By EVAN HICKS
“You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales,” Sherlock Holmes admonished Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Breeches,” but on March 27, the extraordinary tale of Sherlock Holmes was turned into a rather dry lecture.
Recently, Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of everything from blockbuster films to comic books to a BBC television series, but the great detective was conspicuously absent from his own Great Lives Lecture.
Jeremy Black, a British historian, a Professor at Exeter University, was the speaker for the lecture on Holmes. He is the author of more than one hundred publications, and has previously spoken at the Great Lives series on such figures as King George III, Napoleon and James Bond.
With such exemplary qualifications and so much experience, expectations were high for Black’s lecture. While all Great Lives lecturers are introduced warmly, Black’s introduction was particularly glowing.
Unfortunately, Black began by listing the main points of his lecture, rattling them off as though he were speaking to a classroom of note-taking undergraduates rather than an audience of grown men and women.
None of the lecture points had much to do with who Holmes was as a character and it quickly became apparent that Black’s subject would remain in the background for the duration of the lecture.
Over the course of an hour, Black showed that Sherlock Holmes was truly an Anglo-American character, rather than the popular perception of him as a strictly English character. Much of the very first Sherlock Holmes novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” took place in America and American characters frequently appear in the stories.
Black also explained that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, presented London not only as the heart of the Holmes stories, but as a complex city that was at once vibrant and dangerous.
The city was the center of the world in 1895 and captured the world’s imagination in much the same way that New York City does today.
Finally, Black demonstrated that much of the crime that occurs in the Holmes stories can be seen as the result of an “empire under threat” mentality that was as pervasive in Doyle’s day as Americans’ current anxiety over the state of the union now. In the late 19th century, Britain’s authority was under challenge from rising world powers, class barriers were breaking down, and money was up for grabs in the form of entailments, wills and trusts, leaving the pickings ripe for ambitious people like many of the antagonists in the Holmes stories.
Black’s lecture was certainly educational and well supported, and Black himself spoke eloquently, but the lecture lacked the central quality that makes the Great Lives Lectures so fascinating: it failed to shine the spotlight on a great life.
At one point, Black remarked, “Now, another thing that is particularly interesting for the historian is,” then he started speaking on another historical quirk related to the stories. That phrase characterized the entire event.
Black’s lecture was a historian’s lecture, not a biographer’s. There were less than 10 minutes left in the lecture before Black even touched on Holmes’ personal life. The detective’s habits, personality, friendship with Watson, career, methods and even his author fell by the wayside.
While the audience certainly came away from the lecture having learned something, it’s unlikely many came away having learned anything new about the greatest detective in modern fiction and one of the most iconic characters of all time.