Sherlock Holmes: “The emotional qualities are antagonistic to clear reasoning.”

Once again it’s time for seeing how a Sherlock Holmes quote applies to writing. With this line from Sign of Four I think Holmes is letting his ego get in the way.

The quote was his review of Watson’s first published account of Holmes’ exploits, A Study in Scarlet. Holmes grumbles the story should have been little more than a true-crime monograph, showcasing Holmes’ deductive genius. Instead Watson drags in all those dramatic, emotional details to make an entertaining yarn, thereby muddying the sublimity of Holmes’ intellect.

Though supremely egotistical, Holmes was, of course, as brilliant as he thinks he is. But he’s dead wrong. It’s the emotional stuff in Watson’s stories that makes them stand out: his banter with Holmes, Holmes’ own arrogance, quirkiness and intense emotional drive, the plight of the clients at finding themselves inexplicably imperiled. The logical stuff is secondary. Jacques Futrelle’s Augustus Van Dusen, AKA “The Thinking Machine” was a titan of logic, but that’s all he is; he’s devoid of any of Holmes’ passion or personality. Futrelle’s mysteries are fun to read, but they don’t stick with me the way Doyles’ do. Neither do the excellent Dr. Thorndyke mysteries of R. Austin Freeman or the mediocre Martin Hewitt mysteries by Arthur Morrison (Hewitt and his sidekick are exceptionally bland).

That’s not to say that clear reasoning isn’t important. To write the best stories we can, we have to apply reasoning to the plot, the characters and the editing. Even if people’s reactions are irrational, they have to make sense. The ordinary character who confronts supernatural horror or tries to solve a mystery needs a very good reason for sticking their neck out. Nobody should do something stupid just because the plot needs it; I’ve seen more than one story where a careful, calculating villain becomes inept and ineffective when they have to kill the hero. Or the romance has no motivation beyond “they’re the protagonists, they should get together.”

But the emotional quality of the story probably hooks readers more than story logic. If we care about the characters, that’s a plus. Or if we don’t but the story makes us feel strongly anyway: Lovecraft’s protagonists aren’t particularly engaging, but his best work conveys a definite feeling of horror.

As for Holmes, it’s possible that underneath his indignant dismissal, he was happier with Watson’s work than he admits. Holmes usually let the detective on the case take credit in the papers; Watson’s stories must have been excellent publicity for Holmes’ business in the early years. Holmes periodically recommended one story or another as suitable for Watson to adapt. The stories undoubtedly grew Holmes’ legend (they had to be at least as popular in-story as in reality) and his ego could hardly have objected to that.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder.

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Filed under Sherlock Holmes, Uncategorized, Writing

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