Friday, November 14, 2008

"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

In anticipation of Pierre Bayard's Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (2008), I spent today reading Conan Doyle's most famous long-form Holmes tale. On opening the novel, I quickly realized that I'd not even looked at it since childhood, when I devoured a poorly illustrated (and quite possibly abridged) edition; all these years later, the very word "moor" still strikes me as sinister.

This time, however, I turned to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (2006), the beautifully produced and thoroughly wonderful complete edition of Holmes that W. W. Norton published a couple of years ago, about which I've written a bit before.

While I find editor Leslie Klinger's notes, which range from simple explanations of terms and period detail to more abstruse theorizing that draws on the best of Sherlockian scholarship, to be a sheer joy, rocketlass can't quite bear them. When I'm reading Holmes aloud on a car trip, and I start to read her a note like this one--
In "The Railways of Dartmoor in the Days of Sherlock Holmes," B. J. D. Walsh concludes that Watson and company would have taken either the 10:30 or the 10:35 to Exeter, arriving at 2:28 P.M., where they would have had to change for the Coombe Tracey (which Walsh identifies with Bovey Tracey) on the Moretonhampstead branch. Although there was a slower train at 11:45, only by taking the 10:30 or the 10:35 could they have had the chance of obtaining lunch at Exeter.
--rather than admiring the confluence of two areas of intense, nerdy devotion (railroads and Holmes stories), she simply rolls her eyes and asks me to move on.

Sometimes, however, I can't resist. I read The Hound by myself, but I flagged the following note to share, which I'm confident will amuse her. When Watson discovers Holmes's spartan hiding place on the moor, he notes that Holmes
had contrived, with that cat-like love of personal cleanliness which was one of his characteristics, that his chin should be as smooth and his linen as perfect as if he were in Baker Street.
To which Klinger appends the following note, retailing a theory that, though it may be common currency among Sherlockians, surely leaves the more casual fan a bit gobsmacked:
Noting the absence of shaving gear, C. Alan Bradley and William A. S. Sarjeant point to this as one of the strongest pieces of evidence for their thesis that Holmes was a woman. But Wason never mentions a Sherlockian beard, and Ron Miller, in "Will the Real Sherlock Holmes Please Stand Up?," suggests that his jaw was hairless, revealing American Indian ancestry.
Since Klinger has used the term already, I can't help but suggest that, if Holmes is a woman pretending to be a man, his Sherlockian beard would surely be the fascinatrix Irene Adler?

Klinger's notes also do good work in situating each Holmes story in relation to the others, both in a purely Sherlockian sense--where do they fit in the Canon--and in a more general sense, tracking themes, word choices, and images. Klinger even draws, to good effect, from Conan Doyle's non-Holmes work, as in the following passage from Rodney Stone (1896), which Klinger uses to illustrate the dissolute public life of Regency England. In a scene that, were it just a tad more ridiculous, could come from Wodehouse, the title character's uncle explains why he gave up duelling
"A painful incident happened the last time that I was out, and it sickened me of it."

"You killed your man--?"

"No, no, sire, it was worse than that. I had a coat that Weston has never equalled. To say that it fitted me is not to express it. It was me--like the hide on a horse. I've had sixty from him since, but he could never approach it. The sit of the collar brought tears into my eyes, sir, when first I saw it; and as to the waist--

"But the duel, Tegellis!" cried the Prince.

"Well, sir, I wore it at the duel, like the thoughtless fool that I was. It was Major Hunter, of the Guards, with whom I had had a little tacuasserie, because I hinted that he should not come into Brookes's smelling of the stables. I fired first, and missed. He fired, and I shrieked in despair. 'He's hit! A surgeon! A surgeon!' they cried. 'A tailor! A tailor!' said I, for there was a double hole through the tails of my masterpiece. No, it was past all repair. You may laugh, sir, but I'll never see the like of it again."
Having certain poorly suppressed dandyish tendencies myself, I can fully sympathize with the poor man. A wound will heal, but a ruined coat is lost forever.


  1. For your reading audience, I feel I should clarfiy my position on the notes in our Annotated Holmes: I don't mind them so much, and when they're not depressing they are quite amusing.

    It's just that when you're driving on a road trip and hearing a story read aloud by your husband, the notes can interrupt the flow of the story and the buildup of admiration for Holmes's powers of deduction.

    I'm the kind of girl who has to return to footnotes later. This is why I couldn't finish House of Leaves.

  2. Perhaps the most deeply moving comment in the history of IBRL?