California Literary Review

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard

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December 7th, 2008 at 11:52 am

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Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard
Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles
by Pierre Bayard
Bloomsbury USA, 208 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

Attempting to Outsmart the Great Detective

Anyone tempted to think that Star Wars or Star Trek (or even Harry Potter) may claim to be the largest franchise in literary and film history has just not been paying attention. In raw sales they may come out on top, but in sheer numbers of attempted tributes, revisions, expansions, pastiches, parodies, exposés, and scholarly studies, they are no competition for the Sherlock Holmes industry.

Novels and stories that star the private consulting detective from Baker Street pour out of publishing houses every year. Writers famous and unknown, from Michael Chabon and Caleb Carr on down, have all tried their hand at carrying on the legacy of this legendary character. More than one has claimed to have authored the “final” Sherlock Holmes mystery (e.g., Exit Sherlock Holmes by Robert Lee Hall, The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin, and Chabon’s The Final Solution — set in 1944, when Holmes has reached 89 years of age); others have taken him back in time to witness the Crucifixion of Jesus (An Opened Grave by Frank L. James), and moved him forward to fight crime in the distant future (the animated television series “Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century”).

Holmes has been made to encounter every conceivable historic and fictional figure of his era, from Theodore Roosevelt, Houdini, Freud, and Oscar Wilde to Dr. Jekyll, Edwin Drood, and Jack the Ripper.

Other ongoing mystery novel series have spun off the original by centering on Inspector Lestrade (by M.J. Trow); Professor Moriarty (John Gardner); Dr. Joseph Bell, the real personage who inspired the character of Holmes (David Pirie); the duo of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dodgson (that’s right, Lewis Carroll — in at least four books by Roberta Rogow); Irene Adler (Carole Nelson Douglas); Holmes’s supposed sister Enola (Nancy Springer); and even Mrs. Hudson (Martin Davies)!

Martin Harry Greenberg got contemporary authors to compose two volumes’ worth of Christmastime stories about Holmes and Watson, Holmes for the Holidays (1996) and More Holmes for the Holidays (1999). Then there are the parodies, from Robert L. Fish’s marvelous The Memoirs of Schlock Homes: a Bagel Street Dozen to William Kotzwinkle’s Inspector Mantis stories, and juvenile copycats like Encyclopedia Brown and Charlotte Holmes (a Spanish film featuring the famous detective’s niece).

A cursory look at single publications from just the past three years runs the gamut from The Execution of Sherlock Holmes by Donald Thomas to Gaslight Grimoire: Dark Tales of Sherlock Holmes by Jeff Campbell. Laurie R. King is responsible for one of the best revivals of Holmes in recent years, with her Mary Russell series (now grown to eight books), in which a young Jewish-American woman teams up with a retired Holmes late in his life.

Harlan Ellison has suggested that Sherlock Holmes is one of the five most recognizable figures in world literature (the others being Mickey Mouse, Peter Pan, Superman, and Robin Hood), although by now I suspect Mr. Pan or Mr. Hood has been overtaken by Mr. Potter. The Guinness Book of World Records has listed Holmes as the most-often-portrayed character in the movies, with at least 70 different actors having played the role in more than 200 films. And at least one more is poised in the wings: a Sherlock Holmes feature directed by soon-to-be-ex-Madonna-hubby Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Doctor Watson, is currently filming and due out sometime in 2009.

The canon has received boosts from unlikely sources — sly imitations like Dr. Gregory House and the Japanese anime shows “Death Note” and “Detective Conan,” and fictional fans like Lt. Cmdr. Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Publication in 2005-2006 of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Los Angeles lawyer and Sherlockian Leslie Klinger, who updated the 1967 Annotated by William S. Baring-Gould with more than 35 years of further scholarship and illustrations from German editions of the canon, has undoubtedly done much to renew interest in the pipe-smoking, violin-scratching logician as well.

Now we have a scholarly work out of left field: Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong (the original French title, L’Affaire du Chien des Baskerville, is something closer to “The Business [or Matter, or Adventure] of the Hound of the Baskervilles”), by a professor of French literature at the University of Paris VIII and psychoanalyst.

Pierre Bayard asserts that in fingering Jack Stapleton and his hound, Holmes nailed the wrong suspect(s): “… I feel there is every reason to suppose that the generally acknowledged solution of the atrocious crimes that bloodied the Devonshire moors simply does not hold up, and that the real murderer escaped justice.”

In brief chapters, Bayard recounts the well-known plot, describes Holmes’s methods of inquiry (along the way noting a number of mistakes committed by the master throughout the canon, both acknowledged by Holmes or Watson and not), presents his own method of “detective criticism” (“The aim … is to become more rigorous than even the detectives in literature and the writers who create them, and thus to work out solutions that are more satisfying to the soul”), and then delineates all the problems with the received text and solution.

