Sherlock's Snarky Side
Spoiler Alert! If you haven't read these classic stories, depart this blog now and do so.
I first read Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was 12, the perfect age to be introduced to Holmes. I've always felt that this story collection represents the best of Holmes. Conan Doyle never matched the freshness, ingenuity, and subversive wit of these early stories. (Nor did his imitators.)
Subversive wit? Yes. It's a sign of how well the stories work is that we readers tend to identify the real author with the fictitious narrator, Conan Doyle with solid, square Dr. Watson. But the author had a more complicated view of society. His detective stories, in surprising the reader, reveal a fondness for satirical inversion. The high and mighty are brought low, while the lowly get a boost.
Take the first story in the Adventures, "A Scandal in Bohemia." Conan Doyle was quick to pick up on what would become a troublesome issue for the private eye genre. The police are at least supposed to be serving the cause of justice. But the private detective does a job for a client. Society being what it is, he's likely to end up serving the rich, against the poor.
Holmes' client is a king, no less. The target is a woman with whom the king had an affair. Having had sex outside of marriage, she is, by the standards of the time, an "adventuress," whose motives are assumed to be mercenary, even malicious. She is in fact a heroine to match Holmes' mettle, and the steps by which he changes sides, ending up pleased that he has been defeated by her and failed his client, show Conan Doyle's artistry. Few detective stories are so full of twists and so emotionally satisfying at the end.
"The Man with the Twisted Lip" is a story about the city and the suburbs. Its rhythm is that of the commuter: starting at Watson's home in western London, travelling to the East End, then going out to a suburban villa, finally returning to the city. At the start, Watson is enjoying the coziness of his hearthside, but at his wife's behest reluctantly undertakes an errand to a den of iniquity. There he is lucky enough to meet Holmes, and happily defers a return to wife and home in favor of an adventure.
Conan Doyle is here subverting the suburban myth, which was still decades from its high point in '50s America: wife and kids enjoy the safe and healthy countryside, while the noble husband journeys into the ugly and wicked city to earn the family's bread. It's a self-serving male myth, and Conan Doyle suggests that the truth is, the man can't wait to get into the city, because that's where the action and opportunities are to be found. Watson's adventure serves as the overture, and the main plot--about a respectable commuter who turns out to be making a fortune as a repulsive beggar--drives the point home.
Not all of the Holmes stories are social satires--but the best of them, I think are both surprising and subversive.
Chalk one up for Ovid
The American Automobile Association reports the results of its latest poll: Drivers admit to doing things that they themselves condemn as unsafe.
93% says it's dangerous to text while driving. 32% do it.
89% " " to speed 45% "
97% " " to drive sleepy. 32% "
94% " " to run red lights. 39% "
As Ovid said, "Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor."
"I see and approve better things, but follow the worse which I condemn."
American vs British Dialogue
These are tense days for me. I've written a novel that has two British characters. And I made them speak British. Now I'm waiting for a reaction from my friend in Britain.
He may tell me I made a big mistake. W. Somerset Maugham, early in the Razor's Edge, announces that though he's writing about Americans, he won't even try to render their speech accurately, because that's impossible. American or British novelists who imitate each other's language only embarrass themselves.
But Herman Wouk, a novelist who rivals Maugham in popularity (and longevity), did not accept that dictate. In War and Remembrance, he has his British characters talking British throughout. One of them, Pamela, says to her American husband, "'Lady Halifax says you're rather a lamb."
"'Is that good?"
This rings true to me. Throw Americans and Brits together, and they''ll notice the differences in the way they talk and be amused and annoyed. As Gorge Bernard Shaw said, England and America are two countries separated by the same language. Since my two Brits are in America, they make a lot of witty remarks about the language divide.
At least, I hope they're witty.
But it's possible I embarrassed myself as thoroughly as poor Alistair MacLean.
A Scot who became famous writing World War II thrillers set in Europe (The Guns of Navarone), he decided to try his hand at a Western. Big mistake. His sheriff says, "I'm the lawman, not you and your lot." His U.S. Cavalryman says, "The men are taking them for a bit of a canter." His gunfighter says, "I dare say we'll find something to talk about."
