Sunday, January 06, 2008

A Wodehouse a Week: Wodehouse's introduction to The Sign of Four (Sherlock Holmes Weekend Continues!)

A Wodehouse a Week banner

As far as great British genre fiction goes, I've been a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for longer than I have of P. G. Wodehouse...but only a little bit longer. I remember taking Sherlock Holmes mysteries out of the Liverpool Public Library as a small(er) stuffed bull and racing home to read them cover to cover, obsessed with the Adventure of the Red-Headed League and the Dancing Men and just where the heck did Doctor Watson get shot, anyway? (My theory? He's careless while cleaning his service revolver. Bang!)

Even tho' I am only six, the mid-seventies was a bang-on time to be a Holmes fan, thanks to Nicholas Meyer, who revitalized Holmes fandom with The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in 1974 as surely as he perked up the Star Trek franchise in 1982 directing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (Meyer is also responsible for a clever, if sometimes controversial among fans, line spoken by Spock in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: "As one of my ancestors used to say, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." On his mother's side of the family, I presume.)

There's been a mini-resurgence of Holmesean fiction over the past couple years with acclaimed writers like Michael Chabon and Caleb Carr contributing to the apocryphal non-quite-canon, but believe me, it's nothing compared to the massive Holmes publishing events of the 1970s. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, teaming up Holmes and Sigmund Freud, is directly responsible for a massive boom in Holmes pastiches and "continuing adventures" published mainly in paperback throughout the 1970s, and especially stories and novels that teamed up Holmes with other fictional and real-life adventurers, heroes, villains and events from Dracula to the Phantom of the Opera, Jack the Ripper and John Merrick, even fighting the War of the Worlds. It's Wold-Newtrony in action!

But, as far as I can tell, Sherlock Holmes has never met Jeeves. Which is a pity. You might argue that Holmes would have been too old to team up with characters in the 1920s and 1930s, but one of the appeals of the non-Doyle fiction is Holmes's extreme longevity, usually attributed to royal bee jelly (yum!) from his beekeeping farm in his Sussex retirement home. An eighty-nine year old retired detective (who may or may not be Holmes) is at the center of a mystery, a visit to post-Hiroshima Japan, and musings on bees in Michael Chabon's 2004 The Final Solution, and a very-well preserved Holmes teams up with Batman (and even outthinks him) in 1987's Detective Comics #572. So there's no reason Holmes couldn't have been around for the Age of Wooster and Blandings, and I guess we just have to wait for some enterprising fan fiction writer to combine the two worlds. Of course, there's the next best thing: the Lord Peter Wimsey novels of Dorothy Sayers. And then there's this wonderful team-up: The Sixth Annual Cricket Match Between the Sherlock Holmes Society and the P. G. Wodehouse Society!

In the meantime—and the subject of this post—let me show you my treasured favorites of all my Sherlock Holmes books (and I've got a lot of 'em): a 1975 boxed set of Ballantine Books paperback editions:

Dated 1975, these reissues in mass market paperback came out the year the mega-successful Seven-Per-Cent Solution was released in Ballantine paperback, and were clearly designed to capitalize on its bestselling status. I'm pretty sure I got this for Christmas 1975 and probably devoured the entire set by New Year's Eve. It's not a complete Holmes: three later books are missing (The Valley of Fear, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, and His Last Bow), probably omitted to keep the set under a $10.00 retail price. Aside from being able to read the first six books for my first time in chronological order, I love these editions for their introductions: each has a short preface on Holmes and Doyle by a leading author, almost all of them in the mystery or detective field:
  • A Study in Scarlet is introduced by Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct police procedurals, who discusses the difference between police work of Lestrade and Gregson and his own characters.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is introduced by Ellery Queen, in one of my favorite short pieces on Holmes. At the time Queen had recently been revitalized on TV in the wonderful but short-lived Ellery Queen TV series starring Jim Hutton and David Wayne, and I'd been eagerly reading the various EQ paperback mystery reissues that had come out at the same time. "Ellery"'s essay on his he discovered Sherlock Holmes at a young age put a lovely background to the character that would eventually become my favorite mystery writer and character.
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles has an introduction by Don Pendleton, who teams up his action-adventure character Mack Bolan (forerunner of Frank Castle) and Holmes in a mini short-story.
  • The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes is introduced by mystery and television writer Joe Gores (and I'm astonished to learn there's not a Wikipedia page on him). Gores tells a fine detailed story of his own life as a detective and its differences from that of Holmes.
  • The Return of Sherlock Holmes's introduction is by Nicholas Meyer, a fitting choice as The Seven-Per-Cent Solution proposed the theory of Holmes's return was not quite canon. (He draws close comparisons between Doyle, Holmes, and Dr. Joseph Bell, often acknowledged to be the inspiration for Holmes.)
Did I miss one? Well, yes, of course. The Sign of Four features an introduction by (go ahead, guess) P. G. Wodehouse. It's a piece I've not seen collected any other place, so it's fitting and appropriate I read and discuss it on this Sherlock Holmes Weekend. Plum begins
When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press—Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.
This isn't just a homage, of course—Wodehouse has something much wittier up his sleeve: where did Holmes get all his money from? It's a clever and funny—and well-argued—essay. Holmes couldn't afford to rent rooms by himself (leading to his historic meeting with Doctor John Watson and their subsequent lodging at 221B Baker Street). He has a small income from cases, but while a handful are from dukes or barons, most of these are from clerks, governesses, landladies, undergraduates, or unpaid work for Scotland Yard. There isn't a grand or regular amount of money flowing into the Holmes bank account. Yet he has a steady purchase habit of tobacco, ammunition, chemistry supplies, newspapers, cab fares, and the like (not to mention cocaine), and is willing to spend money dashing off on trains around the countryside at the first hint of a case.
For what would the ordinary private investigator have said to himself when starting out in business? He would have said 'Before I take on work for a client I must be sure that the client has the stuff, the daily sweetener and the little something down in advance are of the essence,' and he would have had those landladies and those Greek interpreters out of his sitting room before you could say 'bloodstain.' Yet Holmes, who could not afford a pound a week for lodgings, never bothered. Significant!
Wodehouse's solution to the mystery? Holmes had a stack of cash he was hiding from Watson. But where do you get stacks of cash? Crime, my son, crime. Simply put, Holmes was a master criminal. Wodehouse qualifies that: Holmes was the master criminal: Professor Moriarty.

