A type of book which we hardly seem to produce in these days, but which flowered with great richness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is what Chesterton called the ‘good bad book’: that is, the kind of book that has no literary pretensions but which remains readable when more serious productions have perished. Obviously outstanding books in this line are Raffles and the Sherlock Holmes stories.—George Orwell
Orwell is correct about the dates and the books. Among the stories I loyally return to are Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, the Martin Hewitt mysteries by Arthur Morrison and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. It may be no coincidence that all of these tales are set in fog-bound Victorian England. It is an opening like this (from “The Five Orange Pips”) which sets the proper mood:
It was in the latter days of September, and the equinoctial gales had set in with exceptional violence. All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows…. As evening drew in, the storm grew higher and louder, and the wind cried and sobbed like a child in the chimney.
Sherlock Holmes sat moodily at one side of the fireplace cross-indexing his records of crime, while I at the other was deep in one of Clark Russell’s fine sea-stories until the howl of the gale from without seemed to blend with the text, and the splash of the rain to lengthen out into the long swash of the sea waves. My wife was on a visit to her mother’s, and for a few days I was a dweller once more in my old quarters at Baker Street.
I purchased the inexpensive Bantam two volume set of the complete Sherlock Holmes tales in the early 90s, and am always perusing some of them throughout the year, especially “The Dying Detective,” which is a wonderful one-room drama; psychologically tense and claustrophobic. Recently I began re-reading the entire canon. The short stories are almost uniformly perfect. Of the full-length stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four hold up the best since Holmes and Watson remain at the center of the action. By contrast, A Study in Scarlet and the Valley of Fear have long digressions that take us too far from the familiar characters and environs of Baker Street.
Chesterton may have been right when he quipped that “Sherlock Holmes is not really a real logician. He is an ideal logician imagined by an illogical person….But Sherlock Holmes is an ideal figure, and in an imaginative sense a very effective one. He does embody the notion which unreasonable people entertain of what pure reason would be like.” But we are none the worse for it. In creating Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle not only outdid other mystery writers (including Chesterton), he outdid himself. Most of Conan Doyle’s works were “bad bad books,” and have justly perished. But Sherlock Holmes remains a truly “good bad book” to be enjoyed throughout a lifetime.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.