In addition to the danger of lapsing into your own tongue without realizing it, there's the danger of using a foreign expression incorrectly. I was worried enough about this to consult an expert, a scholar with a doctorate in modern languages from Cambridge. "'Naff' mean unfashionably dressed, right?" I asked. "Yes, he said. "But not exactly." He gave me a five-minute lecture on the connotations and denotations of 'naff.' There was a class angle too, of course.
And this is the guy whose opinion of my novel I am awaiting.
Snarky Sherlock, II
SPOILER ALERT! Read no further if you haven't read "The Adventure of the Second Stain" in Return of Sherlock Homes.
A couple of people have questioned (FTF, not online) an assertion I made in an earlier post about Sherlock Holmes. It's that while Watson is a bluff, four-square patriot, his creator Arthur Conan Doyle is a slyly humorous social critic, who expresses his snarky views through Holmes.
Here's some more evidence. In "The Second Stain," Watson is like, I now go down upon my knees to relate Holmes's greatest case, when he was privileged to be of service to the most exalted personages in the realm.
Holmes, meanwhile, quickly perceives that these exalted personages have behaved childishly, and they're at his mercy. While solving the case, he enjoys humiliating them. He blows off the Prime Minister, literally forces Lady Hilda to her knees, and makes the Foreign Secretary look like he couldn't find his nose using both hands.
I make these points mostly as a way of calling attention to a highly enjoyable story, well worth revisiting.
David Linzee's Blog
Stay Fit While Writing Fiction
As I write this, I am walking. Sometimes I drink coffee too, though that's pushing the multi-tasking envelope. My walking desk is equipped with two cup holders. I've never used both. I have been writing at this desk for a year and a half now.
So what is a walking desk? A treadmill, with a platform for your computer.
The first time I heard of the walking desk trend, from Susan Orlean in The New Yorker, it struck me as pretty radical, challenging our traditional division of labor. When we work our brains, we rest our bodies. Flaubert said, "A writer can only work seated." (Of course, he said it in French, and it sounded even more authoritative.) On the other hand, Hemingway banged away at his typewriter standing up.
The problem with sitting is that it's too restful. The latest medical research says that in a chair your metabolism is almost as slow as if you were in a coma. Even if you run five miles at dawn, spending the rest of your day sitting down will undo all the good the exercise did, and you won't lose weight.
I was reluctant to add sitting to the list of pleasures medical killjoys have spoiled for us...until personal experience confirmed their research.
I returned from vacation to find I'd lost weight. More than five pounds. Surprising, considering I'd been enjoying the local cuisine and wine, and missing my usual three times a week exercise routine. The reason for the loss, I decided, was that I'd been on my feet almost all day, strolling the town and visiting museums and sights. Though I'd been walking slowly or standing, keeping out of a chair was enough to bring my weight down.
There are precedents to show that you don't have to sit at a desk to get work done. Winston Churchill and Admiral Nimitz both stood at their desks, which not only helped them keep alert but discouraged visitors from lingering, so they could get back to work, winning World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific theatres respectively.
Even more relevant to me is C.S. Forester, who used to mentally compose his Horatio Hornblower novels while taking long walks around the English countryside. He would complete the book in his head. Then he'd sit at his desk and quickly type it out.
I can do the walking and typing at the same time, though not very well. I can touch type, but I make a lot of mistakes. Especially when I'm shuffling along at 1 mph. Fortunately, we have spell check these days, so repair doesn't take too long. I do all my writing at the desk, except when I'm having a very hard time with a passage. It has long been my habit to switch to longhand at such moments. And my walking desk just won't permit cursive writing. It's not set up for it.
I also read at the desk. I can even go faster than when I'm writing, though I've never touched my machine's top speed of 4 mph.
The big question: have I lost weight? Yes. I'm running about ten pounds lighter than I did before the desk. Some changes in diet and exercise routine have contributed, but it's mostly the desk. Posted 3/28/16