Sherlock Holmes may be the most instantly recognizable character in all of fiction. But how well do we actually know him? A new play, Holmes & Watson, playing at North Coast Rep until November 18, makes a point of challenging the audience with this question. Each of three characters insists he is the famous detective, and we are left to wonder: Who is the genuine Holmes? Is he the dangerously clever charmer? The guilt-ridden killer? The silent brooder?
We’re intimately familiar with his distinctive outfit: Ulster coat and cape, worn over tweeds, and topped by deerstalker cap (magnifying glass optional). But stripped of this costume, what do we know of the man, besides his detective schtick? His uncanny ability to deduce the story of a person’s life from a few minor details — a splash of mud on one’s shoes, for example — is enthralling, but it tells us more about the other characters than Holmes himself.
It’s not so much a personality as it is a parlor trick, a perceptive tool of the trade, used more often by con men and charlatans than master detectives.
Con men also fool their marks with misdirection and omission, which happen to be the same techniques employed by the entire mystery genre. The great trick to writing a mystery is to convince the audience it has all the clues necessary to solve a puzzle, if only we pay close enough attention and possess sharp enough deductive reasoning.
But for most mysteries, this is not the case. During the great reveal at the end of a mystery, when the detective explains whodunit and how, there are always pieces to the puzzle that have been purposely kept from the audience. We’re not really meant to solve any crimes here. Nor do we want to, really.
The joy of the mystery genre is that it keeps us guessing. When we watch a romance, we know our protagonists will wind up together. When we watch a hero’s quest, we know our hero will return victorious. With a mystery, we know only that it will be solved, and if we knew the solution from the start, there’d be little reason to read further.
Which is why we adore Sherlock Holmes, despite his inscrutability. He gives us joy, thanks to his ability to stay always one step ahead of us. If we got to know him like we do other characters, came to understand his emotions and motivations, the fun would end. These are the pieces of the puzzle that would allow us to solve Sherlock Holmes, kept hidden for our own benefit.
In The Adventure of the Final Problem, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attempted to kill off his famous protagonist at Reichenbach Falls, the author hoping he could escape the mystery genre by doing so. But fans were distressed and demanded more Holmes, more mysteries. Doyle bowed to pressure and wrote Hound of the Baskervilles. If Doyle really wanted to kill off his perfect detective, he should have written him as a predictably flawed human being, with problems no casual reader would be interested in solving.