I read the stories first when I was in my twenties. Now all these many years later I don’t remember the plots so much as the setting of Victorian London, and the wonderful character of Holmes. They’re what hooked me.
A clatter of hooves on cobblestone streets. Fog-shrouded street lamps. The scent of tobacco smoke wreathing Holmes’ head as he sits comfortably by the fire lost in thought. An Inverness coat and deerstalker hat drying on a coatrack by the door. Mrs. Hudson attempting cheerful conversation as she carries in a late supper of cold beef.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes mystery was published in 1887. Do you know who else was publishing in 1887? Jules Verne. A few folk you might have been assigned to read in school. And bunch of people you’ve never heard of. Holmes, meanwhile, is still very much au courant. People are happily reading his adventures in the original and he’s featured in movies and television shows with unabated star power. Why?
The stories of Sherlock Holmes are all about escaping into a world where the mind is paramount and the rest of being human is conveniently dispensed with. Holmes doesn’t waste time courting or marrying or raising children. He doesn’t shop for food or keep a pet. His body is wonderfully reliable, seeming to be in a perpetual state of readiness despite no obvious attention ever being paid to its care. Daily life is largely ignored. Mrs. Hudson keeps the larder stocked and the home fires burning. Nearly all social entanglements are simply ignored. If work fails as a distraction from the mundane, there’s always cocaine.
In my own life, the mundane seems triumphant; it’s very pleasant to imagine a person for whom everything tangible is part of the game.Danger only exists for the thrill, because, of course, Holmes will prevail. He’s true to his word, intelligent and insightful, exhaustively knowledgeable about whatever matters to his work, and wonderfully capable. You, as a reader, may have no idea where all of this will lead, but you can trust that Holmes has things well in hand. You can relax and enjoy the ride.
And the scenery. The scenery matters. Every tiny detail is suffused with meaning, even a dog NOT barking at night. A beautifully realized fictitious world is a playground for the analytic mind. All is vivid, nothing is pointless. It’s tempting to say the gloves and gowns and hats and horse-drawn carriages simply make for fun, but why? I went through a brief period of reading books by Louis L’Amour and fell in love with his vivid depictions of the open western landscapes. I’ve also enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s descriptions of other-worldly planets. You can’t just say that you love the setting of Victorian London and in the next breath say that practically any setting will do. What is is about setting that matters? Apparently not the particularities on any one setting, but what?
I think it’s this: that the setting, whatever it is, must be fully realized, it must make the story palpable, and it must hold the story perfectly. We have to see, hear, taste, smell and feel enough of the fictitious world that it comes alive, we must be able to lose ourselves in this make-believe place, feeling we’re really there, and the setting must conform to the story so well that we never fall out of place, but never become lost in just place to the point of missing the story or forgetting the characters.
Putting these together I realize that while I seem to have said two things, one about character and the other about setting, I think the one thing I’ve really said is that the writer must create for me a self-contained world. The setting is the molded box that perfectly fits this imaginary world, shielding me from everything outside the box/book for as long as I read but without impinging on the story in any way, and the characters are ideal companions for my illusory adventure, built in just the right way to tell this story.
Yes, it’s very easy to get lost in a tale from Doyle.
Here’s a treat: An Interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle