“Somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch-box with my name, John H. Watson, M.D., Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious problems which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine…”
–The Problem of Thor Bridge
(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
I think when I was in high school, we read the “Speckled Band” in class, and other than that my impressions of Holmes and Watson were the usual cultural constants of deerstalker cap, meerschaum pipe, late middle aged proper Victorians. Hounds and speckled bands and Bohemian scandals. That’s about it.
My grandfather, who was a professor of biology, loved Sherlock Holmes. He was a member of the Baker Street Irregulars for over 40 years, he had this leather bound set that I remember from my grandparents’ house in New Orleans. My grandfather died when I was in middle school, and because he was in New Orleans and I was in Littleton, I wouldn’t say I knew him well. I know these things: his name was Dr. Walter G. Moore. He always read the newspaper, cover to cover, in the morning, reacting to the stories with quiet exclamations like “Oh, mercy,” and “Hoo hah!” (I’ve never heard anyone else say “Hooha!”, but it was a general all-purpose exclamation of surprise or dismay.) He was quiet and didn’t talk much. I don’t remember us ever having a drawn out conversation. But I used to sit at his feet and play with toys while he read a book or the paper, in perfect co-existence with each other. He was a gentle soul. He loved all six of his children and treated them with respect (as evidenced, I think, by the fact that all of his children turned around and treated all of their own children with love and respect that, as I grow older, I realize I’m lucky to have received). He was handy around the house. He loved dogs and jazz music. He loved my grandmother.
My family lucked out in the aftermath of Katrina. We lost no family members. By far the biggest blow was the loss of my grandparents’ house and the 65 years worth of family history embedded there. It took my aunts and uncles several months to go through all the refuse, pulling out what they could to salvage, and when they were done, the remnants of my grandparents’ lives together could fit into a 10’x10′ storage unit. For my grandmother’s 90th birthday, we all gathered in New Orleans, and one of the things we did was split up all the stuff (my grandmother didn’t want the vast majority of it, or thought it was time to let it go. She’s been living with one of my aunts since the storm). Except for the big double bed, none of it was monetarily valuable. (And as an aside, I have to say, that six kids, 14 grandkids, and an assortment of in-laws could split up what amounts to an inheritance with not a single squabble is, I think, a tribute to the kind of parents my grandparents were.)
Things I got: A couple of the specimen bottles my grandfather used to use to collect water samples from the bayous. One of my grandmother’s window ornaments. The cuckoo clock. And about twenty years’ worth of The Baker Street Journals, which is a quarterly newsletter devoted to all things Sherlock.
Sherlock fans are notoriously obsessive. Entire books have been written trying to figure out what order the stories in the canon go in, and how many wives Watson had. Trying to uncover details of cases that Watson never wrote about. Holmes vs. Jack the Ripper. Holmes and Irene Adler. Floor plans of the Baker Street rooms. And on and on and on. One hundred years hasn’t exhausted their need to know more, hasn’t filled in all the gaps. I think Holmes appealed to my grandfather’s precise, scientific mind. Almost a year ago, I also received some money from the sale of my grandmother’s house–she sold it to the Road Home Initiative and split the money up amongst her children and grandchildren. I was going to use it to go to Europe, something I’ve wanted to do for awhile. Instead, I was stupid, and ended up having to use it to pay off credit cards. Which is such a waste and disrespect of what my grandmother gave to me, and I’m fucking ashamed of myself for it. Thankfully, I do better with literary inheritances.
But in order to appreciate these quarterly journals, I have to be conversant in the stories. So I started reading the stories, and discovered that I knew Holmes pretty well, but I didn’t know Watson at all. And as I read them over and over, paradoxically, Watson is the reason I read them. Not Holmes. As I think about it now, I think Watson has a lot in common with my grandfather.
I read Holmes because it is, in a very real way, my grandfather’s legacy to me. It may be the only thing I share with him. Reading these stories connects me not only to Victorian England, but to mid-century New Orleans, and a smart, quiet man living his life the best way he knew how.
One of Watson’s stories starts out with the statement that, “Somewhere in the vaults of the bank Cox & Co., at Charing Cross, there is a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box with my name, John H. Watson MD, Late Indian Army, painted upon the lid. It is crammed with papers, nearly all of which are records of cases to illustrate the curious cases which Mr. Sherlock Holmes had at various times to examine.” This battered tin dispatch box is one of the more enduring pieces of Holmesian folklore, and many Holmes pastiches or fan fic purport to have been found in the mythical tin box.
The idea of this tin box has great allure for me. I received my inheritance out of the wreckage of a wooden house, in the wake of realizing just how fragile and temporary our lives and possessions are. To see 65 years of your family’s history blown apart like it that is incredibly jarring. For me, to think that somewhere there is a battered tin dispatch box, waiting patiently, containing all this history…it’s like having an anchor to hold on to that keeps the chaos at bay. To think that somewhere there’s a little pocket of time that I can slip through and find Holmes and Watson smoking pipes and putting their feet up by the fire…who wouldn’t want that? Who wouldn’t want to feel like these things can last forever?
It’s fiction, of course. Of all the millions and millions of dinosaurs, we only have a few hundred skeletons left to tell us that they ruled the earth. Of the many millions of humans who have walked the earth, we know details of a far few. Not even a fraction of 1%–most people live and die and are entirely forgotten within two or three generations. And so many of those we only have by accident–we wouldn’t know anything of Plato or Aristotle if their libraries hadn’t been looted by the Romans, brought back to Rome, and somehow found their way into the possession of (I think) Cicero, who read the books and was so taken by them that he started writing about them himself and getting other people interested. The Gospel of Q was discovered in an ancient Egyptian trash heap. The Dead Sea Scrolls were forgotten in clay pots in a cave. How many ancient works of wisdom were burned for fuel? How many secrets were lost because the people who knew them were murdered, or just didn’t have kids to pass them on to? How many sunk to the bottom of the ocean, or just decayed? Humankind has forgotten far more than we can ever comprehend. And yet we tell ourselves that we can know all there is to know about the past, if we just keep looking.
What would an archeologist conclude about my family, digging through that 10×10 storage unit?
Arthur Conan Doyle is aware of the transiency of life, of course. One of Watson’s unwritten cases concerns “the strange case of James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.” But in Holmes, everything leaves a trace, everything has a reason, and if only you can both see and observe you can puzzle it out. Chaos has no place in Holmes. Giant fuck-off storms that destroy entire swaths of landscape and lives have no place. Not even Jack the Ripper has a place in Holmes, and he actually existed. You could write the history of humanity as that of a species fighting off encroaching chaos with all that they can, and in Holmes, the fight has been won. Holmes survived Hurricane Katrina when most of the rest of my grandmother’s house died. How can I not hold on to all of that, with all that I can? What else can I learn from my grandfather’s inheritance?
So, other than my generally obsessive personality, I think that’s why Holmes has such pull for me, why I’m so defensive of him. He’s what my grandfather left me. More than God, Holmes convinces me that everything in the world happens for a reason, and that chaos is not chaos, but merely our inability to perceive pattern.
I hope he’s right.