Julian Symons, the late mystery writer and critic, understood Sherlock Holmes – but not Sherlockians.
Last week in these precincts we looked at my recent re-reading of his novel, A Three-Pipe Problem. Insightful comments in response from Bob Katz had me running to Symons’ 1972 historical-critical book Mortal Consequences.
In this history of crime fiction, subtitled “From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel,” Symons inevitably devotes a chapter to the Great Detective of Baker Street. The acid that often flowed out of the Symons pen is nowhere in evidence as he displays an undiluted and apologetic admiration of Holmes.
“Sherlock Holmes triumphs as a character from the moment we meet him,” he writes. Conan Doyle doesn’t just tell us that Holmes is superior, Symons says – he shows it again and again.
Symons defends the Holmes stories from the criticism by fellow mystery historian Howard Haycraft (a member of the Baker Street Irregulars!) that the Holmes stories are “all too frequently loose, obvious, imitative, trite, and repetitious in device and theme.” Symons pushes back that “some of Haycraft’s objections are wrong and others are of little importance.”
He lauds Conan Doyle (correctly, in my view), as “a fine story teller.” And therein lies his rub, apparently, with Sherlockians. In a section called “The Myth of Sherlock Holmes,” he writes that he has an uneasy feeling that members of Sherlockian societies “are more interested in having fun with Sherlock Holmes than in the merits of the stories.”
This seems to me a snobbish objection. Perhaps, though, it is not a surprising one from a writer who brands Conan Doyle a “Victorian philistine.” Certainly, Sherlockians have fun with Sherlock Holmes! We do so in many ways. Some of us even enjoy the essays that Symons smugly considers “high among the most tedious pieces of their kind ever written.”
Surely tediousness, like beauty, is in the eye (or mind) of the beholder.
Disagreements about that aside, probably none of us who wear the Sherlockian label would quarrel with Symons’s chapter-closing comment, still true 46 years later: “that if one were choosing the best twenty short detective stories ever written, at least half a dozen of them would be about Sherlock Holmes.”