Wodehouse points out (absolutely following canon and completely accurately) that Watson (and we) never see or meet Moriarty: we are told of his existence by Holmes.
And Holmes made a little slip on the occasion. He said that on his way to see Watson he had been attacked by a rough with a bludgeon. A face-oscillating napoleon of Crime, anxious to eliminate someone who disliked, would have thought up something better than roughs with bludgeons. Dropping cobras down the chimney is the mildest thing that would have occurred to him.
Why, it's elementary! You might even gasp upon reading it. Such a revelation would startle and shock Holmesean scholarship and shake it to its roots. At least until Wodehouse adds
P.S. Just kidding, boys. Actually, like all the rest of you, I am never happier than when curled up with Sherlock Holmes, and I hope Messrs Ballantine will sell several million of him. As the fellow said, there's no police like Holmes.
Whew! Another of my childhood heroes preserved and saved.

(But I still wanna see Holmes team up with Jeeves to solve the Adventure of the Silver Cow Creamer.)

There's some other wonderful editions out there today—I'm especially fond of the chunky and comprehensive two-volume Bantam Complete Holmes and Norton's oversized three-volume New Annotated Sherlock Holmes—but the Ballantine mass-market paperback editions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are long out of print. Holmes in his day would have had to scout out a book by placing advertisements in every one of the multitude of afternoon London newspapers, or by meeting dark and mysterious characters in a shadowy mews off Charing Cross Road, or possibly by convincing his lethargic brother Mycroft to release the Queen's personal copy to him. Your job of detection is easier to hunt down these books: The Sign of Four with Wodehouse introduction is readily available online, and the other books in the boxed set series are plentiful and readily purchased online and at used book shops. Whatever the edition you pick up, however, you're in for a treat. Wodehouse is the creamy icing on a rich luscious Sherlock cake, but you can't go wrong either way.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


R.A. Porter said...

I've been reading your site for a few months now but haven't had occasion to comment till today. This post, plus your Halloween post on the Wodehouse/Lovecraft mashup Scream for Jeeves, made me want to recommend the Gaiman short story "A Study in Emerald" to you. It's collected in Fragile Things.

I don't know if you've read it, but it puts Holmes into a Lovecraftian London. It's missing Jeeves, of course, but is still a cracking mashup.

Unknown said...

Of possible interest is an interview a very young Wodehouse once did with his hero, Conan Doyle.

104 years ago when the 22-year-old Wodehouse was a full-time bank employee and part-time free-lance journalist he published an interview with ACD in "VC" magazine, one of a series of four celebrity interview columns he did for that publication.

The column, which comes embarrassingly close to hero-worship, can be found on line in the "Articles" section of Madame Eulalie's briefcase.

Andrew Leal said...

Belated comment, but great essay. I used to have that edition but don't anymore. It should be noted, however, that Wodehouse, never one to waste anything, reworked the introduction into one of his last Mulliner stories (and one of the only ones not told by Mr. Mulliner himself), "From a Detective's Notebook," in which Adrian Mulliner (introduced earlier in "The Smile That Wins") propounds the same theory to his colleagues at his club (a typical Wodehouse club name; the Junior Magnifying Glass, I think)

Arun said...

Nice posts about Sherlock Holmes.