I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
If you are an enthusiastic reader of crime/noir/mystery novels, at some point you should get back to its roots—by reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur set many of the patterns which can still be observed in the modern genre novel.
Sherlock Holmes is an eccentric expert—but he defines the crime expert, what with his monographs on cigar ash, his studies of foot prints, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of crime. Many of the heroes of today’s literature are forensic anthropologists, FBI agents, and police detectives, people with formidable and specialized expertise in their fields. Holmes was multifaceted, in that he was also an expert boxer and an amateur violin player. It reminds me of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, who is also a wonderful cook and who cooks to clear her mind of the case at hand—just as Holmes works on his chemistry experiments or plays his violin in order to come at a problem obliquely.
Especially prescient was Conan Doyle’s depiction of what we would now call profiling, getting into the mind of another person and using that insight to catch the criminal. It is especially pronounced when Holmes is dealing with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty—he bases his judgments of Moriarty’s next moves upon what he himself would do. They are equally matched.
Many of our favourite 21st century protagonists also have their Dr. Watson, a sidekick who can assist as necessary and provide an ear to listen to the latest theory, thereby filling in the reader on what is happening in the main character’s mind. Think Benton Wesley or Pete Marino for Kay Scarpetta (Cornwell) or Amelia Sachs with Lincoln Rhyme (Deaver). The Scandinavian noir writers seem to prefer the isolated expert—like Holmes, who has only 1 or 2 friends and absolutely refuses a romantic relationship, the Scandinavian main characters are frequently divorced, unable to maintain healthy relationships with their girlfriends and/or children, and generally somewhat socially isolated. For example, Henning Mankell’s Wallander, Arnaldur Indridason’s Erlandur, or Yrsa Sigudardottir’s Thora Gudmundsdottir.
Of interest to me was the story which I think we would all think of as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time—the dog which didn’t bark, indicating that it knew the man who entered the barn. Conan Doyle called this story Silver Blaze, after the stolen horse of the tale. Also interesting to me was the Adventure of the Speckled Band, in which Holmes foils a plot involving a trained venomous snake. This snake was trained to respond to a whistle—not a physical possibility for snakes, which cannot hear air-borne sound waves. Realistically, the criminal might have recalled his pet by thumping on the wall, causing vibrations which the creature might have picked up through its lower jaw (but then if it was busy biting the inhabitant of the bed in the next room, it would likely miss even this cue.)
An interesting and entertaining series of stories, albeit a trifle repetitious when read one after the other in this volume. They would have been much more effective when read one at a time, as they would have been at the time of publication. Many of the prejudices of the 1890s are firmly on display, making this an interesting historical document as well. I wonder what our literature will reveal about us to future generations?