Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: "A Scandal in Bohemia" (Doyle, 1891)

“He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.”
Dr. John Watson – “A Scandal in Bohemia”

Leigh: Irene Adler is my hero. Why, you may ask and for this situation lets say you did ask, because she’s awesome. She knows what she wants and she does it and doesn’t care who stands in her way. As my other idol, Tina Fey said...

She had evidence of a future king being not so royal and kept it and refused any offer of money and was smart enough to hide the picture from numerous different attempts of people trying to steal it. She was so on top of it, she even outsmarted the Smartest Detective to Ever Have Lived. She figured out Holmes’ plan and proved him wrong about all women. Sure, the typical woman at the time was often found fainting at a man saying a dirty word like “damn,” but Irene Adler wasn’t the average Victorian woman. She was her own person. She didn’t listen to anyone and didn’t do what others told her to do. She is so independent that she even has her own set of man’s clothing to wear when she goes out walking when she doesn’t feel like being the center of attention, which I'm sure doesn't happen too often.
She knew what she had with that picture and she knew that she shouldn’t give it up, no matter what. Sure, she got married to a different man completley in this story, but she still kept it because she knew it might come in handy one day. Possibly during the Great War when Irene Adler is doing some espionage and digging up dirt on the side that is paying her least. That's what I imagine she did anyway. Is she a scoundrel? You betcha. But as Han Solo has proved for years, scoundrels can be idols too. Everyone wants to outsmart the smartest detective alive just like everyone wants to be in a situation where they have to shoot first. Irene Adler showed audiences at the time that not only was being a scoundrel okay, but being a woman who was a scoundrel was downright awesome. I can go on and on about how much I love Irene Adler and her tenacity and the role she played as a feminist icon in the Victorian Era. There aren’t too many women who can say they outsmarted Sherlock Holmes and looked damn good doing it, too.
So what do you think, Austin? Is she the originator of “girl power?” (It did come from England, you know.) And how do you feel about later authors using their creative license to make Holmes and Adler a pair? And did maybe Holmes go to ridiculous lengths to get that picture? What do you think?

Austin: Irene Adler and Moriarty both live on beyond their original stories because of what they represent. Nowadays, Sherlock Holmes is seen as the Superman Detective. He's so smart, he can never have a real threat. The villains we've seen in the first two stories aren't uber-geniuses so really the conflict was Sherlock v The Puzzle. Modern stories aren't as based on intellectual conflicts so when Sherlock stories are told, they need a proper foe. So we have the female equal to Sherlock and the evil equal to Sherlock. Making Irene and Sherlock romantic in recent tales can be tied to, she really is the only one to make him do a double take. He doesn't have time for a third take before she vanishes into the arms of a different man. In many ways, she seems more put together than Sherlock where she doesn't need someone very similar to her in order to be happy.

I have read this story a number of times and oddly enough the character that caught my attention wasn't the obvious one. If this story didn't have the very memorable Irene Adler, this story could be called "In Which Sherlock Holmes Gets Really Bored." 

"You say that the photograph was taken away by a one-legged mummy from Norway?" "No. Just a woman." "Whatever, I'm desperate."
I'm rather impressed this story pays well to the continuity of the characters. Watson is married and moved out of 221B Baker Street. Sherlock still enjoys his cocaine and can't stand being restless. Unlike the other stories which involved murder and espionage, this is a simple enough blackmail story with a high-profile client. Sherlock is just desperate for any sort of case that Watson can join him on, he kinda goes nuts in trying to solve it.

Thankfully for his sanity, it isn't the easiest case to solve. In fact, he loses. Straight up fails his task. On one hand, you're right, it's because Irene Adler is the Victorian Han Solo. On the other hand, it's because Sherlock is acting like a crazy person. The stalking, the fire, the everything. Watson is more in awe than the last two stories just watching him go through with all of this, assuming this will all work in the end. It doesn't. The last handful of paragraphs is basically just an awkward walk of shame with the heroes defeated.

"I do." "I know."

So this brings up a big question about this awesome story. In so many films, it's hard to find a protagonist and an antagonist in equal intelligence. (Another reason why Die Hard is so freakin' awesome.) Often times one or the other has to act a bit dumber in order for the plot to go forward and they can be defeated. Were Sherlock and Irene Adler on an even playing field or was Sherlock dumbed down a bit?

