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Sherlock Holmes vs. Dirk Gently

“We have in our police reports realism pushed to its extreme limits, and yet the result is, it must be confessed, neither fascinating nor artistic.”
– “A Case of Identity”

I might be laughed out of Sherlock Holmes fandom for this, but I think Inspector Lestrade is a good detective when we’re not looking.

I mean, he must be. He’s reached the rank of Inspector without getting fired. Most of the time, when Holmes isn’t around, he’s probably not getting the wrong guy. My theory is that Lestrade is a perfectly good detective as long as he’s investigating crimes that make some kind of sense.

Lestrade’s mistaken arrests are based on sensible assumptions. Take “The Norwood Builder.” Holmes’ client, the unhappy John Hector McFarlane, is a lawyer. The Norwood builder of the title hired McFarlane to make out a will leaving his fortune to McFarlane himself. So when the builder turns up dead of course Lestrade is going to arrest McFarlane. I mean, who else would it be?

What Lestrade doesn’t realize is that he is in a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t police procedurals. They’re melodramas with improbable plots and feverishly heightened emotions. Realistically no ethical lawyer would make out a will to himself; in “The Norwood Builder” it’s unusual, but not unprofessional. Realistically a creep wanting revenge on the woman who turned him down is unlikely to wait twenty years, then fake his own death to pin the murder on her son. In “The Norwood Builder” it’s just one of those things that happen. Procedural detective stories follow the laws of realism. Holmes’ cases follows the laws of melodrama. These are the times Lestrade needs Sherlock Holmes to swoop in and point out the trifling incongruities that reveal something weird.

“How often have I said to you,” says Holmes in The Sign of the Four, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Douglas Adams wrote a couple of novels about a “holistic detective” named Dirk Gently. Dirk has a fundamental disagreement with Holmes. As he explains in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul: “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’”

They’re both right.

Sherlock Holmes lives in a world where improbable things happen: seriously, that kid is a terrible lawyer. But never impossible things: no ghosts need apply. In Dirk Gently’s world, apparently impossible things turn out to be true: why yes, that elderly professor does have a time machine in his rooms. But never improbable things: even in the face of deep weirdness, people have everyday motivations and emotional reactions (a lot of Adams’ comedy is based in bathos).

Sherlock Holmes and Dirk Gently are great detectives because they firmly grasp the true range of what is possible in their respective worlds. This is often not true of detectives in real life. In a different way it’s also not true of Inspector Lestrade, whose down to earth detecting style might work reasonably well in the real world but fails in the world as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. If Lestrade has a fault, it’s that he doesn’t always know his own genre.

The Story That Time Forgot

Time has not been kind to “The Japanned Box” by Arthur Conan Doyle.

There’s the title, for one thing. Who knows what “japanned” means, these days? (Apparently “varnished with a dark enamel.”) And it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story, and so little-read… but this one’s obscure for a reason. The setup might be described as “The Turn of the Screw, but with a man, and not good.” The narrator, a Mr. Colmore, has been hired to tutor the children of Sir John Bollamore, a wealthy widower. He reveals he’s lost the job, but gained something he promises he’ll reveal in the course of the story. It’s two paragraphs before Colmore blurts out that he married the kids’ governess. “But, there—I have already revealed what it was which I gained in Thorpe Place!”

Kickass anticlimax, Arthur! Any other suspense you want to kill?

At this point I must admit that Arthur Conan Doyle was not a very good writer. I first came to this realization upon reading “The Final Problem.” This, one of the central landmarks of the Sherlock Holmes canon, is a story in which everything even remotely interesting happens offstage.

