Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes was a huge part of me and my brother’s early years. What a genius that man was (Basil Rathbone not my brother, he’s a dope). So it is with some embarrassment that I admit that this is the first time I’ve read any Holmes. I can confirm that the source material more than lives up to the witty entertainment brought to us by Jonny Lee, Benedict, RDJ et al. Conan Doyle’s Holmes has all the aloof, peculiar, edgy, cunning charm you could hope for, and then some.
Narrated by John Watson, the story opens as the army surgeon searches for London lodgings, ‘comfortable rooms at a reasonable price’. This search leads him to Sherlock Holmes (described as ‘a little queer in his ideas’) and rooms at 221b Baker Street. Holmes’ work is something of a mystery to Watson, until Lestrade and Gregson of Scotland Yard call Holmes to an address in Brixton. Watson, having ‘nothing better to do’ accompanies him. The body of an American man has been found in an empty room, with little physical evidence and fewer clues. And so a legendary detective partnership is born. Within days, Holmes has deciphered the mystery of ‘Rache’ written on the wall in the victim’s blood, a woman’s wedding ring beneath the body, and a further killing.
A Study in Scarlet is Holmes’ first outing, and introduces all the Holmes idiosyncrasies we know and love. His intriguing habits include frenzied activity interspersed with bouts of stupor, complete ignorance of politics and philosophy but expertise in sensational literature and sword-fighting. While he doesn’t seem to be interested in it, he’s not bad at the violin. And of course he can tell what you do for a living, why you have a limp and the name of your childhood pet just by looking at you. Just one chapter in, I already had goose bumps. I was hanging out with Sherlock Holmes! The book is funny (Holmes describes himself thus: ‘I am the most incurably lazy devil that ever stood in shoe leather’), clever and touching. The story that culminates in the murders forms the middle section of the book, and is a heart-breaking tale of lost love.
It’s no secret that the Watson of the novels is a far cry from the bumbling boob made popular in some film and television adaptations. He is an insightful and droll narrator, who is in awe of Holmes while very aware of his short-comings. Holmes is proud and vain, and not averse to a bit of soft soap. Early in their relationship Watson has ‘already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty’. Watson provides that flattery when he records Holmes’ exploits in his journal. I’m just glad there are many more instalments to come.