Wednesday, July 11, 2012

7. Culture

“I say now, as I said then, that a man should keep his little brain-attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber-room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it”
“The Five Orange Pips”

Writing in the magazine World Literature Today in 2006, Oklahoma University professor and former President of the International Association of Crime Writers, J. Madison Davis, wrote:

How delighted I was as a preteen to catch the solution in “The Five Orange Pips” before Holmes explained it to Watson! […]  It made me feel very bright, but, then, neither Holmes nor Watson had the advantage of growing up in the American South.

In his article, Davis touches on a major facet of Conan Doyle’s writing, and perhaps one of the elements that continues to endear readers to the Holmes canon. Namely, that, despite the fact that Holmes is, both bodily and culturally, ensconced in late Victorian London, many of the novels and stories (and as we have seen previously in A Study in Scarlet, A Sign of Four, and “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”) have within them cultural links, both stylistically and plot-wise, akin to both the historical works and adventure stories that Conan Doyle wrote before, concurrent with, and after the Holmes canon. Incidents, characters, and locales all seem to run toward the exotic in the early Holmes stories, and, often, the deductive dénouement would involve some cultural knowledge or ephemera brought up by Holmes that had escaped the attentions of his interlocutors.

Admittedly, writing for the general public constrains Conan Doyle to the broadest of strokes, but the wide cultural palette allows Holmes to comment upon matters of considerable historical, political, or social import. Similarly, placing them within the context of exotic adventures allows Conan Doyle, via both Watson and Holmes, to advance views and express opinions that may have veered away from those commonly held by gentlemen and professionals of Victorian London. For example, “The Five Orange Pips” sets its sights on British attitudes towards American social life during and immediately after Reconstruction. Henry Cuningham, in the Journal of Popular Culture noted that while “racial commentary in ‘The Five Orange Pips’ is incidental and muted,” the political stance is unmistakable and would be a theme that Conan Doyle would revisit in later Holmes tales. This is not to say that the progressive cultural stances by the author and his characters were not complicated by equal leanings toward the cultural status quo. Holmes, and, by extension, his author, is very much a product of his times and most certainly an exponent of Victorian and Edwardian Britain as a colonial and cultural power.

To say more would compromise the secret that so intrigued a young J. Madison Davis, and certainly many other young Southern readers of the Holmes canon. It is certainly emblematic of the Holmes stories to be at once so worldly and yet rely on the uncanny ability of Holmes to solve the puzzle while still cozily posed in his consulting rooms, seemingly half a world away from the action and yet canny enough to resolve the matter with only his wits and a library filled with a well-worn set of encyclopedias. 

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