Sherlock Holmes and the Book Club of the Departed

Series 3 of the BBC’s Sherlock went off the website last weekend, but not before I’d watched all three episodes twice. I’m hooked on this show. It combines all my favorite elements: brilliant, angsty young Englishmen in enviable coats; very funny banter; irresolvable sexual tension; dramatic rhythm guitars; and a very realistic and impressive method of incorporating text message conversations into the narrative. (Weirdo that I am, that last thing may be what sealed it for me.)

As a matter of fact, I’ve never been a huge fan of mysteries, either in literature or on TV. It’s just not a genre that I can really get into, and I couldn’t even tell you why. My partner loves mystery shows, especially old ones, and now and then I sit down and watch one with him. They’re great: campy, intriguing — sometimes they even make pithy social commentary, but after an episode or two I just get bored. So something about Sherlock‘s killer combination wins me over IN SPITE OF my anti-mystery bias. I like it so much it feels like a guilty pleasure. (But really, the true guilty pleasure is my computer wallpaper featuring the lead actor’s face and the quote, “Why can’t people just THINK?” Let me tell you, we commiserate about this quite frequently.)

Lit nerd that I am, I finally couldn’t resist picking up the books. I read A Study In Scarlet aloud to Sam during a road trip a couple of weeks ago (the trip was just long enough to finish the book! Yay!). (Also, yes, I’ve sucked him into the whole Sherlock thing. He thinks I’m a little silly, but he also thinks Moriarty is hot.) We had great fun with the first book (even the Mormon interlude — Brits writing about American expansion — fascinating! to me, anyway) and thought we’d go on to the rest. So I emailed my mom to ask if there might be any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books lingering around the house.

See, before this ever started, way before there was Sherlock-the-show (ok, the recurring miniseries), my family has had Sherlock baggage. Well, maybe baggage isn’t the right word. Sherlock was always a presence. My grandfather, who made an appearance in my last post, incidentally, was in love with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don’t think it would be quite true to say that the Sherlock Holmes books were the ONLY books he ever read — he read the Bible, and some other classics, mainly Victorian from what I can gather — but he read and reread the Sherlock books over and over and over.

He hadn’t gone to college but he believed in education, was impressed by degrees and what he saw as general smartness. (My mom had that, and he was impressed by it, but they never had an easy relationship.) He wanted what was best for his small family but was often way off on what that was; he was an old school Italian-American patriarch, though, absolute ruler of his little parcel, and his word was final.

Words, words, words … He was a lectury kind of guy. He liked to, you know, hold forth. (I can’t say I didn’t get some of that from him!)  His discourses on such topics as the reason Italians eat squid at Christmas or how everybody pronounces a particular word wrong, showing their grammatical sloppiness and thus poor chances to advance in life, were generally repeated many times — like PBS shows, I suppose, there was always an encore performance. He would get an idea in his mind and insist on it — factually accurate or not. He had his own way of reasoning.

This could be why he resonated with Sherlock. He liked that the detective had so developed his capacity of deduction. It made sense to my grandfather (whom we called Nono, or sometimes No-no — improperly-spelled Italian, but perfect in symbolism) and I think maybe it gave him confidence in his own self-education, his own lifelong striving to improve his own mind. In a way he surely saw himself as a fellow traveler with Holmes. Both, in their own ways, crabby men who looked down on the majority of people around them, both idiosyncratic in the things that gave them joy — both lovers of the life of the mind, both trying to figure things out.

Then, after my grandfather passed away in 2006, those members of my family who believe that our loved ones and guides can communicate with us from the other side — my mom, my partner and I — got some more insight into Nono’s journey and personality while he was in the “living” plane.  My mom has had the most contact with him; she’s come to understand that he lashed out in anger and clamped down control over his family so much because he didn’t know any other way of dealing with the burdens of his life.  She says he’s actually very sorry, now that he can see things more clearly, for all of the hurt he caused.   For me, too, the impression I’ve received of his transformation through death is one of unburdening.  I felt him as an exuberant kid, running around and shouting “whee!!!” in the joy of letting go of materiality.  So maybe it was also the sheer adventure of the stories that spoke to him, to the boy reading a dime novel who lived inside of him.

When I asked my mom if she still had any of Nono’s books, she said it was funny I should ask that, but she was unsurprised.  She had herself suddenly gotten into the Sherlock Holmes series soon after my grandfather died, and read them all online at Readsherlock.com.  Then about two years ago, she said, my brother had become obsessed with the Sherlock books and wanted to know if she had any of Nono’s books.  As it happened, my grandmother had given them to Goodwill, so she bought a used deluxe annotated edition and sent it to him.  I said I’d had the funny feeling that when I read A Study in Scarlet, he was reading over my shoulder.  I guess maybe he still loves it and still enjoys reading it again and again!

And to add another layer of intrigue to the story, it so happens that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a strong and vocal advocate of the spiritualist movement  in the early twentieth century.  That’s the one that created spiritual communities based around the idea that they could explicitly communicate with the dead.  These communities were apparently the target of police harassment, which Conan Doyle protested, according to Andrew Lycett in this great article written from a curious skeptic’s viewpoint.  So I can just imagine, playfully, if there is some place where souls of the formerly living can greet each other — my grandfather, upon dying, quickly seeking out his revered favorite author.  From this association he might become exceptionally good at making contact with those on the embodied side who might be actively looking for his signals.  Hey, it’s a thought!!!

At any rate, I approach reading the books as a way of learning more about him, and a chance to wonder what about his personality drew him so strongly to these stories.  It’s my way of continuing our relationship.  My mom tells me that my grandfather really wants to help us in any way he can.  I know that he loved me very much, and I feel that there’s a lot I can learn from him still.  I feel closer to him as I enter Conan Doyle’s fictional world and roam turn of the century London with my attention on the mysterious.  It’s a damn entertaining journey, and I welcome his company.

My mom ended up finding this used book online and sending it to me.  I heart recycled books.  She said it's the same edition she had bought for her father.  The original illustrations are amazing.  I love it!!!  Thanks, Mom!!!

My mom ended up finding this used book online and sending it to me. I heart recycled books. She said it’s the same edition she had bought for her father. The original illustrations are amazing. I love it!!! Thanks, Mom!!!

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