If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren’t meant to do. If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental.
Thus, if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife; if a poet writes on buttercups, every word he says may be used as evidence against him at an inquest of his views on a future existence. On this fascinating principle, we delight to extort economic evidence from Aristophanes, because Aristophanes knew nothing of economics: we try to extract cryptograms from Shakespeare, because we are inwardly certain that Shakespeare never put them there: we sift and winnow the Gospel of St. Luke, in order to produce a Synoptic problem, because St. Luke, poor man, never knew the Synoptic problem to exist.
There is, however, a special fascination in applying this method to Sherlock Holmes, because it is, in a sense, Holmes’s own method. ‘It has long been an axiom of mine,’ he says, ‘that the little things are infinitely the most important.’ It might be the motto of his life’s work. And it is, is it not, as we clergymen say, by the little things, the apparently unimportant things, that we judge of a man’s character.
This was written by Monsignor Knox in 1911 (you can read the entire essay here: www.diogenes-club.com/studies.htm ) and Conan Doyle himself was amused by it--you can see his response here: www.diogenes-club.com/knox.htm
Many thanks to wytchcroft for pointing out an excellent audio version of this essay--it is a pleasure to listen to it! You can listen from the website or download it here: www.archive.org/details/KnoxHolmessay
Cross-posted to Dr Watson's Consulting Room--jwatsonmd
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