A Professor Reflects on Sherlock Holmes
Marino C. Alvarez
It may seem rather unusual, at first glance, for a scholarly collection of prose, essays and reflections on the character of Sherlock Holmes to be featured on a book review blog that focuses heavily on science-fiction, fantasy and horror titles. Yet rather like Dr. Marino C. Alvarez, author of A Professor Reflects on Sherlock Holmes, the fictional great detective and resident of 221B Baker Street has been a part of my life since my childhood. In the Prologue to this intriguing and thought-provoking text, Dr. Alvarez writes that he had a copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, published by Doubleday, that he always had at hand, and which he read at bedtime. I was very much the same, though my own personal copy was a battered hardcover of The Complete Illustrated Short Stories of Sherlock Holmes I discovered at the back of my grandfather’s bookshelf in his study. Published by Chancellor Press, this particular volume contained the original illustrations from when the stories were published in The Strand Magazine, and I still fondly remember reading it whenever I went over to my grandparent’s house, thoroughly enticed by both the rich illustrations and Conan Doyle’s delightfully cunning detective stories.
From then on, Holmes never really left my literary life, and I was a voracious reader of the original short stories and novels, eventually moving onto a variety of pastiches, collections, anthologies and novels by other authors. Indeed, thinking back upon my reading history, I believe I have Holmes as a character to thank for the beginnings of my interest in the horror genre, moving from historical detective fiction to occult detective fiction by way of collections like the excellent Holmes-Lovecraftian mashup Shadows Over Baker Street. I still have a love for detective fiction, as seen by recent reviews on this blog such as 18thWall’s Silver Screen Sleuths, and they’re a particular comfort at a time like this, when reading and reviewing horror titles seems like a little too close to grim reality. Holmes and Watson are timeless characters, and I always enjoy finding more titles that utilise them, especially if they’re sufficiently high quality and imaginative. That’s why I was so delighted to see an advert from MX Publishing on social media, announcing that they were looking to send a collection of Holmes-related titles to reviewers. I had heard of the publisher before, particularly from the Kickstarters for their on-going collection of MX Books of New Sherlock Holmes volumes; I had always wanted to read some of those collections, but had never been able to afford them. I’m therefore incredibly grateful that the publisher agreed to send me a set of books to review, which I will now be diving into over the next couple of months as a delightful distraction to the on-going global pandemic.
Of all of the books that the publisher sent to me, Dr Alvarez’s A Professor Reflects on Sherlock Holmes stood out to me from the moment I opened the box – both because of the sumptuous and eye-catching cover art, and the intriguing title. I’ve always wanted to read more widely and deeply about Conan Doyle’s original stories and engage academically with the stories, progressing past the surface elements, and this seemed like exactly the title to help me do so at long last. In his Prologue, after all, Dr. Alvarez states that he intends his writings to both serve as a resource for teachers and students, as well as spark an interest in those wishing to pursue Sherlockian writings, and it became obvious that I could not hope for a better guide and introduction to the world of Sherlockian scholarship. The book is divided into three sections – Essays; In The Footsteps;and Miscellania – each comprising of multiple essays, articles and even travelogues that Dr. Alvarez has previously published in Sherlockian journals.
The Essays section consists of an eclectic array of short academic essays that examine and analyse a variety of aspects of the Holmes stories and overarching canon. While it would be a disservice to Dr. Alvarez to discuss each one in a huge amount of detail, there were a number of them that stood out to me in particular, and which got me thinking in a ‘Sherlockian’ manner. Simplifying Complexity in Sherlock Holmes Stories, the opening essay, is a fascinating discussion on how to contextualize the Holmes stories within their contemporary setting, as well as certain precepts that can be taken from Holmes’ statements and actions in order to simplify, and therefore better analyse and understand, events whether they be fictional or non-fictional. Sherlock Holmes and Educating has a delightfully detailed and comprehensive ‘resume’ for Holmes that helps in comprehending the stories, supported by a handy diagram of 221b Baker Street that allows the reader to follow along with events described as occurring in Holmes and Watson’s lodgings. Following on, Dr. Watson vs. Sherlock Holmes’s Writing Styles is an innovative examination of the ‘readability’ of several sample short stories, including the interesting conclusion that the stories purported to be written by Holmes are no less ‘readable’ than the majority penned by Watson, going against the idea that they would, in fact, be more difficult to comprehend.