Among the problems Bayard highlights are: Why did the hound leave no marks on the first corpse, that of Sir Charles Baskerville? When Selden, the convict, dies wearing the clothes of Sir Henry Baskerville, the hound is never actually seen, so why assume that it was responsible? It does attack Sir Henry near the end, but only after a shot has wounded it first.

Bayard also notes that, after fastening on Stapleton as his suspect, reading all the clues as pointing in his direction, and then driving the man out onto the moor to his certain death, Holmes waves away the issue of motive! Watson asks him, “If Stapleton came into the succession, how could he explain the fact that he, the heir, had been living unannounced under another name so close to the property? How could he claim it without causing suspicion and inquiry?”

In response, Holmes admits this is “a formidable difficulty,” but adds, “I fear you ask too much when you expect me to solve it. The past and the present are within the field of my inquiry, but what a man may do in the future is a hard question to answer.” According to Bayard, this amounts to “acknowledging, at the very moment the case is being wrapped up and the story is ending, that in the absence of a clearly thought-out motive, it is hard to understand why Stapleton would have tried to kill both Baskervilles.”

Fortunately, the story offers enough clues to indicate, not just the real killer (and the real murder), but also Doyle’s “hatred” for the hero his public forced him to revive and bring back from a supposed death at Reichenbach Falls, as reported by Watson eight years before.

Turning to psychoanalytic theory, Bayard argues The Hound of the Baskervilles is a “compromise formation.” It represents Doyle’s deadly hatred for Holmes by absenting him from much of the story (Watson is sent to Baskerville Hall to investigate alone for many chapters), by showing Holmes committing mistakes and inaccuracies when he does reappear, by associating Holmes with evil portents and forces, and of course by showing the great detective fastening on the wrong suspect — and, indeed, the wrong murder: “… the victim in Conan Doyle’s book is executed with the complicity of Holmes, and without the true murderer ever being bothered.”

Thus, concludes Bayard, the most famous mystery novella of all time features “A murder without a weapon, without a threat, without an insult, where the victim puts himself to death while the other characters applaud — it would be hard to find a finer triumph in the annals of crime.”

In case you’re wondering, Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong is a satire — an ostensibly earnest yet loving one. Bayard has created his own minor subgenre, which he calls “detective criticism” and describes in this slim volume, although only one other example has been translated into English: a critique of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, called Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? Most regrettable, his 2002 Enquête sur Hamlet, in which he apparently proves that Claudius did not kill Hamlet’s father, remains untranslated. Of more than a dozen works published by Bayard in French, the only other to have been translated thus far is the even more sly and cerebral How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which was a minor U.S. bestseller last year.

Why does he do it? Is it one of those pomo French things intended to show that everything is relative and you can prove absolutely anything you choose, no matter how absurd? Not entirely. These books are indeed a kind of witty parlor game, certainly. But though Bayard occasionally gallops into the high alpine meadows of literary and psychoanalytic theory, he still sticks closely to the text he’s given. And though he probably doesn’t believe half of what he’s saying, it does pass the logical plausibility test. It has an inner consistency, and that makes it worth doing — as a challenge, as a joke, and (dare one say it?) as a work of art.

Steeped in Holmes stories and lore as I am — I’ve owned the Baring-Gould for 30 years, purchased the Klinger and had him autograph it, read half a dozen of the tales aloud to live audiences and recorded several for the Web site International Tales, and obviously dabble in the pastiches off and on — it is difficult for me to say how much this book would appeal to a general reader. (I was astounded to meet an older gentleman at a Sunday brunch this week who claimed he had never read a Sherlock Holmes story, so apparently they do exist.)

The chapters, as well as the book as a whole, are short. Bayard engages in a bit of psychological and academic gibble-gabble, but never for long. If you know and love the Holmes canon well, you’ll probably enjoy it. If you don’t, you might wonder what all the fuss is about.

  • http://www.lesliesklinger.com Les Klinger

    What troubles me about Bayard’s book is that it ignores 100 years of scholarship on the same subject, referenced in my annotations of the Hound (in “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels.” If it weren’t for Bayard’s academic credentials, it would be just one more analysis out of 100’s of similar studies. BTW, David, I practice in L.A., not San Francisco!

  • David Loftus

    Oops, sorry! We’ll get that fixed.

  • Gary Miller

    Oh, please! When will the french stop trying to screw everything up?

