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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Emotional Mr. Holmes

He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine the world has ever seen ...  -- "A Scandal in Bohemia"

So says Dr. Watson in the first paragraph of the first Sherlock Holmes short story. He may have even believed it. Rex Stout seems to have believed it.

In 1949 article for Saturday Review, Stout wrote: “Sherlock Holmes is the embodiment of man’s greatest pride and his greatest weakness: his reason . . . He is human aspiration. He is what our ancestors had in mind when in wistful bragging they tacked the sapiens onto the homo.”

And then he added: “We enjoy reading about people who love and hate and covet – about gluttons and martyrs, misers and sadists, whores and saints, brave men and cowards. But also, demonstrably, we enjoy reading about a man who gloriously acts and decides, with no exception and no compunction, not as his emotions brutally command, but as his reason instructs.”

This assertion is beautifully stated and possibly even true, but inapplicable to Sherlock Holmes. In practice, Holmes acts out of emotion with great regularity. Think about it: He sets thieves and murderers free on several occasions out of soft-heartedness. He sends orange pips to the killers of John Openshaw in revenge. He refuses a more valuable fee and asks for a portrait of Irene Adler in return for his service to the King of Bohemia. And, most famously, he cries out and threatens Killer Evans for having shot Watson.

A great reasoner Sherlock Holmes was, but unemotional he most definitely was not.


  1. I agree with you to the point of believing that that side of Holmes is one of the keys of his long-lasting appeal. In his time, there was this character created by Jaques Futrelle, Van Dusen the Thinking Machine, who was cold, heartless and enormously clever and calculating. The character was hugely popular for some time, but who remembers him now? Holmes' humanity, his strengths and weaknesses, his friendship with Watson, his personal sense of justice, even his addictions and his fear/mistrust of women, make him more real and appealing. It's not just his marvellous brain, though that plays a part indeed.

    1. Well said! The Thinking Machine is best known for one single, very clever story, "The Problem of Cell 13."

    2. Well said! The Thinking Machine is best known for one single, very clever story, "The Problem of Cell 13."

  2. I firmly believe that if the Thames TV produced series "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes" (1971-73) was put back on TV as some sort of 'Masterpiece Retro Theater' (or something), it would only be a matter of weeks before we started seeing #MaxCarradosSeesYou or Thorndyke fans starting a The King's Bench Babes podcast. There's seriously so much great non-ACD Strand era detective fiction (many with Paget illustrations) it boggles the mind that ACD/Holmes is really the only detective from those halcyon days anyone remembers. I recommend picking up copies of the bound collections of "The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes" Vols 1 and 2 - on Castle ed. by AK Russell - opposed to the other series with the exact same title edited by Hugh Greene on Pantheon. The Russell collections are pretty good facsimiles but they also equal 80 stories total in two volumes versus Greene's less interesting collections which consist of 5 volumes and are not facsimiles, hence Greene has no illustrations. Also, great Rex Stout quote - looking to track down the SRL article but can't find it in their database online.