Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Sensational Sherlock - Part 3 - Ambiguities of Morals and Method

Sensation fiction is a mix of attention to detail and wild abstraction: “The typical sensation novel was a catholic mixture of modes and forms, combining realism and melodrama, the journalistic and the fantastic, the domestic and the romantic or exotic.” (Pykett, 5) The sensation novel depicts tiniest nuances and singular objects as clues to underlying secrets and guilt. At the same time, characters’ emotions are overwhelming: “everything in a sensation novel is larger than life … Humanity is seen in extremis, perpetually at the point of crisis.” (Hughes, 22) Sensation novels combine domestic realism and older forms of Gothic romance and melodrama (Brantlinger, 1). This is reflected in the narrative style, which alternates precise descriptive detail of setting, objects and external characteristics with tempestuous and hyperbolic expressions of emotion and sensation. This “violent yoking of romance and realism” (Hughes, 16) is also present in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four.

Holmes’s irrational excitement about detective work and his scientific, analytical method of detection are the most striking example of this combination of romance and realism. Watson observes Holmes at the crime scene in A Study in Scarlet:

“… he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face. So engrossed was he with his occupation that he appeared to have forgotten our presence, for he chattered away to himself under his breath the whole time, keeping up a running fire of exclamations, groans, whistles, and little cries suggestive of encouragement and of hope. As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded, well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards though the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent.” (A Study in Scarlet, Part ,1, Chapter3)

Holmes is performing a forensic examination of the scene, analyzing the footprints, the blood stains and the tobacco ash. In the process Holmes himself appears to have lost his senses, he is so excited. A similar combination of realism and romance is, of course, built into the concept of proximity as shown in the depiction of the crime scenes. Mysterious, terrific and fantastical murders are discovered in houses located at common-sounding suburban addresses. It can also be argued that a mix of realism and romance is built in to the formula of detective fiction: fictional crime and mystery are always romantic; clues to its resolution tend to be the realistic detail spotted by the skillful detective. When Holmes criticizes Watson’s narrative as too romantic and Watson claims it is realistic (The Sign of Four, Chapter 1), Conan Doyle draws attention to this tug-of-war of realism and romance which permeates both novels. 

Watson is seemingly recording the triumphs of his friend’s science of deduction – logical and analytical, hence realistic, reasoning. But the nature of the events - mysterious, exciting and sensational – is pulling his narrative in the direction of romance. Examination of the murder scene in The Sign of Four is a good example of this (The Sign of Four, Chapter 6). In it Holmes points out the various clues. Watson interprets them initially as terrifying and strange (“That is not a footmark.” “It is absolutely impossible.” “a child has done this horrid thing.” “I cannot conceive anything which will cover the facts”), and Holmes keeps dismantling the mystery with his interpretation (“It is the impression of a wooden stump.” “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” “but the thing is quite natural. … You know my methods. Apply them.”)

Throughout the two narratives there is a tension between the romantic, melodramatic experience of the exciting events, and Holmes’s apparent realistic interpretation and handling of them.

The most dramatic fault line between the realistic and the romantic in both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, is the maligned ‘Gaboriau-gap’, so called because it is thought that Conan Doyle copied the narrative device from Emile Gaboriau’s novels. When the culprit has been caught and Holmes is ready to reveal the reasoning that led him to solve the mystery, the narrative is suddenly hijacked by the story of the criminal and his growing obsession for revenge. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says: “we have reached the end of our little mystery. You are very welcome to put any questions you like to me now, and there is no danger that I will refuse to answer them.” (A Study in Scarlet, Part 1, Chapter 7) You turn the page and find yourself “on the Great Alkali Plain” (A Study in Scarlet, Part 2, Chapter 1) and meet a grizzled cowboy with a little girl in “dainty shoes and smart pink frock” (Ibid.). The transition is dramatic and disorienting – 221b Baker Street has been whisked away and we are in a strange, distant land, where a romance develops and turns into murderous monomania of a heart-broken lover. In The Sign of Four the ‘Gaboriau-gap’ is better integrated; it is presented as the culprit’s own words (The Sign of Four, Chapter 12).
The stories of the culprits are wildly melodramatic, exotic and romantic. One involves a forced marriage and a broken heart, the other an Indian treasure and imprisonment on tropical islands inhabited by cannibals. In the narrative structure, Watson’s realistic narrative of Holmes’s detective investigation is overwhelmed by the romantic drama of the criminal’s experience.

