“Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are” is true enough, but I’d know you better if you told me what you reread.
– FranÃ§ois Mauriac
Many of my heroes aren’t even real people but perhaps fictional – maybe even ideas of people. Teachers long dead who weren’t even real in the first place.
Case in point: Sherlock Holmes. In my mind and my heart – my nose in a book as long as I can remember – he’s never been the tweed-cloaked stodgy Brit with a magnifying glass, all smart and superior. No, in revisiting his improbable adventures year after year, forward and backwards, he has been someone I know, someone I feel a kinship to, someone more corporeal to me than words on a page. I own only a handful of books and at present two of them are Sherlock Holmes volumes (one on indefinite loan from Saint Placid’s Priory, the other a free paperback I’d found at the library).
The words of his stories still thrill me in the delicious way I feel when spending time with someone who satisfies me through-and-through; last night I read “The Adventure of The Speckled Band”, and sank my teeth into the passage which introduces the despicable Dr. Roylott – and Holmes’ handling of this villainous personage:
“But what, in the name of the devil!”
The ejaculation had been drawn from my companion by the fact that our door had been suddenly dashed open, and that a huge man framed himself in the aperture. His costume was a peculiar mixture of the professional and of the agricultural, having a black top-hat, a long frock-coat, and a pair of high gaiters, with a hunting-crop swinging in his hand. So tall was he that his hat actually brushed the cross bar of the doorway, and his breadth seemed to span it across from side to side. A large face, seared with a thousand wrinkles, burned yellow with the sun, and marked with every evil passion, was turned from one to the other of us, while his deep-set, bile-shot eyes, and the high thin fleshless nose, gave him somewhat the resemblance to a fierce old bird of prey.
“Which of you is Holmes?” asked this apparition.
“My name, sir, but you have the advantage of me,” said my companion, quietly.
“I am Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran.”
“Indeed, Doctor,” said Holmes, blandly. “Pray take a seat.”
“I will do nothing of the kind. My stepdaughter has been here. I have traced her. What has she been saying to you?”
“It is a little cold for the time of the year,” said Holmes.
“What has she been saying to you?” screamed the old man furiously.
“But I have heard that the crocuses promise well,” continued my companion imperturbably.
“Ha! You put me off, do you?” said our new visitor, taking a step forward, and shaking his hunting-crop. “I know you, you scoundrel! I have heard of you before. You are Holmes the meddler.”
My friend smiled.
“Holmes the busybody!”
His smile broadened.
“Holmes the Scotland Yard jack-in-office.”
Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most entertaining,” said he. “When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draught.”
“I will go when I have had my say. Don’t you dare to meddle with my affairs. I know that Miss Stoner has been here – I traced her! I am a dangerous man to fall foul of. See here.” He stepped swiftly forward, seized the poker, and bent it into a curve with his huge brown hands.
“See that you keep yourself out of my grip,” he snarled, and hurling the twisted poker into the fireplace, he strode out of the room.
“He seems a very amiable person,” said Holmes, laughing. “I am not quite so bulky, but if he had remained I might have shown him that my grip was not much more feeble than his own.” As he spoke he picked up the steel poker, and with a sudden effort straightened it out again.
Ah, how this account struck terror, adventure, admiration, a kind of glowing pride to read it!
Holmes wasn’t smart, not really. He had a good memory but was – rather than the deductive reasoner he is renowned for being – above all things: intuitive. He was by turns anti-social and deeply amused by the company of the unwashed masses (or uptight nobility), living a life completely his own outside a society obsessed with social niceties. He was a poor housekeeper, a smoker, and an occasional cocaine fiend, by turns energetic and lazy. He didn’t work for money but for the work itself, and he allowed clients to pay him what they could afford. He was at ease undercover in an opium den or in rooms of State, with palpitating damsels or remorseless thugs. He loved his friend and partner Watson – deeply – but he was not demonstrative or given to emotional outbursts (FTW and totally relatable! Because as my friend Abi likes to say, I am “not a hugger”). He was strong but not a bully. He was brave but had nothing to prove to anyone. He was a bright star but he was Human, and human in way I could relate to even as a young girl. And he was Free.
How I wanted to be Holmes, as a child. It almost seems in some way I did live his life – in between building forts behind the train tracks with my brother, swinging on the tire swing in our aged and venerable willow tree, the life I lived free when I wasn’t preoccupied by Doing Well in School, which was apparently my job and since I did that, people were more or less happy with me (what shit rewards that all turned out to be!). Holmes was a part of me that wanted to follow my own lights.
I wonder if I still have time to do so.
Oh yeah, and since you asked? Yeah, I saw the recent movie version. And I didn’t like it much. It wasn’t my Holmes at all.