Leigh: Sherlock does seem to be running around like a crazy person but I don’t think it’s because he was dumbed down, but merely a combination of being bored and needing a case and underestimating who he was dealing with. In A Sign of Four, there are numerous lines where Holmes says that women are inferior in some way or another. I think that he went into this case, pulling out all the stops so that Watson would get interested in cases again and put aside married life, and expecting to find a woman half draped over a fainting couch like many other Victorian women at the time are like.
He expected Jane Bennett and he got the Female Victorian Han Solo. So he wasn’t really dumbed down, he just wasn’t using his talent to his fullest ability, something my teachers told me numerous times in high school but lets not get into that here.
Personally, it bothers me that Holmes and Adler have been paired up in more recent adaptations. Yeah, they are intellectual equals, but I honestly don’t think that Holmes has any other feeling towards her other than the utmost respect. She is a damn smart lady and he recognizes that, begrudgingly I imagine. In many stories, there is plain evidence that Holmes thinks he has better things to do than deal with love and everything that goes with it. I think that what an audience gets when Holmes and Adler are together romantically is what we’re expecting from Elementary. We are expecting Holmes and Watson to get together because that’s what we’ve come to expect from male/female relationships. If there is a male that has an equal female counterpart, they will indeed, bump uglies at some point. Because Holmes and Adler are equals, audiences expect them to hook up and to live happily ever after and have millions of babies even though I honestly think they’d kill each other. As rivals, I think they’re great. As friendly rivals who sometimes meet and have tea and possibly work on a case together, I think they’re great. As lovers…

(Sorry, I had to.)
So what do you think? Does this expectation work? Is it something we should expect in every incarnation or is it something writers should try to get away from? I had another brilliant question but I forgot it so fill in your own here.

Austin: For a character that is so beloved, we barely get to see her. In a 20-page tale, she's only in a pinch of pages and one of them was in a disguise. There is never a moment when Sherlock and Irene speak face to face without a lie or a disguise. It's only spying from affair or secret letters where they communicate. It's not only that she's just in one story, she's hiding in the shadows of her only story. In avoiding overexposure, Irene's awesomeness is heightened by ninja-esque appearance.

I don't know much about how fans reacted back then to her. I don't know if many people were writing to the Strand demanding more Irene Adler or just more Sherlock Holmes. Nowadays people clamor for characters to return all the time, but it seems that with this they are just excited for new adventures. What a novel concept! (PUN INTENDED)

With this first short story, she set a standard for a nemesis. We'll see how it all goes from here. By the end Sherlock Holmes is humbled. A defeat is exactly what he needed to take cases seriously again. It isn't just about being silly clever, but he needs to strongly consider all sexes and situations. This story feels like Doyle is considering the longevity of this series. It's bringing the character forward in a way where he can take on the maximum amount of cases with this premise. I'm excited to read the next story.

And now Leigh Montano with the last word.

Leigh: Lovers?


  1. One common theme I'm noticing here is the humanizing quality that all the other players have in this series. Watson provides general stabilization. There's the one NPC that continually talks about how Holmes prevented a murder charge by showing that the defendant was actually across town housebreaking; this proves that Holmes has some sense of kindness.

    Irene is there to show him humility. To show he's fallible. To prove he's not perfect and remind him to stay sharp.

    If they hook up, some kind of literary implosion could occur... it's like it's never supposed to be. Like... olives stuffed with marmalade. They are supposed to serve a purpose apart... together, it's doomed to disaster.

    That metaphor's for you Austin.

  2. Metaphor appreciated!

    I haven't tied everything back to Doctor Who in awhile so I'll do that now. One reason why I find it interesting that Moffat runs a show about Sherlock Holmes and The Doctor is that they seem like similar characters for how they're misplaced in their societies. He had a great quote saying "Sherlock is a man wanting to be a god and The Doctor is a god wanting to be human."

    Now Moffat's Sherlock isn't Doyle's Sherlock. We've seen Doyle's Sherlock's intellect separate him, but not as sociopathic like on the BBC. The best things with characters like Sherlock and The Doctor is constantly throw new characters/situations at them and see what affects them. They will never be 100% human, but causing them to move closer and move farther back will make for a more dynamic character. All of the best mysteries should be about how the detective is affected by the crime, not just the solving of the crime.