  • Robert C. Cheeks

    Excellent review. I’m an old Holmesian and own Baring-Gould’s work among a plethora of the cannon and associated works. I should, someday, like to own the excellent PBS series. Sad, though, the death of that outstanding actor!

  • http://lazygal.blogspot.com Lazygal

    “Anyone tempted to think that Star Wars or Star Trek (or even Harry Potter) may claim to be the largest franchise in literary and film history has just not been paying attention.”

    My first thought would have been Bond, James Bond.

  • http://www.trekspace.org/profile/GalXEQuestr galXEqwestr

    I didn’t know about Robert Downey, Jr. playing Holmes. He’s amazing, but I can’t imagine him approaching Jeremy Brett’s performance.

    Re your mention of the animated TV show portraying Holmes in the future: I hope you’re also aware of the sci-fi collections “Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space” and “Sherlock Holmes in Orbit”, two of my favorites. Although I did see a little of the cartoon series and got a kick out of the many references to the original stories, still I couldn’t decide if the robotic Watson was a hoot or just freaky…

    And Gregory House’s guitar standing in for the violin! Why didn’t I catch that before!? lol

    Anyway, thanks for the review. I appreciate informed comments on any new Holmes title.

  • http://literarymenagerie.blogspot.com/ meg89 @ Literary Menagerie

    The Hound of the Baskervilles is the only Holmes story I had ever read, and I found this vastly entertaining. I like the idea of letting characters have autonomy–it gives you so many more options for discussion! These texts aren’t sacred, so why not have fun with them?

  • Henry R. Rupp

    Did no one notice the quotation from Jasper Fforde in whose novels characters from fiction and the “real” world mingle easily? This is an interesting combination of deconstruction combined with psychological insights (One would like to know the basis for believing that Oedipus did not kill Laius.). Bayard’s conclusion can be taken as an acceptable reading, if you believe that the reader knows better than the author.
    Note: Beryl didn’t speak in London because her accent would have given away her Central American origin.

  • Rick

    If you say it’s satire I guess I can. I just assumed it was pomposity.

  • Ceridwen

    I just read the book and enjoyed it, even the gibble-gabble part about the intermediate world where readers and author meet with the characters and interact, and the autonomy of characters. It explained a lot to me about the reaction to Holmes’s death and a few other such instances.

  • http://www.newclientmarketing.com Henry DeVries

    I am liking Beryl for it.

    Great review of the Holmes franchise.

  • Zlatko

    The ostensible subject of your review only takes up half of the article, seemingly fulfilling Oscar Wilde’s advice that a reviewed book should only be skimmed for six minutes and the review provide an opportunity to talk about oneself at length. In this case, of course, it is an opportunity to talk about one’s obsession and promote one’s literary productions.

    I liked the overview of the “franchise” very much, though this term is probably misapplied. It brought to mind the episode of “House” in which Wilson invents House’s former lover and names her Irene Adler (of course), without any subsequent explanation. Very sly indeed. You didn’t mention Spock’s injunction to eliminate the impossible, presumably because enough space had already been taken up.

    Your description of pomo caricatures the notion of an active reader, one aspect of the various theoretical approaches that fall under that label. In fact, the book offers the opposite of “everything goes:” it invites an intensified version of what people do when reading detective fiction, and it gives a very clear (though incomplete) outline of Holmesian “method” and the typology of clues. The excellent “The Sign of Three: Holmes, Dupin, Peirce” provides rigorous semiotic and logical (“pomo”)analyses of Holmes, and is far from proclaiming that every reading is correct.

    Nonetheless, you provide an admirable summary and a pointed evaluation.

    As for the book, I didn’t find the “gibble-gabble” sufficiently well argued (perhaps a concession to a popular audience), I thought the connection between Conan Doyle’s “hatred” and Beryl’s plotting unconvincing, and the solution selective, while the criticism of the plot was convincing.

    Much more likely than the autonomous character hypothesis is that Doyle was at first unsure who the murderer would be and had been out of the detective fiction game for a while. The fact that Doyle originally didn’t want Holmes to be in the book (if Bayard reports this correctly) suggests that the atmosphere of doom was a literary device which later became a crutch for the detective story. No doubt time constraints (the publisher’s deadline) meant that certain details were not always consistent with detective logic. A giant dog is, though a powerful image, not a very discreet weapon.

    If Bayard is right about the murderer’s identity, then I think he might have argued that Doyle could have planted that reading, since Holmes so pointedly dismisses the question of motive (Holmes is occasionally on the wrong side of the law in the interests of justice). In any case, it’s made me want to read the whole canon again (not to mention reading some works you mentioned in the “franchise” section)!

    Thanks for the review.

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