Watson says of Holmes: “So swift, silent, and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained bloodhound picking up the scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defence.” (The Sign of Four, Chapter 6) The ‘Gaboriau-gaps’ develop a thrilling parallel between the criminals and the detective.
Holmes and the culprit he pursues are both obsessed by the same crime. Both lose their human features in their feverish, agitated, excitement. Jefferson Hope is “human bloodhound, with his mind wholly set upon the object to which he had devoted his life.” (A Study in Scarlet, Part 2, Chapter, 5). Jonathan Small, too, experiences “an overpowering, absorbing passion.”(The Sign of Four, Chapter 12): “To escape, to track down Sholto, to have my hand upon his throat – that was my one thought.” (Ibid.) Tonga,  Small’s companion, the extension of his murderous passions, is a “little hell-hound,” “the little devil,” (The Sign of Four, Chapter 11) “as venomous as a young snake” (The Sign of Four, Chapter 12). The murderers, like the detective, are “hounds.”
Holmes, Hope and Small all have knowledge of dispensing drugs. We are familiar with Holmes’s chemical experiments (A Study in Scarlet, Part 1, Chapter 1; The Sign of Four, Chapter 9). In A Study in Scarlet, Hope describes himself as “a fairly good dispenser” as he tells how he made two pills, one lethal and one harmless, for his Russian roulette by poison. In the Andaman Islands, Small learns “to dispense drugs.” This allows him to save Tonga’s life and as a result he becomes Small’s inseparable companion. This chemical knowledge allows both criminals to commit their crimes by providence and coincidence. Hope’s pills are a rather unreliable method of murder which leaves the judgement to Providence. Small’s rescue of Tonga leads to Sholto’s death when he is unable to control Tonga’s violence.

Both crimes and detection in A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four are morally ambiguous. First, the victims are immoral and their demise is a result of their own bad behaviour. Secondly, drugs introduce into the narratives “a hand of fate,” a supernatural agency of justice so familiar in sensation fiction. Thirdly, the detective’s motivation for detection is self-gratification – to get a kick, to get high on crime. Fourthly, the experience of crime is similar for both the detective and the criminal, they also share chemical expertise.

There is some of the ‘doubling’ typical in sensation fiction in the parallels between the detective and the criminals. But more significantly, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four display the moral ambiguity that sensation novels were so criticized for: “Partly because of its moral ambiguity, the sensation novel was felt to be dangerous by many of its first critics” (Brantlinger, 5; also Hughes, ix).

Watson as a narrator neatly solves the classic problem of detective fiction: how to tell a story without giving its secrets away too early. This is the perverse requirement of any story with mystery which may sensation novelists struggled with: “The narrative satisfactions of the sensation novel depend to a great extent on the gradual uncovering of the central secret(s). To this end the most effective sensation writers developed techniques of narrative concealment and delay or deferral.“ (Pykett, 5) These “new narrative strategies were developed to tantalize the reader by withholding information rather than divulging it.” (Brantlinger, 1-2); see also Hughes, 26)

Conan Doyle’s technique was to introduce Watson as an internal narrator and a Boswell to Holmes’s Dr Johnson. Watson tells us all he knows and therefore gives the impression of a reliable narrator. Holmes occasionally keeps information from Watson, teases him and keeps him guessing to theatrical effect. In this way, Conan Doyle can withhold information from the reader without aggravating her. We do not mind being kept in the dark, because Watson is there with us.

“Whatever the technique adopted the result was the same: a modification, in some cases quite radical, or the omniscient narrator’s role as the reader’s guide, guardian and friend. Without this helping hand, the reader is left to make provisional moral judgements as the narrative unfolds. The result is a considerable degree of moral ambiguity.” (Pykett, 6)

Moral ambiguity here are the intermediate moral judgements we make (which are often wrong) while reading a sensation novel. Because we are no longer supported by an omniscient, reliable narrator, we cannot immediately know the significance and moral value of each event or the true moral nature of each character we encounter.

“At the same time as the narrator of a sensation novel seems to acquire authority by withholding the solution to a mystery, he or she also loses authority or at least innocence, becoming a figure no longer to be trusted. … the narrative persona must now become either secretive or something less than omniscient” (Brantlinger, 15)

Secretive narrators are unreliable by definition. Less than omniscient narrators are fallible. Watson is fallible, but his less than omniscient narration is bolstered by Holmes’s superb intelligence and deductive skills. Holmes and Watson work as a double act to provide a solution to the most significant problem with narrative technique created by sensation fiction: the incompatibility of a traditional omniscient narrator with a plot involving mystery.

To summarize my reading of Conan Doyle’s two stories: how many boxes of ‘sensation fiction’ can we tick for A Study of Scarlet and The Sign of the Four?
Plot: Crime, Mystery, Proximity, Sex, Doubles,Coincidence.
Characterization: Deviant characters; Irrational character motivation; Abnormal mental states
Style: Accuracy of detail, Expressions of emotion, Melodrama, Mix of realism and romance
Ideas: Moral ambiguity; Uncertainties about gender roles
Form: Fractured or insecure narrative voice (narrative omnipotence problematic)

Conan Doyle’s first two Holmes stories are sensation novels, only he pretty much left out women.

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