East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Sherlock Holmes, maybe

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I first went on a Sherlock Holmes bender when I was in middle grade – I was twelve or thereabouts. The national TV had ran a cycle of old Basil Rathbone movies, and I checked out the Holmes stories in the school library. I was by then a solid science fiction reader, but as a reformed mystery fan, I enjoyed Conan Doyle’s stories a lot. I came back to them later, in high school, and I have been a sui generis Sherlockian ever since.

This morning, the postman delivered a paperback copy of The Best of Sherlock Holmes, a selection that includes the 12 stories that Conan Doyle himself had singled out as his favorites, plus other eight chosen by editor, critic and mystery writer David Stuart Davies. Published by Wordsworth Classics and sold for two bucks and a half, this 460-pages book is the perfect thing for anyone in need to refresh the basics, and whose complete Sherlock Holmes is buried somewhere in a box in the attic.
At the tail of the long Sherlockian winter I have been through, in the next few weeks I’ll have work to do on Holmes, and this selection is just what the doctor (Watson, of course) ordered.

And in the meantime it’s been pointed out to me that Conan Doyle’s prose might be off-putting for a teenager. It’s over a century old, and not so easy.
Which, given my experiences, left me somewhat baffled.

I have no reason to doubt the observation that was made to me, and must therefore imagine that something changed in the forty years that passed since that first Sherlock Holmes binge of mine.
Because back then a lot of my school mates were into Holmes, or into Agatha Christie or Rex Stout. Mysteries were a big source of entertainment for us kids.
Difficult, slow or not current?
It was not a problem.

As someone who writes for a living, I find this issue of language and accessibility quite interesting – should anybody ask me, I’d point out to Arthur Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs as two writers whose prose has aged nicely. They are not particularly hard to read – not the way Dickens can sometimes be, and thus benefits from annotated editions.
But apparently I am wrong, so what changed?
I think what changed is a matter of perception. It’s not that the prose is particularly alien, it’s that “old” equals “passé” to a certain audience, and therefore they won’t go beyond the cover. Just as the old Basil Rathbone movies would be considered old and boring being black and white and without special effects.
And indeed, a bookseller friend informs me that Sherlock Holmes sales are quite good, as long as the publisher puts Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch on the cover.

But it’s an interesting situation. Because if not in your teenage years, when it is time to read those old books?
And what should be the criteria for choosing what’s left behind and what’s kept handy?

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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