Wednesday, August 15, 2012

12. The Usual Suspects


“Jealousy is a strange transformer of characters.”
“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor”

A 1998 monograph commissioned by the United Nations on crime and policing puts it simply:

Real detective work is very different from the popular accounts in films, fiction or on TV. Generally, cases are not solved with deductive logic applied to complex clues. Nor do they involve undercover work, shoot-outs with gangsters, or dramatic last-minute testimony by witnesses who are either hard to find or require active protection. Most detective work is relatively routine and repetitive.

Although firmly ensconced in the fictional world of adventure and intrigue that one expects from an adventure story, Sherlock Holmes might also offer a subtle critique of the “detective-as-adventurer.” Although many of the canonical stories certainly pivot on seemingly extraordinary powers of deduction, as we’ve seen, Holmes is not motivated by either some juridical sense of righting wrong, or quests filled with deeds of daring-do. Holmes is motivated, primarily, by boredom. Throughout the canon, Holmes bemoans periods of inactivity or actively seeks solace from them through the use of narcotics. "My mind," Holmes says in The Sign of Four, "rebels at stagnation…give me work” The daily grind of the consulting detective, however, is mostly accepted without comment. “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” is a unique exception. In fact, it is precisely the ‘most ‘repetitive’ elements—in fact, the closest similarities between cases that, far from being simply quotidian or mundane, actually aid Holmes in solving this particular case.

The cases meriting explicit mention and implicit allusion are “A Scandal in Bohemia” and “A Case of Identity,” respectively, and the similarity (but, to be clear, they are not the same) between them and “Noble Bachelor” enable Holmes to discern a solution to a missing person case with remarkable efficiency, even for him. Christopher Redmond, in his 1984 book In Bed with Sherlock Holmes: Sexual Elements in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Stories of the Great Detective, refers directly to the influence of these earlier stories, especially “Bohemia,” noting that “it is hard to resist the conclusion that Doyle wrote "A Noble Bachelor'—which he himself is reported to have ranked as among the poorest of the Holmes tales—to exploit for a second time the themes and situations that had made that first short story such a success.” It would seem that Holmes’ recognition of the import of his earlier exploits have less to do with either his finely honed detective sensibilities or the routines common to sleuthing than his creator mining a tried and true plot formula, in this case the more seamy side of gender relations among the upper classes.

Such plot concerns, while certainly titillating to the Victorian periodical-buying public, have little to do with the actual solving of the case itself. Concerning “Noble Bachelor,” Redmond goes on to say that “The adventure is a straightforward one; in spite of Watson's routine puzzlement, it does not call for much detection on Holmes's part […] "The Noble Bachelor" is really a story of manners.” Indeed, for Holmes, as for Conan Doyle, the life of a detective is, sometimes, all in a day’s work.  

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