The pipe, the blood, the present day Sherlockian meet-up for the socially maladjusted with which the novel commences. It all warned me off this one. But only for a moment. The Sherlock love prevailed, and what first appeared to be an awkward and cringe-worthy foray into the world of Baker Street devotees, soon revealed itself to be a very clever and entertaining mystery and meditation on why we love the stories, why he seems so real, why such a deeply flawed character has such enduring appeal.
Between the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his legendary detective and then resurrected him in print some eight years later, the author avoided speaking of the character that consumed his own identity, the fictional voice that so many thought was real. As T. S. Eliot is quoted at the beginning of Chapter 22 in The Sherlockian (one of many great quotes at chapter head in this book), "Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence." Conan Doyle's resentment at public reaction to Sherlock's death was surely in part motivated by the fact that his creation had stolen his own spotlight, had somehow become more than his creator. So why does he bring him back? No one has ever been certain but the answer to that mystery has been rumored to have been contained in the one missing volume of Conan Doyle's exhaustive journaling.
The story flips back and forth from this frustrated 19th century writer to present day where a Holmes scholar has claimed to have found the missing diary, and then is discovered murdered before he is scheduled to produce it to a conference of Sherlockians the next day. What initially appears humorous as the book-obsessed fancy themselves the detectives of their dreams turns serious as one emerges from their ranks to lead the search for the journal and the killer. The interesting part is of course that he is also seeking a resolution to the mystery of his own motivations.
Conan Doyle, accompanied by his friend, Bram Stoker, have embarked upon a hunt of their own whose resolution will sync nicely with its contemporary equivalent by book's end, but the focus rests equally upon thoughts of authorship. As Stoker resists his friend's attempts to draft him into a role in his crime solving endeavors, he fires back with a sound reason as to why. He is flesh, he has dimension, he is not a literary device.
"Watson is a cheap, efficient little sod of a literary device. Holmes doesn't need him to solve the crimes any more than he needs a ten-stone ankle weight. The audience, Arthur. The audience needs Watson as an intermediary, so that Holmes's thoughts might forever be kept just out of reach. If you told the stories from Holmes's perspective, everyone would know what the bleeding genius was thinking the whole time. They'd have their culprit fingered on page one. But if you tell the stories from Watson's perspective, the reader is permitted to chase in the darkness with the bumbling oaf. Watson is a comic flourish. He's a gag. A good one all right, I'll give you that, but I hardly see how you'll be needing one of him."
And then later, Conan Doyle again injects himself into his own fictions, equating his own real life confusions and frustrations to what his readers must occasionally feel.
"Was this how it felt to be one of his readers? To be lost in the middle of the story, without the slightest of notions as to where you were headed? Arthur felt horrible. He felt as if he had no control of events as they unfolded. What trust his readers must put in him, to submit themselves to this unnerving confusion, while holding out hope that Arthur would see them through to a satisfying conclusion. But what if there were no solution on the final page? Or what if the solution were balderdash? What if the whole thing didn't work? His readers took a leap, did they not? They offered up their time and their money. And what did the author promise them in return?"
In the case of Sherlock Holmes, the author promised them answers. In a world full of uncertainties, Holmes will always prevail with concrete explanations to the unexplainable. As our contemporary sleuth suggests near the end, you only need be smart enough and the world is understandable, manageable. That is a comforting and irresistible notion to entertain. So more important than the satisfying parallel plots here is this look into Sherlock appeal. Not a perfect book but a fun book and a nostalgic ride for Holmes fans. Really enjoyed it.