Moving through the section, Sherlock Holmes Encounters Three Professors is an insightful and concise summary of three academics that Holmes encounters, including the infamous Moriarty, with Dr. Alvarez providing some keen insights along the way. Sherlock Holmes as College Professor then logically follows this by making a detailed and highly persuasive case that, in his retirement, Holmes would likely have lectured at a nearby university given his extensive experience and skillset. Several of the articles in the middle of the Essays section – such as 2+2=4 [I could not even find the correct symbol on my keyboard for part of the titular equation!] were a little beyond my current understanding and may suit the more knowledgeable Sherlockian; but they were still clearly written and explained by Dr. Alvarez to his credit. There is even a comic essay, The Stock-Broker’s Clerk: Parallels and Parodies that discusses the many commonalities between three of the Holmes short stories, and highlights a number of inconsistencies and improbable events in a humorous manner.
By far the most original, engaging and thought-provoking essay however – and indeed the best part of the book as a whole – is The Valley of Fear: Three Missing Words in which Dr Alvarez examines potential reasons for the titular three words – ‘Coal and Iron’ being removed from the American edition The Valley of Fear. By explaining the context of those three words and then extrapolating from them, Alvarez takes us into the violent and blood-soaked history of private ‘police’ forces employed by mine owners in the 19th Century, and demonstrates how a simple excision in the text may well have been an attempt to portray these thugs in a far more neutral light than reality. Taken together, the articles found in the book’s Essays section form an impressive, multi-faceted and highly stimulating framework for analysing the Holmes stories, with extensive footnotes to aid future research by interested parties.
The second section is titled In The Footsteps and comprises of two travelogue-style articles that follow Dr. Alvarez as he visited several key locations from the Holmes Canon, or which had some bearing on Sherlockian analysis. Footprints Along the Paths: Reichenbach Falls and Trummelbach Falls opens with an incisive analysis of the infamous short story The Final Problem and the real reason for Conan Doyle killing off his most famous creation, demolishing a long-standing popular myth in the process, and then continues with an interesting description of the Falls and their exteriors and interiors, supported by a number of monochrome pictures that allows the reader greater insight into what Holmes and Moriarty might have seen on that fateful day. This is then followed by A Visit to Trinity College at Oxford and the Gryphon Book in which Dr. Alvarez visits Trinity College and is able to access and transcribe sections of the afore-mentioned Gryphon Book, which appears to be of some great significance to Sherlockian scholars, akin perhaps to H.P. Lovecraft’s original manuscripts held at Brown University Library in the United States. Dr. Alvarez’s transcriptions are intriguing, particularly his focus on Sherlockian scholar Ronald Knox and original articles presented by Knox to the Gryphon Club. While a great deal of context is missing as to what the titular book is and why it is so important – this perhaps being an essay to be most appreciated by knowledgeable Sherlockians – Dr. Alvarez’s excitement and reverence clearly come through in the text and are quite infectious, to the extent that I too would like to see the Gryphon Book at some point in the future. Finally we close with the third section, Miscellania, which features some rather fiendishly complex puzzles that were devised by Dr. Alvarez, and clearly require significant and advanced Sherlockian knowledge to complete. While I had little hope of completing them when I first reviewed this title, I intend to one day return to them and see how well I perform!
I don’t believe that I can give any greater praise of A Professor Reflects on Sherlock Holmes than to state that its collection of essays, stories, reminiscences and puzzles has inspired me to begin researching Sherlockian academia, in order to explore many of the underpinning concepts and theories that Dr. Alvarez highlights in the book. Having finished the book, I feel like I have been given a comprehensive and thoroughly engaging introduction to the world of Sherlockian thought, one that has explored a variety of themes, tropes and ideas that derive from an academic analysis of Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels. Utilising the footnotes and endnotes from Dr. Alvarez’s essays, I can now venture forth and begin reading up on Sherlockian books and papers, and I look forward to starting my personal journey into the hidden depths of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and Arthur Conan Doyle.
[A Professor Reflects on Sherlock Holmes by Dr. Marino C. Alvarez is available from MX Publishing and can be purchased from their website at the this link]