Jody Baker: Rex Stout's Thoughts On Sherlock Holmes

Tuesday, January 28, 2014 - by Jody Baker

It has long been a favorite past time of Sherlockians to seek to identify those characteristics or factors of the Sherlock Holmes tales which give them their universal appeal and which engage the attention and devotion of first one generation and then the next.  What is the magic quality that accounts for their enduring popularity?  One of the early, and more prominent, of our Sherlockian predecessors was Rex Stout (1886-1975). He once presented his thoughts on this subject.

Rex Stout wrote in many fields, but he is best known as the creator of private detective Nero Wolfe and sidekick-biographer, Archie Goodwin. Stout has impeccable credentials in the detective-story genre, and we may gain insight by a consideration of his thoughts. Stout's analysis, entitled " Crime in Fiction," appeared in *The Saturday Review of Literature* (c. 1951). In this article Stout recognized Holmes's premier position, and then he asks rhetorically: 

“People say that Sherlock Holmes is the most widely known fictional character in all the literature of the world, and there is impressive evidence that they are right. Usually, having said it, they go on to ask why, and have no answer. They are puzzled and not a little irritated. What right has this

fantastic bloodhound to the top of a peak whence he can look down upon Achilles, Medea, Don Quixote, Hamlet, Pere Goriot, Anna Karenina, Karamazov, Scrooge, Tom Sawyer, Tarzan, and Scarlett O'Hara?” 

 

Stout continues. He answers his question:  "I have thought it over and I think I know. You have the answer as soon as you reflect not on what man is, but on what he likes to think he is. He calls himself homo but, not satisfied with that, makes it homo sapiens. His best-liked and best-known definition of himself is not the virtuous animal, or the passionate animal, or the handsome animal, or the just or merciful animal, but the  reasoning animal.”

Sherlock Holmes, he suggests, is the embodiment of reason. And Sherlock Holmes is that person which man, in his heart of hearts, aspires to be --- the cold, unemotional, perfectly-reasoning machine.  Rex Stout put it this way: “Sherlock Holmes is the embodiment of man's greatest pride and greatest weakness: his reason. I have heard it said by sneerers that he isn't even human. Certainly he isn't; but he is human aspiration. He is what our ancestors had in mind when in wistful braggadocio they tacked the sapiens onto the homo.”

Rex Stout acknowledges that the detective story, as an art form, may not rank among the great literary works of mankind. But in the conclusion to his excellent essay, Stout does give first rank to Sherlock Holmes. 

“As homo sapiens we resent --- with a resentment usually too deep for awareness, let alone expression --- being constantly  bullied by our emotions, not only into action or decision but also into a frantic search for excuses for them. 

“We enjoy reading about people in the same fix. We enjoy reading about people who love and hate and covet--- about gluttons and martyrs, misers, sadists, whores and saints, brave men and cowards. But also, demonstrably, we enjoy reading about  man who gloriously acts and decides, with no exception and no compunction, not as his emotions brutally command, but as his reason instructs. So, Sherlock Holmes is on his peak.” 

That's good enough for me. 

Respectfully,
Inspector Baynes


Roy Exum: The Readers Are Right

It is hardly a secret that since I have become intensely interested in public education in Chattanooga, I have tried to read, research and understand how our efforts have fallen horribly short in the last 15 years. We agree we have a crisis on many fronts and I hope it is equally obvious I am desperate for solutions. Much like school board member Karista Jones, I worry that we are ... (click for more)

True Revenue Situation

My honorable and respected friend Roy Exum tells us again today, “It has been 12 years since the county fathers have approved a tax increase ... .” I’ll take his word for that, but want some more information. “No tax increase for 12 years” is just the chorus; I want to hear the rest of the song, the specific verses that really tell the tale. The fact is, although Roy’s bare ... (click for more)

Judge Walter Williams May Go Back On The Bench As Administrative Hearing Officer

One of the city's most colorful judges may go back on the bench. The City Council on Tuesday is set to vote on the nomination of former City Court Judge Walter Williams as administrative hearing officer - a new city position. The law license of the former judge was transferred to disability inactive status in August of 2015 after he suffered a stroke early in the year.  ... (click for more)

Body Believed To Be That Of McCallie Student Jackson Standefer Recovered In Colorado River

A body believed to be that of a McCallie School student who was swept away in a creek in the Grand Canyon was recovered on Friday. The Grand Canyon Regional Communications Center said it was notified by a commercial river trip that they located a body on the Colorado River at River Mile 152. Park rangers responded and recovered the body, which was transported to the rim ... (click for more)

Morgan, Smith, Parrott Pace Lady Pounders Past Bearettes 6-0

Maybe Central softball coach LeeAnne Shurette won’t nag her Lady Pounders so much in the coming days. Central collected eight hits, including two-run singles by Tatum Morgan and Janara Smith, on Friday to back Brooke Parrott’s three-hitter and the Lady Pounders defeated Bradley Central 6-0 in the East Hamilton tournament at The Summit. “Shurette has been nagging, maybe ... (click for more)

McCallie Earns 3-1 Soccer Win Over Rival Baylor

When his team needed him the most, McCallie senior Drew Viscomi did what he does best. Two minutes after the Blue Tornado allowed an equalizer to rival Baylor in the Division II Mid-East Region soccer match on the Red Raiders’ home field, Viscomi’s strike put his team back on top. Five minutes later, the All-American and school single-season scoring leader ... (click for more)