But Conan Doyle did one thing very well, a thing that gave him a permanent place in literary history: he created the hell out of characters. Sherlock Holmes became a stone in the foundation of our culture, a flat-out myth. Everybody knows Professor Moriarty, though he’s barely in “The Final Problem.” Conan Doyle created any number of characters nearly as good, and had another little success in Sir John Bollamore:

Imagine a man six feet three inches in height, majestically built, with a high-nosed, aristocratic face, brindled hair, shaggy eyebrows, a small, pointed Mephistophelian beard, and lines upon his brow and round his eyes as deep as if they had been carved with a penknife. He had grey eyes, weary, hopeless-looking eyes, proud and yet pathetic, eyes which claimed your pity and yet dared you to show it. His back was rounded with study, but otherwise he was as fine a looking man of his age—five-and-fifty perhaps—as any woman would wish to look upon.

But his presence was not a cheerful one. He was always courteous, always refined, but singularly silent and retiring.

Can’t you just see the guy already? Colmore gets friendly with Sir John and learns his employer’s history. Sir John used to be quite the rake: drunk as a lord—hardly even a metaphor, what with the knighthood—and gambling away his fortune. Then he met a young woman who, in true Victorian fashion, had nothing better to do than to marry him and devote her life to his reform. She had nothing else going on and managed it through constant effort. Sir John has stayed on the wagon since her death, though it’s been a struggle.

And then, says Colmore, “A single incident changed all my sympathy to loathing, and made me realize that my employer still remained all that he had ever been, with the additional vice of hypocrisy.” What is this horrible revelation?

Are you ready?

Colmore overhears a woman’s voice coming from Sir John’s study. And other people have heard this voice! Sir John, a lonely widower, occasionaly meets a woman!

The silence you hear is nobody gasping. Also, a tumbleweed just rolled past.

The central mystery of “The Japanned Box” is a thing which today no one in the world would wonder or care about, not even Ralph Reed. And yet this is only the half of how time has deflated “The Japanned Box.”

Colmore begins to notice that, besides a small social life, there are other weird things about Sir John. He’s very protective of the little lacquered box he keeps on his desk—a servant touches it and is instantly fired. And nobody knows how this mysterious woman is getting in and out of the house. Is there a secret passage? Could she be… a ghost? The suspense, such as it is, is mouting!

One night Colmore falls asleep while cataloguing Sir John’s library, and wakes to see Sir John at his desk. Now it looks as if something interesting is about to happen:

As if in a dream I was vaguely conscious that this was the japanned box which stood in front of him, and that he had drawn something out of it, something squat and uncouth, which now lay before him upon the table. I never realized—it never occurred to my bemuddled and torpid brain that I was intruding upon his privacy, that he imagined himself to be alone in the room. And then, just as it rushed upon my horrified perceptions, and I had half risen to announce my presence, I heard a strange, crisp, metallic clicking, and then the voice.

Upon reaching “something squat and uncouth” I imagined this as a horror story. Perhaps Sir John’s wife, obsessed with her great project, vowed never, never to leave him. Through sheer effort of will she lives on as a tiny, shrivelled being like the Cumaean Sybil, emerging from her box each night to remind him of his promises. That would have been an interesting story. This isn’t it.

Sir John, noticing Colmore at last, realizes he must trust the man with his secret. His dying wife feared that, without her constant reminders, he would relapse into a drunken beast:

”It was from some friend’s gossip of the sick room that she heard of this invention—this phonograph—and with the quick insight of a loving woman she saw how she might use it for her ends. She sent me to London to procure the best which money could buy. With her dying breath she gasped into it the words which have held me straight ever since.”

And… that’s it. Sir John has a phonograph, and with a limp wheeze the story grinds to a halt.

In 1899 this must have been a crowd-pleaser. A new story from the “Sherlock Holmes” guy! And such an ingenious twist—who would have thought of using one of those “phonographs” like that?

Today we’ve had recorded sound for over a century. It’s utterly unremarkable, part of the background noise of life. For us “The Japanned Box” reads less like an ingenious mystery than a terrible Turn of the Screw/Scooby Doo: Where Are You? crossover fanfic. Conan Doyle’s stories haven’t changed, but the world has, and “The Japanned Box” will never recover.