The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Volumes I & II

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; edited by Leslie S. Klinger

Published by W.W. Norton & Company

1,878 pages, 2004





Canon Fodder

Reviewed by Brendan Wolfe


At the end of an otherwise spirited introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, John le Carré seems a little defensive.

"Do not be dismayed," he warns us for no particular reason. "Nobody writes of Holmes and Watson without love."

Now, imagine you are someone who has just plunked down $75 for Leslie S. Klinger's massive two-volume compendium of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous stories, 1,900 pages full of annotations on everything from Victorian public schools to Holmes' sex life, not to mention the Sherlockian arcana (redundant, I know) tackled in the appendices. Would you really be worried about whether Klinger properly loves Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson?

More likely, you would ask yourself, in all seriousness, whether you love the pair enough. After all, reading these stories has just become a lot of work. (Reading the four Holmes novels as well will have to wait until November 2005, when the third and final volume of Klinger's annotated work is scheduled for release.)

Either way, it turns out that le Carré is wrong: Richard A. Posner writes of Holmes and Watson without love. The federal judge and freelance intellectual delivered his humorless pan in the October 11 issue of The New Republic magazine, ruling that Conan Doyle's stories are (and one imagines a pounding gavel here) "wildly overrated." Whack! Klinger's annotations are nothing more than "an eccentric venture." Whack! And the book's design, with the red, small-print notes in a vertical column on the outside edge of the page, renders it "almost unreadable." Whack!

With regard to the last of His Honor's points, I object. These are beautifully designed volumes, printed on cream-colored pages decorated with Sidney Paget's original illustrations for the Strand Magazine. In addition, a wonderful collection of black-and-white photographs accompanies Klinger's long, often fascinating essay, "The World of Sherlock Holmes." If, as was the case with this reviewer, you tighten up a bit as Klinger walks you through complicated theories regarding, for example, the real identity of Holmes' only love, Irene Adler (was she an opera singer? a rabbi? Nero Wolfe's mom?), the pages' ample white space serves as a calming agent.

Considering Posner's point that there is something eccentric about The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, the idea of Irene Adler as Mother Wolfe should speak for itself. (If not, then chew for a moment on the proposition that the great villain James Moriarty switched sides -- perhaps in more ways than one! -- and changed his name to J. Edgar Hoover.) In his preface, Klinger delicately explains "the idea of Sherlockian scholarship," which is, he says, "the 'game' of treating the stories as biography, not fiction." Note Klinger's ambiguous use of quotes. Is this a game or isn't it? Before you have a chance to tease out exactly what he means, though, the larger truth of it all whacks you on the head: This guy thinks, or "thinks," Holmes was real. In fact, Sherlockian "scholarship" posits that the stories were actually written by Watson and that Conan Doyle simply served as the good doctor's literary agent.

At this point, a judgment like "wildly overrated" seems wildly beside the point. Even le Carré, who rhapsodizes on the stories' merits, stipulates that they are, at first glance, nothing special.

Peek up Conan Doyle's literary sleeve and you will at first be disappointed; no fine turns of phrase, no clever adjectives that leap off the page, no arresting psychological insights. ... No wonder that, unlike other great story-tellers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Conan Doyle translates without loss into practically any language.

In advancing his story-trumps-all thesis, le Carré is given to outbursts against what he calls the "literary bureaucracy," by which he seems to mean folks who unreasonably demand fine writing and insight from their literature. He does, however, unwittingly raise an interesting point about translation: Novels that don't translate particularly well may actually be more interesting, at least on the level of language and in their original tongue. That said, le Carré also begs us to ask another important question:

What on earth is behind this "absurd obsession" (the judge's words) that Klinger and his Sherlockian buddies have with the Boys from Baker Street?

It goes without saying the Sherlock Holmes stories aren't that good. What is? The Bible?

Ah, the Bible.

That's what Conan Doyle's stories (also known as "the Canon") have become for these folks: a text to which they attach a sacred-like importance that, frankly, makes some of us scratch our heads. Still, don't misunderstand me: I'm a big fan. There is much to love about "The Red-Headed League," to pick just one of Conan Doyle's best stories. The tale begins with a mysterious newspaper ad calling on all able-bodied red-headed men to apply for membership in the titular League at four pounds a week, a handsome salary paid "for purely nominal services." That those services happen to be sitting in an empty room copying out by hand the Encyclopedia Britannica, and that the lucky hire, one Jabez Wilson, at first finds nothing particularly odd in this, only invests an already slightly surreal story with a mischievous sense of humor. Holmes, meanwhile, takes a moment to expound on the advantages of German music over its less introspective (to his taste) Italian and French counterparts before dragging the always wide-eyed Watson across town to stare at the knees of a man's trousers.

"He is, in my judgment, the fourth smartest man in London," Holmes declares upon sizing up the stranger's pants.

There is, as I said, much to love here, but Klinger's take on such adventures is insistently fundamentalist. Because everything must have really happened, he has no time for questions like, Why the Encyclopedia Britannica? Was Conan Doyle making a sly critique of English public education? Of course not. Conan Doyle didn't write the story! Instead, in what amounts to a parody of literary criticism, Klinger introduces us to someone called Thomas L. Stix, who has calculated that Jabez Wilson must have copied out 6,419,616 words in eight weeks, laboring just four hours per day. Assuming the facts of the story, this works out to a brisk 33,435 words per hour.

