Friday, 1 August 2014

Sensational Sherlock - Part 1: Mystery and Proximity

At the beginning of The Sign of Four (1890), Watson and Holmes discuss Watson’s “small brochure with the somewhat fantastic title of ‘A Study in Scarlet’.” Holmes is critical of it:

“’Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same col and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism …'
‘But the romance was there,”’ I remonstrated. ‘I could not tamper with the facts.’ … 
'Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them.’” (The Sign of Four, Chapter 1)

This meta-fictional moment of subtle advertising presents a paradox: Watson claims that the romantic treatment of the story is realistic. Holmes suggests that a more unrealistic approach would have been appropriate to showcase his scientific method. We must blame Watson’s dogged adherence to the whole truth for the sensational qualities in these narratives.

This kind of a tug-of-war between realism and romanticism is typical to Victorian sensation fiction. It occurs in both the content and the structure of sensation novels. This is not the only sensational feature of Conan Doyle’s early Holmes stories. I agree with Andrew Maunder when he writes that “there are various kinds of sensation novel and to talk of sensation fiction as though it were all of a single type of equal merit would be misleading.” (Maunder, x) Nevertheless, both contemporary critics like H. L. Mansel and Margaret Oliphant, and later academics draw our attention to the same identifying features of the genre. It is therefore possible to examine to what extent these characteristics are present in A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890)

My sources for the common features of sensation novels are Victorian Sensation Fiction by Andrew Radford (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); The Maniac in the Cellar Sensation Novels of the 1860s by Winifred Hughes (Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1980); “General Introduction” to Varieties of Women’s Sensation Fiction: 1955-1890 by Andrew Maunder (Volume 1, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2004); “What is ‘Sensational# about the ‘Sensation Novel’?” by Patrick Brantlinger in Nineteenth Century Fiction, June 1982, Vol 37, Nr 1, pp1-28) and The Nineteenth-Century Sensation Novel by Lyn Pykett (2nd edition. Tavistock: Northcote, 2011).

Both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four are murder mysteries. They open with an act of crime committed by an unknown culprit, and the main plot is propelled forward by the detective’s actions to identify and capture the culprit. This is seems logical and we can assume Holmes would approve. The victims and their immediate surroundings, however, are strange and terrifying:

“On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and, as it seemed to me ,of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features. This malignant and terrible contortion, combined with the low forehead, blunt nose, and prognathous jaw, gave the dead man a singularly simious and ape-like appearance, which was increased by his writhing unnatural posture.” (A Study in Scarlet, part 1, chapter 3)

There is no expression of sympathy or pity for the victim in the narrative, only disgust and horror as the murder has turned its victim into a monster, stripped of his human qualities. A similar effect is found in The Sign of Four:

“The features were set however, in a horrible smile, a fixed an unnatural grin, which in that still and moonlit room was more jarring to the nerves than any scowls or contortions. … It seemed to me that not only his features, but all his limbs, were twisted and turned in the most fantastic fashion.” (The Sign of Four, chapter 5)

The settings of the murders reflect the “unnatural” and “fantastic” state of the victims. The murder scene in A Study in Scarlet is in an abandoned, semi-derelict house, which “wore an ill-omened and minatory look. …  [with] three tiers of vacant melancholy windows which were blank and dreary. … A small garden sprinkled over with a scattered eruption of sickly plants.” (A Study in Scarlet, part 1, chapter 3) Inside, the room where the body id found is “blotched in places with mildew, great strips [of wall paper] hung down, exposing yellow plaster beneath. … The solitary window was so dirty that the light was hazy and uncertain, giving a dull grey tinge to everything, which was intensified by the thick layer of dust which coated the whole apartment.” (Ibid.) In The Sign of Four, the house, where Bartholomew Sholto has been murdered is “girt with a very high stone wall topped with broken glass. A single narrow iron-clamped door formed the only means of entrance.” (The Sign of Four, chapter 5). “Inside, a gravel path wound through desolate grounds to a huge clump of a house, square and prosaic, all plunged in shadow save where moonbeam struck one corner and glimmered in a garret window. The vast size of the building, with its gloom and its deathly silence, struck a chill to the heart.” (Ibid.) There are “great rubbish-heaps which cumbered the grounds” (Ibid.) the grounds are “scarred and intersected” with “trenches and pits.” “The whole place, with its scattered dirt-heaps and ill-grown shrubs has a blighted, ill-omened look which harmonized with the black tragedy which hung over it.” (Ibid.)

In both novels, the crime takes place in a suburban enclave of horror. These melodramatic, Gothic scenes are located in the kind of streets where Conan Doyle’s readers lived. In A Study in Scarlet, “Number 3, Lauriston Garden” on Brixton Road is “one of four which stood back some little way from the street, two being occupied and two being empty.” (A Study in Scarlet, part 1, chapter 3) When Holmes and Watson arrive there is already “a small know of loafers” outside watching the proceedings (Ibid.). The murder scene “looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.” (Ibid.) In The Sign of Four, the Sholto’s carefully guarded villa “Pondicherry Lodge” is in Upper Norwood (The Sign of Four, chapter 4), a suburb built in the nineteenth-century on the West Sussex side, south of London.

