Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Canon Made Simple


In the grand scheme of things, the original publications which featured Sherlock Holmes are fairly prolific. There are 56 short stories spread out across five collections as well as four full-length novels. When you compare that to a character such as Bram Stoker's Dracula, who only appeared in one published work, but has taken on just as large a life and following, it's actually sort of surprising. Due to the extensiveness of the Canon, it may be believed among some there is an intense continuity between stories and characters. And while there is some to an extent, the Canon is actually fairly simple. Of those 60 original stories, almost all of them can be classified into five major categories. Today, I'll take a look at these categories and explain how the Canon is really a lot more simple than meets the eye.

The victim of A Study in Scarlet
#1 - The Murder Mystery - Unsurprisingly, the most common type of story found in the Canon is the murder mystery. It's probably the most common type of mystery overall, and with the emergence of the thriller as the modern-day genre of choice, the murder mystery is becoming increasingly popular. The murder mystery of today usually deals with a hunt for a psychopathic serial killer, but Doyle's mysteries were a little more grounded and realistic. Holmes' debut, A Study in Scarlet is a murder mystery with emphasis placed on the background and motive of the murderer. In fact, most of the early Canonical stories follow this same set-up. The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Five Orange Pips and The Crooked Man all feature a murder as their central predicament, the culprit is discovered (is some cases quite easily) and the remainder of the tale provides a background of sorts.

Doyle was at his best when his murder mysteries had a bit more heft.  The Speckled Band and The Problem of Thor Bridge are both excellent examples of an impossible crime. The first half of The Valley of Fear also features a nicely-plotted impossible crime, while the second explores the character's motivations, much like Doyle's earlier efforts. And, there are some stories which at first glance may not seem to be murder mysteries, but in fact are. For example, The Six Napoleons begins as a curiosity, but Holmes' interest is not piqued until blood has been spilled. Take also The Hound of the Baskervilles. On the surface, it's a Gothic horror novel (and an excellent one at that), but at heart Holmes is investigating a single murder.

Holmes confounded by The Musgrave Ritual
#2- Crack the Code - Unlike the previous category, this one is actually the most rare in the Canon, but should be considered on its own since some of the best-loved of the original stories can be found herein. What's more, some of Doyle's tightest plots all belong to this category. What is it? Holmes and Watson must put their deductive reasoning to the test as they decode ciphers or puzzles in an effort to bring about the truth. There are only really two examples of note: The Musgrave Ritual and The Dancing Men. One could argue that the code-breaking scene which appears in the first chapter of The Valley of Fear could qualify, but as I noted above that novel truly is a murder mystery.

The Musgrave Ritual is truly the best example of a Canonical code-cracking mystery. The Ritual itself contains cryptic clues to the whereabouts of great riches, and it's only with Holmes' keen deductive ability is he able to deduce its whereabouts. The Dancing Men starts out with the same scenario, the dancing men code having to be cracked by Holmes, which he does without too much assistance. The case eventually becomes one of murder, but I chose to include it in this second category as the dancing men figures, and the code which they represent is really the most memorable aspect of the short story. However, by combining two of these categories, The Dancing Men proves to be one of the strongest stories, and one of my favourites.

#3- Something/Someone is Missing - This category is also prolific, and features some of the Canon's strongest stories as well. The name of the category is pretty self-explanatory with Holmes searching for a missing object (more often than not state documents of the highest order; see The Naval Treaty, The Second Stain and The Bruce-Partington Plans) or a missing person. However, other items of value disappear with starling frequency elsewhere in the Canon, especially large, lustrous diamonds. Both the Blue Carbuncle and the Mazarin Stone go missing in the case of the Canon, as do the jewels from the Beryl Coronet.

When it comes to people, it's odd that only six disappeared throughout the Canon. What's more, it's an arguable point, but the missing persons adventures are not always the strongest. The Man with the Twisted Lip is a notable exception, having one of the more clever solutions to a missing persons , but inquiry, but stories such as The Noble Bachelor and The Missing Three-Quarter hardly stand out as great representations of Doyle's story-telling ability.

Apprehending the felon in The Three Garridebs
#4 - What's Going on Mr. Holmes? - Without doubt the most vague category, this encompasses the most stories aside from the murder mystery category. Basically, Holmes is contacted by a client who has just experienced a most unorthodox situation and believes the world's foremost criminologist can be of some assistance. Holmes investigates, usually discovering some criminal activity, and with the aide of the police apprehends the felon. This is not always the case, but more often than not, it is. While these stories can be considered formulaic and extremely similar (The Red-Headed League, The Stock-Broker's Clerk and The Three Garridebs are in essence the same plot), a lot of them are extremely entertaining and quite clever.

The stories which break the aforementioned formula invariably stand out as the strongest of this category - that's not to say that The Red-Headed League is bad, in fact it's quite good as it was the first of it's kind. Stories such as The Copper Beeches and The Solitary Cyclist are both creepy, atmospheric tales, and truly exemplify the mysterious nature of this category. I argue that the stories found herein are some of the best as they offer the most puzzling incidents for Holmes to sort through. As a writer, Doyle was excellent at coming up with interesting concepts and he was able to utilise so many of them here. While they're not all great (few people are prepared to defend The Blanched Soldier or The Creeping Man), this category arguably stands out as the most original and creative of the Canon.

From The Illustrious Client
#5 - Stop the Bad Man - Another fairly minor category, but must be included for the fact that it introduces a number of memorable characters to the Canon. Perhaps the best example of this category is The Final Problem. This category doesn't find employed to solve any particular mystery, but to use his brains to bring a criminal to book. That is a perfect summation of The Final Problem as the detective will use any means possible to bring Moriarty to justice. These stories are exciting, often dark and intense, and show use a side to the detective which isn't glimpsed too often. This is the Sherlock Holmes who will take the law into his own hands should he find it right to do so.

Aside from introducing us to James Moriarty, this category also presented us with Charles Augustus Milverton, the master blackmailer and "worst man in London." Culverton Smith,poisoner, is presented in The Dying Detective, where Holmes feigns being at death's door in order to get a confession from the medico, and Von Bork, the German spy is the focal point of much of His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes. As you can tell, the villains of the piece are the real memorable characters found herein, which shows the reader that Doyle was excellent at creating antagonists for whom Holmes can duel. Perhaps the most memorable (aside from Moriarty) is Baron Gruner who appeared in The Illustrious Client, who surely holds the title as creepiest Canonical villain.

So, there we have it. Five categories into which each of the stories can be filed. In some cases there are overlaps, but hopefully this little analysis makes the Canon seem a little simpler. I should add one last item: despite my nitpicking here and there and grouping the stories together, I am by no means trying to demean Doyle's ability as a writer. All of his stories are well written and executed, and of course without him, we wouldn't have the world's greatest detective.

1 comment: