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IT SOUNDS ACHRONOLOGICAL, but was the world’s first consulting detective a noir shamus? Let’s examine this thesis with the help of Merriam-Webster, Sherlockians, and film authorities.
Weak Merriam-Webster Evidence. M-W’s definition of “noir” doesn’t help confirm our thesis: “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings.”
First, the word “fiction” contradicts the Sherlockian conceit that Dr. John H. Watson was chronicler of actual happenings; Arthur Conan Doyle was literary agent, the good doctor’s ten-percenter.
Second, just how “bleak and sleazy” is London’s Belgravia or the country estates of its well-heeled residents?
Third, how does the notion of “hard-boiled” fit in with Victorian coddled eggs and kedgeree on the sideboard?
On the Other Hand. Consider Watson’s assessment of his new roommate in A Study in Scarlet: “Knowledge of Philosophy.—Nil. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening. Chemistry.—Profound. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.”
To counter Belgravia, can there be any more bleak and sleazy setting than the one described in this first of Watson’s chronicles: a corpse in an abandoned house on Brixton Road, the word Rache, German for “revenge,” scrawled on the wall—in blood.
A Sherlockian’s View. Nick Cardillo corroborates this at The Consulting Detective website’s “Sherlock Holmes—The Original Hard-Boiled Detective?,” November 21, 2012: “Starting right away in ‘A Study in Scarlet,’ Sherlock Holmes shows that he is rather rough-around-the-edges.” Cardillo also notes that Watson’s opening of “The Three Garridebs” would be worthy of a Raymond Chandler noir: “It may have been a comedy, or it may have been a tragedy. It cost one man his reason, it cost me a blood-letting, and it cost yet another man the penalties of the law.”
Holmes and Violence. Cardillo writes, “Sherlock Holmes forays into physical violence are spread throughout the canon. It is his knowledge of Baritsu that Holmes is able to dispatch Professor Moriarty in ‘The Final Problem’ and in ‘The Empty House.’ ” Nor were traditional fisticuffs beyond Holmes’ ken.
Cinema Proof. The Film Noir File confirms Holmes’ noir shamus status in “Sherlock Holmes—Voice of Terror.” Though decidedly non-Canonical (with Holmes and Watson combatting Nazis), the film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror is “a spy noir in the Second World War era.”
The Film Noir File describes, “To solve the mystery of how the Voice of Terror can broadcast each event as it occurs, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are asked to meet with members of the Intelligence Inner Council. An ominous noir visual style distinguishes the first scene. Across the rear wall of the council’s chamber is a shadow of windowpanes, stretching like a huge spider’s web.”
Returning to Canonical Holmes…. And then there’s Holmes’ imagery in “The Final Problem” as he describes Moriarty: “He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.”
What an evocatively noir statement. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021