Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are among my favorite works of fiction. Nor is it even the ingenious elements of detection that make them what they are. Other imaginary mysteries are more clever, though far less entertaining. Rather, it is the characters, dialogue and the atmosphere – as well as the superb literary economy – that is key to Conan Doyle’s art.
Perusing the adventures of the London private investigator, I note a couple of leitmotifs that contribute to the overall Holmesian ambience. First is the quintessentially English sense of coziness which, as Orwell (a major fan of the stories) pointed out, is most often a study in contrast to the surrounding gloom that only heightens our own sense of comfort and good cheer. One sees this in the opening of “A Case of Identity”:
“My dear fellow,” said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, “life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent….”
It is even more picturesquely presented in “The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez”:
It was a wild, tempestuous night towards the close of November…. I walked to the window and looked out on the deserted street. The occasional lamps gleamed on the expanse of muddy road and shining pavement. A single cab was splashing its way from the Oxford Street end.
Second, and apparently indispensable to any Victorian gentleman’s notion of creature comforts, is the use of tobacco. One could make a vast catalogue of the references to smoking in Holmes’ chronicles, much as the detective did in one of his numerous forensic monographs.
“I found the ash of a cigar, which my special knowledge of tobacco ashes enables me to pronounce as an Indian cigar. I have, as you know, devoted some attention to this, and written a little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar, and cigarette tobacco” (“The Boscombe Valley Mystery”).
Smoking naturally lends itself to reflection. Take for example Holmes’ studious habits as described in “The Red-Headed League”:
“It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” He curled himself up in his chair, with his thin knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird.
The detective and his companion, Dr. Watson, frequently avail themselves of their pipes as a respite from tracking criminals, as in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” wherein Holmes propounds the famous nostrum that “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.” I could quote from the stories endlessly. But this is a good start. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot.”