#943 Investigating Sherlock Holmes

Sherlockian Musings: Thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes Stories
by Sheldon Goldfarb

London: MX Publishing, 2019
$16.95 / 9781787054813

Reviewed by Patrick McDonagh


Sheldon Goldfarb’s Sherlockian Musings live up to their title. They are very much musings, open-ended and accessible, and they are quite often amusing as well.

The book’s structure is immediately accessible — Goldfarb treats each of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories individually, roughly following the chronological order of their initial publication. So he begins with the novella A Study in Scarlet, which introduced Holmes to the world in 1887, and 290 pages later he ends with “The Retired Colourman,” which was not actually the last story to appear, but close to it — it was third last (the final Holmes publication, for those interested in such arcana, was “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” published in March 1927 in the US, and the following month in the UK).

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes (1939)

Goldfarb straddles the division between academic and popular, or even Sherlockian, readings of the Holmes canon. Goldfarb’s previous literary output has prepared him well to take on Doyle’s stories – his CV includes academic publications on Victorian literature as well as a mystery novel set in mid-nineteenth century Manchester. On the other hand (and in his musing, Goldfarb is fond of the “one the one hand… but on the other hand…” balance), he is also a member of the Stormy Petrels, the Vancouver-based Sherlockian group. Sherlockians operate on the conceit that the stories are real — so that an actual Watson recorded an actual Holmes’s real adventures and then gave them to a front man, Dr. Doyle, to publish. Consequently, the focus of Sherlockian discussions falls upon such things as whether Watson was married once or twice, and how to explain or accommodate chronological inconsistencies in the stories (and there are many!).

Arthur Conan Doyle in 1900
Canadian actor Raymond Massey (1896-1983) in The Speckled Band, 1931
Rosalyn Landor as Helen Stoner in The Speckled Band (Granada Television, 1984)

So not surprisingly, Goldfarb’s musings straddle the academic and the Sherlockian: while adopting the playful engagement of the Sherlockians, his observations draw more upon the sorts of questions an academic might raise. Indeed, he says as much in his introduction. In his treatment of each story, Goldfarb makes observations, explores them in short, conversational paragraphs, and then moves on, most often leaving the reader with a starting point rather than a conclusion. An example is called for.

And why not let that example be “The Speckled Band” — Doyle’s favourite Holmes tale. In this story, published in February 1892, Holmes is asked by Helen Stoner to investigate the death of her sister Julia, whose final words, as she lay expiring on her bed, refer to a “speckled band.” Helen is rightly concerned that the same mysterious circumstance that led to her sister’s death may also befall her — in part because she has been moved by her uncle (by marriage) and guardian, Dr Grimesby Roylott, into the very room in which her sister died. It turns out that the band is actually a swamp adder, trained by Roylott to eliminate the two young women so that he would inherit their fortune.

Jeremy Kemp as Dr. Grimesby Roylott in The Speckled Band (Granada, 1984)

Goldfarb identifies this story as more “howdunnit” than “whodunnit,” as Roylott is clearly the villain. He then explores some of the critical approaches to the story, including cultural anxiety over colonialism and its consequences — Roylott has returned from India, where he had been imprisoned for beating his butler to death in anger — as well as the phallic implications of the snake and various economic questions underlying the narrative. While this could be stifling, in Goldfarb’s text we have rather a series of witty and engaging musings under playful headings: “Live by the Snake, Die by the Snake”; “Phallic Symbols, Anybody?”; “Eastern Contagion?”; and “The True Villain of the Tale,” this latter being — surprise!! — the English banking system. Under these headings, he leads the reader through (for instance) the story’s use of phallic symbols — Holmes straightening a poker that Roylott has just bent, the deadly swamp adder, the bell rope the adder descends to bite the unsuspecting victim, a couple of whips — even noting the penetration of the stepdaughter’s bedroom by the villainous Roylott. “I mean, really,” says Goldfarb at this point, and we get the sense he’s finding this all a bit much on Doyle’s part. Notably, his musings stop at the point of being musings — they rarely lead into full-on literary analysis, but rather allude to the possibility of such analysis.

Vancouver writer Sheldon Goldfarb

And that in itself is stimulating. Goldfarb’s musings are engaging and conversational and, as I read, I found myself interjecting (in my head, at any rate) at points with my own musings, and this, it seems to me, is Goldfarb’s aim: to open a dialogue between reader and writer. At this he succeeds effectively — his musings had me pondering not only the various intricacies of the Holmes stories, but also the way these stories, and our protagonists Holmes and Watson, have become such durable cultural icons. This book is a worthy addition to the collection of anyone interested in Sherlock Holmes: Sherlockians, looking to find material for further investigations into the canon; students and teachers, interesting in exploring different ways to approach the stories; and Holmes enthusiasts unaffiliated with either of these two groups.


Patrick McDonagh

Patrick McDonagh is a part-time faculty member in the Department of English at Concordia University in Montreal, where he has taught courses in (among other things) 19th century and Edwardian literature. He is also an occasional mandolin player, a semi-regular distance runner, and freelance writer who has accidentally developed a specialty in writing on medicine, science and technology. His own academic research explores the relationship between cultural representations and philosophical and medical notions of intellectual disability; he is the author of Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool University Press, 2008), and co-editor (with Tim Stainton and C. F. Goodey) of Intellectual Disability: A Conceptual History (Manchester University Press, 2018), in addition to book chapters and articles in various academic journals. A Vancouver native, he is a co-founder & current board member of the Spectrum Society for Community Living, based in Vancouver, and a board member of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation, based in Manchester, UK. Contact information: patrickmmcdonagh@gmail.com and patrick.mcdonagh@concordia.ca


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