The two essential ingredients of a sensation novel are mystery and ‘proximity.’ “Mystery … in the sensation novel it is the dominant element.” (Pykett, 5) Usually, these mysteries involve crime or at least a potential of crime, even it turns out none was committed. This crime is “often murder as an outcome of adultery and sometimes of bigamy, in apparently proper, bourgeois, domestic setting.” (Brantlinger, 1). Hughes talks of “the axiomatic Victorian fondness for murder.” (Hughes, 31) and goes on to suggest: “A sort of general principle for the sensation novel. Too much sex begets murder” (Hughes, 32). Sexual passion is another important ingredient of sensation fiction. As Brantlinger notes, sensation fiction displays “a strong interest in sexual irregularities, adultery, forced marriages, and marriages formed under false pretenses” (Brantlinger, 6). I am doubtful however, whether we should go as far as Hughes, who suggests that “Murder may function as a diversion, for both author and audience, a more socially acceptable channel for energy that might otherwise be sexual.” (Hughes, 32)

There are two ways to interpret the interest in all things sexual in sensation fiction. First, sensation fiction was aimed at the reader’s sympathetic nervous system. Sex is a shortcut to this goal. Secondly, as all the academics agree, sensation fiction was much occupied with gender roles and relations. Pykett writes: “Another notably shocking feature of the genre was the centrality of female characters and the way in which women and the feminine were represented.” (Pykett, 9). Heroines began to kick ass, instead of simply being rescued by heroes. Or as Hughes put it, the heroine became a “participant” not “merely a victim” (Hughes, 44). Sassy heroines presented in interesting and thrilling situations necessitated the introduction of sex into the narrative.

All this criminal and sexual activity invariably has to take place just around the corner from the reader to make it truly thrilling: “One of the most shocking and thrilling aspects of sensation fiction, as far as its first readers and reviewers were concerned, is the fact that the action in these fast novels of crime and passion usually occurred in the otherwise prosaic, everyday, domestic setting of a model middle-class or aristocratic English household.” (Pykett, 8) This kind of a setting was shocking and sensational for two reasons: first it gave the impression that dark secrets might be harboured and foul deeds committed all around the readers, without them being none the wiser. And it also suggested a titillating double-standard where apparent respectability was hiding a multitude of sins. Sensation novels suggested "a Britain full of sinister possibilities … dark secrets behind the respectable surface.” (Maunder, xi). It was a world where “domestic tranquility conceals heinous desires and deeds.” (Brantlinger, 3)

From the start A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four display the two crucial features of sensation fiction: mystery with murder, and proximity. But is there sex in them? In A Study in Scarlet, as a young man, Hope falls in love with Lucy Ferrier, “the flower of Utah,” “as fair a specimen of American girlhood as could be found in the whole Pacific slope.” Lucy is described as a ”lithe, girlish figure tripping through the wheatfields, or … mounted upon her father’s mustang, and managing it with all the ease and grace of a true child of the West.” (A Study in Scarlet, part 2, chapter 2) Lucy’s fate, and her dramatic transformation from this tall and strong (Ibid.) cow-girl to “the white silent figure” (A Study in Scarlet, part 3, chapter 5) in the hands of Enoch J. Drebber, is the driving force behind Hope’s crime. It is left to the reader’s imagination what Drebber did to Lucy. In The Sign of Four, there is a romantic subplot of Watson and Miss Mary Morstan – Watson gets a wife out of the case (The Sign of Four, chapter 12). Miss Morstan remains a passive figure, moved around and left behind (The Sign of Four, chapter 6) as suits the plot focused on the male protagonists’ adventure. Watson’s courtship of her is limited to hand-holding (The Sign of Four, chapter 5), telling anecdotes (The Sign of Four, chapter 3) and appreciating the vision of domestic calm Mary embodies as Watson leaves her behind once more and promises to “report any progress we might make with the case.” (The Sign of Four, chapter 7):

“As we drove away I stole a glance back, and I still seem to see that little group on the step – the two graceful, clinging figures, the half-opened door, the hall light shining through stained glass, the barometer, and the bright stair-rods. It was soothing to catch even that passing glimpse of a tranquil English home in the midst of the wild, dark business which had absorbed us.” (The Sign of Four, chapter 7).

This image is a good example how Conan Doyle employs the basic sensational ingredients of mystery and proximity in the two first Sherlock Holmes stories. The novels lack the traditional sensational heroine, neither Lucy Ferrier nor Mary Morstan are active characters, but like good Victorian women (?) with their innocence and all-around goodness, provide motivation for the men. Yet, there is a romantic interest in both novels; neither story would take place if it was not for a woman. Money, it must be noted, goes with love in each novel: in A Study in Scarlet Lucy’s fortune is part of the equation of her fate, in The Sign of Four, Watson agonizes over Mary’s wealth.

We can understand Holmes’s annoyance when he criticizes Watson’s writing arguing that “The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.” (The Sign of Four, chapter 1) Watson is not writing according to Holmes’s expectations. Instead of a linear, realist narrative focusing on Holmes’s scientific method, these two novels take us into a sensational world of “unnatural” and “fantastic” bodies in “ill-omened” settings

Conan Doyle is using mystery and proximity to great effect. These two qualities are arguably also key features of detective fiction. However, we have already seen other sensational characteristics in his stories. First, there is the tension between realism and romanticism, and secondly the narrative style is melodramatic and typical to sensation fiction. There are also other tricks of the sensation novel that Conan Doyle uses in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.

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