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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong by Pierre Bayard

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Pierre Bayard, Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59691-605-0

This book is passing strange. Interesting, yes, but definitely strange. The author makes a pretty good case for his contention that Holmes got it wrong in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I'm not unconvinced that his solution is more likely, more elegant, even, than that of the famous detective, as chronicled by the equally fictitious Dr. Watson, all through the real pen of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

And right there you have in a nutshell, part of the problem I have with this book. Some of the time our author, Bayard, acts as though Holmes and Watson are real people, capable of their own actions, volitions, and intentions. He states, in fact, as a general rule, that since the author invariably depicts for us only part of any character's life, that
"This uncertainty is closely linked to an essential point that will be discussed later on regarding the special mode of existence of literary characters. These characters, I believe, enjoy a much greater autonomy than we usually think, and are able to take initiatives unknown both to the writer and the reader.”

Patent nonsense! I say, though not entirely impossible or implausible. I can believe this kind of nonsense, only if I suspend my sense of disbelief even more than normally required for enjoying any work of fiction.

At other times, Bayard steps back, and analyzes the real author, Conan Doyle. The level on which his analyses work is never constant, but jumps back and forth. He makes a great deal out of the fact that by the time Conan Doyle wrote this book, he not only resented his character, Sherlock Holmes, but actively hated him. And consequently, subconsciously, at least, was perfectly capable of allowing him to come to entirely incorrect conclusions about the case.

He justifies much of this through a lot of claptrap about how fictional characters can become more real than real people, and inhabit our world as much as we inhabit theirs. Here's how he sums it up (p. 114):

My tolerance toward fictional creations can be explained by two chief notions. The first is the certainty of a great permeability between fiction and reality. There is no point in trying to patrol the borders between these worlds, for passages between them occur constantly, in both directions. Not only, as we will see, can we inhabit one fictional world or another, but the inhabitants of that world also at times come to live in ours.

The second notion . . . is my profound conviction that literary characters enjoy a certain autonomy, both within the world in which they live and in the travels they make between that world and our own. We do not completely control their actions and movements. Neither the author nor the reader can do so.


So long as he is talking about the realm of the subconscious, and the realm of the imagination, I suppose I can give some credence to this notion, although I find it a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, if you are a Sherlock Holmes fanatic, you may want to read this book. On the other hand, depending on the nature of that fanaticism, you may find the very notion of this book heretical. I'm certainly not going to tell you who Bayard thinks is the real murderer, completely contrary to the solution that Sherlock Holmes comes up with. It is, frankly, the only real suspense that will keep you reading through this often times tedious book. Marginally recommended for those who can't bear not to read it.

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