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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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The Morocco case

June 1st, 2003

BY ZACH DUNDAS

In the first lines of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes takes a hypodermic syringe from a “neat morocco case” and injects himself with cocaine. He offers a shot to his roommate Dr. Watson, an unemployed veteran nursing wounds from a hideous colonial war, himself half in holmes2the bag after a wine-soaked lunch. On other occasions, Dr. Watson remarks, the detective prefers morphine.

I discovered this scene as I sat crosslegged (or as we still said in 1980s Montana, “Indian-style”) on the floor of the bedroom my brother and I once shared. It was probably winter or, if the month was October, November, April or May, something close. Across my lap, a dogeared copy of a 1950s omnibus titled The Boy’s Sherlock Holmes, borrowed from Williard Elementary’s little library. (They don’t really publish books just for boys any more, do they?) I was ten years old or maybe eleven, and as the detective jabbed a needle into his vein, Literature’s darker possibilities burst open before me, a dusky and faintly malevolent orchid.

Or so I once fancied. Two decades’ passage allowed romance to hijack my memory of first reading The Sign, a version subsequently debunked by physical evidence. A few years ago, I came upon a no-less-battered copy of The Boy’s S.H. in a used book store and was scandalized to discover that the edition’s editors in fact omitted the novel’s druggy opening entirely. One hopes this Eisenhowerian circumcision saved a generation of boys from coca’s bony grip.

The bookshop revelation prompted a period of truth and reconciliation, and I now recall the Boy’s edition as a mere gateway drug leading to the genuine hard stuff: Doubleday’s Complete Sherlock Holmes, all four novels and fifty-six short stories in a single broad-paged volume, with a charming introduction by Christopher Morley. Here Conan Doyle worked his magic without a censor. And, proceeding from The Sign of Four, I really learned to read, leaving children’s lit kindergarten for stormier literary climes.

Today, Conan Doyle’s detective and his indefatigible Boswell occupy one fixed point in the changing world of public imagination. They are known to millions who have not and will never read a word of Conan Doyle’s immaculate prose (writing which, by the way, could teach the McSweeney’s generation a few things). On one occasion when I sported an old, thrift-salvaged hat, a Pakistani acquaintance told me I “looked like Dr. Watson.” Such immortality is no more than just deserts for these characters, two of literature’s most elaborately imagined and realized.

Unfortunately, public stereotypes of Holmes and Watson usually get them dead wrong. Films and parodies often portray the pair as fusty old-timers inhabiting a cozy, gaslit netherworld: Victoria is on her throne and all is right. Watson, in particular, is regarded as a benign, ineffectual dingbat, largely due to Nigel Bruce’s endearingly potty, yet acanonical, turns in classic films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes. And yet an examination of those first pages of The Sign of Four reveals a different side of the famous tandem.

First, they are young men, probably not yet out of their twenties, and hardly established. The under-employed Holmes exhibits symptoms we would now diagnose as manic depression, seesawing from ecstatic brilliance to narcotized dolor. Watson, apparently jobless some years after nearly dying during the Second Afghan War, has just lost his older brother to drink and assesses his own prospects as “black.” Hardly the stuff of sepia-tones.

Into their brooding and unlikely household wanders Mary Morstan, a virginal (“retiring,” in Victorianese) twenty-seven-year-old orphan and unknowing epicenter of intrigue. Engaged to help Morstan unravel some mysterious correspondence and the disappearance of her father, Holmes and Watson encounter the high-camp Sholto twins, a terrifying poison, a missing treasure, and an ominous one-legged man. An unforgettable pursuit plays out in an urban wilderness, a seething London nightscape presaging the hard-edged cities of Chandler and Hammett.

All this makes terrific fodder for an adventure yarn, ripping and roaring in the melodramatic manner beloved by Victorians, and I am sure my ten-year-old mind gravitated to The Sign’s climatic hell-bent chase scene down the Thames, rather than to subtler, sadder trappings. Yet as I re-read Conan Doyle’s compact masterpiece (as I do about once a year — it is easily done in a lazy afternoon), the book’s melancholy impresses itself upon me more and more. Every major character is to some extent damaged and lost, especially the two Baker Street protagonists. As I regard the sprawling Holmes cycle now, it seems to me the story of two unusual and often tormented men trying to find a bit of peace in their respective worlds. I think of myself at the age I discovered Conan Doyle — teetering on the lip of adolescence, probably bored out of my skull in a small town — and wonder if this quiet grace note reached some part of my young reading mind. Whether it did or not, I have cause to thank Mr. Sherlock Holmes for the role he played, along with his seven-percent solution, in my corruption. •

Posted by: The Editors
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