Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Real Psychological Thriller

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Just finished a fun 1970s addition to the Sherlock Holmes lore: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, by Nicholas Meyer.

The story takes place well after the era of the last episodes by the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Watson is happily married and has been prevented from adventuring with his old friend Holmes by his growing private practice and new home life. He hasn't seen him in some time. One night, however, he finds out that the world's greatest detective has descended into a terrible state, including a raging addiction to cocaine (which was legal in England in Victorian times).

It seems there are precedents in Conan Doyle's work -- stories in which Holmes dabbled in the drug even while in his prime. But now, it's got him in its demon claws, and he's descended into near-madness. In desperation, Watson turns to the one man in all Europe who might be able to help: A young firebrand doctor in Vienna who's been doing work with cocaine; a fellow named Sigmund Freud.

Oh, joy! Two of my favorite subjects -- detective stories and psychology -- in one book! The prose is fairly enjoyable, though a bit purple at times, especially considering Meyer's ill-advised conceit that the story was actually written by Watson (née Conan Doyle). Meyer also messes around a bit with the masterfully established Sherlockian back-story, and it often rings a bit tinny. There are a few wince-able moments, but generally, it's very fun summer reading. It was delightful to make Freud's acquaintance in this much more accessible (albeit highly apocryphal) manner for a few action-packed days. There are lots of lovingly detailed scenes of old London and Vienna, and a climactic railroad chase that makes today's Hollywood car chases pale terribly by comparison.

A passage towards the end nicely sketches the connection between two of my favorite subjects. Watson addresses Freud with awed respect, after the latter uncorks one of the more towering of the revisionist theories Meyer plants in the book (which I won't spoil here):
"You are the greatest detective of all." I could think of nothing else to say.

"I am not a detective." Freud shook his head, smiling his sad, wise smile. "I am a physician whose province is the troubled mind." It occured to me that the difference was not great.
It's fun to watch these two legends, however fictionalized, try to impress each other with their well-matched mastery of, and all-consuming passion for, their fields. In novels, at least, those fields don't difffer all that much.


Eric Little said...

One of the most famous instances of getting around the censorship of Hollywood's Production Code occurs at the end of 20th-Century Fox's 1939 "Hound of the Baskervilles." Just after Lionel Atwill piously says, "God bless you, Mr. Holmes," Basil Rathbone walks out of the room and, turning at the doorway, utters the last line:

"Oh, Watson--the needle."

Thinkulous said...

I love it. I haven't seen the movie since I was a tot -- my dad exposed to only the best movies -- but one of the lines has been a family password for 30+ years. (To be read in an English accent with an ominous tone):

"They were the footprints of a gigantic hound."