stories in The Strand magazine (legend has always had it that Sidney patterned the classic Holmes look on his brother, but legend has always been wrong: Holmes is a slightly older, slightly idealized version of Sidney himself, who in his youth was what the Victorians called a cutie-patootie); several have had fascinating pictures of their own (believe it or not, the old Readers Digest set of illustrated hardcovers is well worth having for this very reason); several have been exhaustively annotated (although to my mind the king of these, the official Annotated Sherlock Holmes reeks too much of frothing fanaticism to be enjoyable).

My favorite is this Bantam boxed set, however: it's the one I actually grab and take with me everywhere, when the yen to read Holmes is on me. The set has a delightful (and, as with most of what the man wrote, deceptively erudite) introduction by prolific mystery and western writer Loren Estleman (his novels Bloody Season and Whiskey River both get the Stevereads stamp of approval)(and his two Sherlock Holmes pastiche novels, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes and Sherlock Holmes v.s. Dracula, while certainly not claiming to be great literature, are lots and lots of fun, doing double-pastiche duty as they do!). Estleman turns his spotlight to that most neglected and misunderstood of Doyle's creations, his own stand-in, Doctor Watson:

I submit for your inspection one John H. Watson: medical man, late British Army surgeon, raconteur, journalist, connoisseur of women, Knight of the Battered Tin Dispatch-Box, valiant and loyal friend.

Estleman has a great deal of fun with the typical early portrayals of Watson on film, most notably the bumbling sidekick actor Nigel Bruce embodied to accompany Basil Rathbone's Holmes through improbably contemporary adventures:

If a mop bucket appeared in a scene, his foot would be inside it, and if by some sardonic twist of fate and the whim of director Roy William Neil he managed to stumble upon an important clue, he could be depended upon to blow his nose on it and throw it away.

In reality, as Estleman points out, the Watson of the early stories is "thin as a lath and as brown as a nut" - a bright, intelligent man of the world and a considerable practical anchor for the brilliant, mercurial Holmes. As some of you will know, I consider Jeremy Brett's Holmes to be the finest version of the character ever portrayed on film; I likewise consider Edward Hardwicke's Watson (not that of David Burke, whose version still had too much Nigel Bruce in it for my tastes, although Burke is a very talented Shakespearean actor, as can be seen readily in the filmed version of the Ian Holm King Lear) the perfect realization of the character - firm, capable, an essential friend, as Estleman points out:

Notwithstanding his friend's mastery of boxing and fencing, and sitting-room marksmanship that would quicken the heart of an Annie Oakley, when a pistol was necessary it was Watson who carried it, at Holmes's request. A modern-day police officer could do far worse in a partner, and often does.

This boxed set contains everything - all 60 stories and The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear, all ready to hand should you need a volume for train or doctor's office. The single most amazing thing about the Holmes canon is how inviting they are to infinite re-reading: you settle into them, and no degree of familiarity with the texts is a bar to enjoying them all over again. Quite apart from the actual settings of each tale, the Holmes stories always make the reader feel that it's a wet, windy evening in Baker Street - a fire is going behind the grate, the indefatigable Mrs. Hudson has left some cold pheasant on a plate, and a capacious easy chair beckons. But knowing the stories chapter and verse makes you acutely aware that some people don't, and Estleman keeps them in mind:

The reader who holds this volume in his hands, and who is about to experience for the first time the adventures contained herein, occupies an enviable position.

I remember the first Holmes moment that did it for me - I remember it vividly, because even after one reading, I knew I'd be revisiting this fictional world forever. It was "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," and the hapless, exasperated Jabez Wilson has just finished telling Holmes and Watson of his dealings with the eponymous group - and their subsequent disappearance. Holmes promises him inquiries and bids him good day, then he invites Watson to go here Pablo de Sarasate play the violin at a afternoon concert. Doyle hooked me with the quiet thrill of contrasts:

All afternoon he sat in the stalls wrapped in the most perfect happiness, gently waving his long, thin fingers in time to the music, while his gently smiling face and his languid, dreamy eyes were as unlike those of Holmes, the sleuth-hound, Holmes the relentless, keen-witted, ready-handed criminal agent, as it was possible to conceive ... When I saw him that afternoon so enwrapped in the music of St. James's Hall, I felt that an evil time might be coming upon those whom he had set himself to hunt down.

Estleman is entirely right about envying somebody who has yet to add this inestimable canon to their own personal library; it's been essential reading since the moment it started being published - a truly endless source of delight and escape. Everybody has their own favorite edition, but you might want to try this one if you run across it. It's served me very well.


John said...

We agree on everything! I too love Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (though 'loved' is probably a better tense, since the last time I read it I'd had more experience with pimples than fine literature), and I too think Jeremy Brett is far and away the world's best Holmes. It was his Hound of the Baskervilles that made me beg my parents for the 2-volume set (then in hardcover)... I even named my DOG Baskerville, for heaven's sake. It's great stuff, but what's your favorite, do you think? out of all of the stories (& the novels), if you had to pick just one. I like Copper Beaches, myself, for atmosphere. And Dying Detective for crazyness. And the Greek Interpreter (not least for Mycroft, but also because its eerie as hell!)

Jeffrey.Eaton said...

I had The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes that came out in 1980 as a one volume hardcover.

On a side note, just a few minutes ago I read an interesting etymology of the word "sleuth" from 1901 that is supported by Watson's description of Holmes as a sleuth-hound.

"Sleuth denotes the track of a living creature, in particular the track of a wild animal. . . . In a semi-humorous way the newspapers commonly mention a detective as a sleuth; their readers, not thinking of the humor, take sleuth to be a regular synonym of detective. The only meaning the word has in sober English is track or footprint." (Joseph Fitzgerald, "Word and Phrase: True and False Usage in English,"1901)

steve said...

How on Earth to pick just one???

I don't think I could, although certainly "The Speckled Band" would be up there (for the eerie factor you mention), and "The Man with the Twisted Lip" although it's patently absurd, and I deeply love "The Sign of Four" ...

Glad we're on the same page about Jeremy Brett. I've heard some people accuse him of over-acting, so the accolades of a theater-person mean a lot ...

steve said...

Oh, and Jeff?


Anonymous said...

wait a second, you have the limited original editio? this is amazing, beside the special Cheap Viagra edition, this is the second time that I see something like this.

Alien Spoon said...

Yes, this edition is great! The whole canon + extra stuff of interest but not stifled by tedious, uninteresting notes about the weather and the train schedule... It is also in the French translation of this edition that I first discovered Holmes and Watson: fond memories :)