Yesterday was Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday. Thank goodness because without him there’d be no
Benedict Cumberbatch Sherlock Holmes.
Last year, I read the “Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” the first collection of short stories to compare them to the BBC adaptations. Last week, I went back to the beginning for “A Study in Scarlet.” I read part I and then life waylaid me for days before I could get to part II, more than just glancing that instead of being in London, the reader was suddenly in Utah with Mormons.
In an email to a friend, something came up about the switch in setting to which I replied, “Well, skimming told me they were related,” and my friend expressed surprise. So I looked again, and saw the first few grafs didn’t tell me that at all. (Grafs. Sheesh. Sorry, recovering journalist here — paragraphs.)
What I realized was that I’d stumbled into was the beginning of the modern mystery: Two seemingly disparate sets of events and characters that are inextricably linked in the solving of the crime. I don’t know if Conan Doyle invented that technique. But, as a reader of modern crime novels, I took the trope I knew and put it on top of an older work. The two stories had to be related (which they were) because that’s how it works now.
For a reader in 1886, maybe that technique was stunning.
There are literature types, I’m sure, who have written dissertations on how the modern crime novel detective has evolved from Sherlock Holmes and his investigative methods. I don’t need to cover that ground.
It’s just a good reminder as a reader (an aspiring writer) that we all bring things to the books we read. Tropes, yes, but maybe more accurately, it’s about expectations. My writers group harangued a fellow writer in her mystery book because nobody died until chapter five or six. We were expecting a body in the first chapter, if not on the first page.
Setting readers expectations up to be unmet can be good, or could be a disaster. Yes, surprise can be good. It’s also a place for emotion, for example, when a character I was certain would live through Andrew Grant’s “Even” didn’t make it, I was shocked. My expectations were unmet and I had to adapt to that. But imagine a chick lit book where the heroine didn’t break up, didn’t drink too much some night with the best friend, didn’t get into some goofy costume or something to meet the new man, (we would suddenly call it literary fiction!) our expectations for what we were reading would be horribly unmet.
In 1886, I can imagine a reader thinking the shift in Conan Doyle’s story was jarring and unwelcoming. Until they saw how it fit together and might have developed a new set of expectations for this new kind of crime fiction.