Stix, for so brilliantly marrying exegesis to calculator, ought to be known as the Bishop Ussher of Baker Street.

Klinger mentions that he enjoyed Sherlock Holmes as a young man. Le Carré fondly recalls having the stories read to him in boarding school by the headmaster's brother ("I can see him now," he writes, "and see his great bulk, with his bald head glinting before the coal fire").

These two facts are significant, at least according to literary critic Gabriel Josipovici. In The Book of God, his absorbing consideration of the Bible, Josipovici puzzles over why that book has always been set aside as special, even by atheists. He concludes, in part, that it has to do with its stories being read to us as children. "Spoken as they are by someone we trust and who forms part of the world into which we have come," he writes, "they seem to us as natural and inevitable as the world itself."

Of course, Josipovici concedes, things change as we grow older and encounter words on the page:

Because we now read instead of simply listening, because we can pause, turn back, put down the book and take it up again, a whole set of questions arises which never troubled us before: Did King Arthur really exist? If so, when and where did he live? Who was Moses? Did the plagues really occur? Was Jesus really the son of God?

Did Sherlock Holmes really fall to his death at Reichenbach Falls? Or did he simply check himself into Betty Ford?

There is great fun to be had in the world of Holmes and Watson and even in the world of Klinger and Stix, et al. Sadly, the "scholarly" efforts of the latter bring us no closer to an appreciation of the former. They practice a kind of forensic analysis, however tongue-in-cheek, that is best suited to corpses and not stories still beating with life more than 100 years after their first publication. What kind of love, after all, dwells at such length on what isn't true, while ignoring the greatness of what is? | December 2004


Brendan Wolfe is a writer and editor living in Iowa City, Iowa.



Q&A with Leslie S. Klinger

Shortly after the publication of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, crime fiction editor J. Kingston Pierce e-mailed editor Klinger a few questions about his collection and the Holmes phenomenon. He was quick to respond.

Q: You're a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in tax and estate matters. How did you become passionate about Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Arthur Conan Doyle? And why do you find Holmes so fascinating -- what about these stories captured you and never let you go?

A: When I was a law student, I systematically devoted a portion of my study time to reading for pleasure. I happened on the [William] Baring-Gould Annotated Sherlock Holmes [1967] and got "hooked" on the stories and, more importantly, the "cult" of SH and its scholarship. I loved the footnotes, which apparently appealed to my warped legal mind. I find tax law to be the most fascinating puzzle ever invented; Sherlockian scholarship is close behind.

Baring-Gould's annotated collection of the Holmes Canon has been the standard, up to now. How are your two new volumes an expansion of that work, and what did you learn about Baring-Gould in reassessing the Canon and his elaborations 37 years later?

I stand in awe of Baring-Gould's work. His product was created without computers, without the Internet, without the massive bibliography created by Ronald B. DeWaal, and most importantly, without the benefit of having a copy of Baring-Gould's work! The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes has many more notes on the Victorian age and very few notes on the subject of "chronology" (that is, determining the dates on which the events described in the stories took place), a topic which fascinated B-G. I've also presented very few of my own theories, preferring instead to show the range of SH scholarship. The stories are reproduced in the original publication order, not B-G's idiosyncratic "chronological" order. Also, I've tried to include more illustrations and photographs.

One of the interesting things about your books, and about the Sherlockian study overall, is the scholars' willingness to treat Conan Doyle's stories as fact, rather than fiction. Is playing this "Game" simply a way of actually living inside the stories, or is there more to it?

By "playing the Game," I believe that the reader can get more enjoyment out of these timeless tales. If they're "true fiction," then we can justify spending large quantities of time on them to tease out of them valuable insights into the lives and times of the Victorians, a rewarding study of an important era. The Game began quite early in the history of the stories, with the first essays appearing around 1900. Dorothy L. Sayers said that the Game had to be played with one's tongue firmly in one's cheek, with all the seriousness of a cricket match at Lord's. I've tried to do this without in any way belittling the immense talent of Arthur Conan Doyle.

What do you think is the principal contribution Conan Doyle and Holmes made to what we know today as crime fiction?

The principal contribution of the tales to the mystery genre is the Watson-like figure, with whom we can empathize. The "rational detective" was invented by Edgar Allan Poe, but without Dr. Watson, these stories would be as forgettable as the [Auguste] Dupin tales. Watson is intelligent, loyal, dependable, a "stout fellow" -- in short, everything the reader would want to be. And he gets to hang around with SH! Ultimately, it's not the puzzles which draw us back to the stories over and over again (a point lost on many mystery writers), but the warmth and depth of the relationship between these two remarkable men.

And finally, if Conan Doyle were somehow brought back to life, and you were allowed to ask him one question, what would it be?

I'd want to ask him if, by the end of his life, he had recognized that his truly memorable work was the Holmes stories, and whether he could accept that. We know that he thought very little of the stories for most of his career, regarding them as "pulp fiction," "pot-boilers," and not nearly as important as his historical romances and other writing (today, virtually unread). I think he misunderstood the quality of his own work on these tales.