Sunday, May 15, 2011

‘Most preposterous!’

Re-reading A Study in Scarlet this week didn’t change my opinion that it is the weakest of the four Sherlock Holmes novels, but there was a passage that surprised me. Explaining how he is able to tell that his prospective flatmate is an ex-army doctor who has served in Afghanistan just by looking, Holmes reminds Dr Watson of Edgar Allen Poe’s character Dupin. Holmes is sniffy:
No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin […]. Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.
Watson responds by throwing another literary antecedent in his face, Émile Gaboriau’s Lecoq. Holmes’ reaction this time breaks the confines of the story, and speaks, irritably, mischievously, from A Study in Scarlet to Monsieur Lecoq, facing it down, book to book:
‘Lecoq was a miserable bungler,’ he said, in an angry voice; ‘he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill.’
The trick Holmes mentions in the first quote is one he uses himself, in ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, and it certainly impressed me enough as a boy to stick in my mind long after the references to Dupin and Lecoq were forgotten. I am slightly outraged to find that it is stolen from Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’, even if the debt is acknowledged on both occasions. The moral of A Study in Scarlet is anticipated by Poe, too:
They have fallen into the gross but common error of confounding the unusual with the abstruse. But it is by these deviations from the plane of the ordinary, that reason feels its way, if at all, in its search for the true. (Dupin to the narrator in ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue’)

I have already explained to you that what is out the common is usually a guide rather than a hindrance. (Holmes to Watson, in A Study in Scarlet)
It even turns out that the idea of a character acknowledging the sources involved in his own creation is borrowed from the same Poe story, with Dupin saying that ‘Vidocq, for example, was a good guesser, and a persevering man.’ Here again the reference is disguised as criticism: ‘He might see, perhaps, one or two points with unusual clearness, but in doing so he, necessarily, lost sight of the matter as a whole.’ Presumably this chain of influence stops with Eugène François Vidocq, as he was a real man rather than a character in a book.

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