Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reading Sherlock Holmes

Somehow, in all my youthful reading, I missed Sherlock Holmes. I read one of the short stories, I think, while I was in high school, but nothing more. In my adult years, perhaps ten years ago, I bought a paperback volume of Sherlock Holmes stories at a used bookstore. Read two short stories in it and laid it aside.

A few years ago I read about the Norton Publishing version of the "Sherlock Holmes Canon", as they called it. It was in three volumes, with the stories extensively collated and footnoted. I believe, though I'm not sure, the stories were put in chronological order in which they would have taken place, not when they were written or published. A. Conan Doyle did a lot of backtracking in the stories. In 1904 he published some of Holmes' cases that were earlier in Holmes' career than were the ones he published in 1894.  Reading about this set got me interested in Holmes. The Norton books were much too expensive, so I waited. Barnes & Noble came out with a two volume hardback set, minus all the footnoting and ordering. When it went on the remainders table, I bought it.

That was a year or two ago. Recently Lynda and I finished our the series we were reading aloud in and were ready for something else. I suggested Holmes, and she agreed. She's always liked crime books and mysteries. We are now well into the series. Of the four Holmes novels, we've read the first three: A Study in Scarlett, The Sign of the Four, and Hound of the Baskervilles, and two volumes of the short stories and are well into the third. The B&N books are arranged chronologically by date of publication.

So how am I enjoying them? Hmmm, perhaps not as much as I'd hoped, but that's mainly due to the language use. These stories are only 120 years old, yet the English language has changed, as has practice of writing. Some things that readers would turn away from in disgust these days are practiced regularly by Doyle. For example, he constantly repeats the first and last names of people in dialog and speaker tags. That's a no-no drilled into us by writing instructors. He tends to fixate on words. One example is "singular," a word that has gone out of fashion today. He will say, "He was a singular man." Meaning, I guess, he was unique. Actually, in the context it's not always clear exactly what the word singular means. I can see why it's gone out of fashion. One use of it wouldn't be too bad, but when you read three stories in three days and "singular" is in them six or eight times, you notice.

We find we can't read these every day, as we did with our previous series. We read a story one day, and take a day or two break. The writing style is what slows us down, not the story contents. The plots show Doyle's genius. Each of the stories we've read so far is quite unique—dare I say singular? Doyle mixes up the kind of cases. They aren't all murder mysteries. Sometimes they turn out not to be crimes at all, but instead an accident, or something unintentional.

We will persevere in this. Only six more stories in this volume, two more volumes of short stories (as originally published), and one more novel to go—a short-ish one at that. I suspect I'll have another post or two on Sherlock Holmes.

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