In the 1890s, an accelerated information culture was making efficient coding more and more urgently necessary. Locating and identifying individuals quickly in “so dense a swarm of humanity” (‘The Blue Carbuncle’) was increasingly difficult.[i] Equally any form of message transmission cost money and so technologies of information compression were developing fast. The newspaper advertisement columns were themselves bristling with compressed information in the form of cryptograms and codes. Alice Clay, who published a volume of anthologized personal advertisements from The Times in 1881, explained that, “[i]n some cases numbers have been substituted for the letters of the alphabet, and are easily deciphered,” but that, “[i]n some advertisements the alphabet is slightly altered. Instead of reading the letter B as printed, read C. Thus ‘head’ would read ‘if be.’ An advertisement of this description is found on June 23rd, 1864 (No.1387) – ‘Alexander Rochefort reported dead. I saw you yesterday. Moate vainly searched ten years.”[ii] She adds, “[i]n advertisements No. 1701 and 1705 the alphabet is again altered, and this time more ingeniously. Instead of the letter written supply the second following. Thus we read in the first, ‘Umbrella. Dear Fanny meet your distracted friend beneath the willow by the lake. Row under the stars. Common sea-breezes. Feather-weight. Yours, Bicycle’.”[iii] Alice Clay concludes that “what looks so unintelligible at first sight may, with a little patience, be read as easily as the plainest English printed in our newspapers.”[iv] Quite what “Umbrella” and “Bicycle” are doing here is hardly “plain” however, and although Clay can break the codes, the meanings of many of these messages remain highly personal and utterly unfathomable.
It is the “patience” at reading “what is unintelligible at first sight” that Holmes supplies with his “three pipe problem[s]”(‘Red Headed League’), making “minute and laborious investigations” so that his readers do not have to. But in the new economy of attention and distraction that these stories are registering, the reader is both distracted by the ‘easy-reading’ middlebrow story, whilst simultaneously being given the pleasurable impression that she or he is being instructed in how to screen information for the significant detail. “You did not know where to look, and so you missed all that was important” Holmes tells Watson in ‘A Case of Identity.’ If Watson relates the stories as narratives of misdirection, Holmes’s “keen observance of detail and subtle power of inference” (‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’) is rarely diverted from the details that matter. “‘You know I like to work the detail of my cases out’”(The Sign of the Four) he says, yet the duration and effort of the “patient” work involved in the cases is never fully represented, as Holmes speeds up the processes of deduction by cutting rapidly to the relevant information and assembling a solution. “‘I pay a good deal of attention to matters of detail’,”(‘The Norwood Builder’) he says but the reader rarely sees a redundant detail or a wrong turn. The effect is of almost telegraphic compression, speed and direction: none of the stories is very long, and they succeed by cutting out a lot of the ‘noise’ and redundancy that attends real-life communication.
intense attention but once they are ‘broken’ or ‘cracked’, the auxiliary parts
can be thrown away, as merely the spent medium that has carried the important kernel
of information. In the Sherlock Holmes
stories, the solution of a code is analogous to, and sometimes coterminous
with, the solution of the mystery itself. Like the code, detective fiction demands close
attention but once the case is solved, it is easily shed and forgotten. Sherlock Holmes is often putting on his coat
and consulting the railway timetable to plan his departure before Watson or the
reader has quite understood how he has solved the case. Conan Doyle had struck upon a fundamentally
ephemeral form that is not about development or bildung but is rather about processing, or consuming, the
narrative until the essential information is assembled or discovered. These are narratives about deciphering
information rather than about accumulating knowledge. Sherlock Holmes himself seems to consume his
cases, to race through them, only to need another one: “my mind…rebels at
stagnation. Give me problems, give me
work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram.” As distractions, his ‘cryptograms’
are addictive, compulsive and ultimately unsatisfactory. As commodities, the Sherlock Holmes stories
command the reader’s attention only enough to create a distraction and leave
him or her eager for another.
This is an extract from my essay for the catalogue to the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London last year. ‘Sherlock Holmes the Throwaway Detective’ in Sherlock Holmes ed. Alex Werner (London: Museum of London and Ebury Press, 2014), pp. 174-197. The exhibition ran October 2014-January 2015.
[i] See Ronald R. Thomas, Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
[ii] Alice Clay, ed., The Agony Column of The “Times”, 1800-1870 (London: Chatto and Windus, 1881), p.viii.
[iii] Ibid., p. viii.
[iv] Ibid., p.xvi.