Bridging the ‘Great Hiatus’: The Oriental Afterlife of Sherlock Holmes

One wonders if any other fictional character has enjoyed as numerous and diverse afterlives as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. While a rapid proliferation of Neo-Victorian literature post 1950 has witnessed the rebirth of marginal Victorian characters [such as Charlotte Bronte’s Bertha Mason as Antoinette Cosway in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Dicken’s Magwitch as the eponymous hero in Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (1997) to name a few], they are written in the vein of the Empire writing back, and provide an alternative version to the imperial parent texts by turning the peripheral figures into protagonists. However, the huge repertoire of parodies and pastiches that Sherlock Holmes enjoys, is singular and astounding.1 Even before the demise of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1930, the world of literature witnessed the birth of quite a few parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. J. M Barrie’s My Evening with Sherlock Holmes (1891) is the first parody followed by the pastiche The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet (1920) by Vincent Starrett. Conan Doyle’s relation with such reproductions of Sherlock Holmes was ambiguous. While Barrie earned his praise, he maintained his silence on the other parodies and pastiches, but refrained from granting his permission to the latter, if sought before publication.

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After the death of Conan Doyle, the door was opened to writers from around the globe to rewrite and redefine Sherlock Holmes in new colours. Nicholas Meyer in The Seven Percent Solution (1974) pushes to periphery the detection skills of Holmes and instead focuses on his cocaine addiction, and blurs the boundary between fiction and fact by showing Holmes being treated by the historical figure of Sigmund Freud. Four years later was published Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, which exposes the darker side of the detective by showing him to be a perpetrator of the crimes that he solves, and the antagonist Moriarty as a fictitious invention of his insanity. To make a record of the numerous other pastiches is beyond the scope and aim of this article. However, what is relevant is the difference between two broad (and loosely arranged) categories of Sherlock Holmes pastiches: the first comprises those narratives that reveal different unspoken, or newly constructed, aspects of Holmes’s life, such as his weakness for drugs, his homosexual relation with Dr. Watson, or his wife who surpasses him as a more efficient (female) detective; the second category consists of narratives that try to fill up the gap of the years between his apparent ‘death’ at the Reichenbach Falls following a confrontation with his arch-enemy Moriarty in ‘The Final Problem’ and his subsequent reappearance in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’. In ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, Holmes tells Watson that following his apparent ‘death’, he “travelled for two years in Tibet . . . amused [himself] by visiting Lhassa” under the name Sigerson and thereafter “passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, and paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum”.2  This little piece of information, left unexplored by Conan Doyle, is extremely interesting against his treatment of the Orient in the adventures of the detective. True to the imperialistic fervour of his age, he portrays the Orient, especially India, as a hotbed of crime, cold-blooded criminals, and a savage race in dire need of a colonial education of civilisation.3 Having had the East thus depicted, the question arises as to how did the sleuth negotiate with the topography, culture, custom and people of the Oriental spaces when he traverses them in person. That such a negotiation is contingent upon the writers of the Oriental pastiches, is evident from the widely differing treatment of the issue in Ted Riccardi’s The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years (2003) and Jamyang Norbu’s The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999). Riccardi’s collection of tales is based on the assumption that the British empire was losing its grip over the colonies, giving way to an outburst of murders and mayhem uncontrollable by the local authorities and the occidental figure of Sherlock Holmes was required to solve the crimes and establish order. Hence travels Holmes from Lhassa to Kathmandu, from Calcutta to the deserts of Rajasthan, all the while caught up in the diplomatic machinations of British imperialism that Rudyard Kipling dubbed “the Great Game”. Though Riccardi takes care to include local colours and customs in his tales, his rhetoric fails to break out of the colonial register. Hence, what is described of Calcutta, for instance, is its “native squalor”, the “humid pungency” of its climate, and the “unusual possibilities for crime and evil” that the city boasts of.4 The Indian Brahman is described as “swarthy”, or dark-complexioned, which explicitly reveals that Riccardi is complicit in the colonial discourse of race and colour. Also, while Riccardi’s Holmes has to take indigenous help, such as the aid of an Indian servant, or a knowledge of the Devnagri script, or an understanding of the deities of the Hindu pantheon (the Goddess Kali and the architecture of a Kali temple, for example, in ‘The Viceroy’s Assistant’), he nonetheless, remains largely distant from being absorbed in the Oriental atmosphere. Most of the crimes are traced back to England, and a number of them are solved in entirety only after Holmes’s return to London. Contrary to Riccardi, whose bridging of the ‘Great Hiatus’ is in line with the original imperial plots, that of Norbu is an unveiling of an Orient unseen by the Victorian British readers of Sherlock Holmes.

In The Mandala, Sherlock Holmes arrives in India as the Norwegian Sigerson following the conflict with Dr. Moriarty and immediately connects with a cast of characters borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s fictions. Among these, Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, the Bengali spy from Kim (1901), becomes a central figure, enacting the role of an (Indian) Dr Watson. In giving Hurree a physical agility that matches Dr. Watson’s and making him perform crucial acts, especially in the climax of the novel, Norbu subverts Kipling’s caricature of the obese colonised Babu. Norbu’s Holmes, in a series of adventures, dodges attempts on his life, solves an exotic murder, and journeys to Tibet, where he saves the young Dalai Lama from an assassination attempt masterminded by the still living Moriarty, now an agent for the Chinese. Norbu positions Holmes as having his Western rational certainties destabilised by encounters with Eastern mystical thoughts. In his narrative, the arch defender of rational observation accepts that in the enigmatic lands of the East, not everything could be analysed or understood by exercising the faculties of reason. Holmes and Moriarty are portrayed as enemies in two different but interconnected lives. Eighteen years ago, “The Dark One” and Gangsar of Tibet were two of the greatest adepts of the century at The College of Occult Sciences in Lhassa. The Dark One tried to kill the Grand Lama but ended up killing Gangsar who had rushed to save the Lama’s life. The Dark One was temporarily robbed of all his powers by the Grand Master of the College. It is later revealed that he has returned as the evil Moriarty to face Holmes into whose physical body was transferred the life forces of Gangsar by the yoga of “Pho-wa”.5 Working within a framework of Tibetan religion, history, and philosophy, Norbu’s Holmes becomes a part of the Orient. His meditative composure, celibate life, and keen observational powers can, therefore, be attributed to the life-force of an Oriental monk that he carries within him, making him an amalgamation of the East and the West. Unlike Riccardi, for whom the East merely serves as a backdrop where Holmes had spent his underground years, Tibet springs to life in Norbu’s tale. The Sherlock Holmes of 221 B Baker Street, is enmeshed in the history of Tibet, and at the close of the narrative is “attired in wine-red monastic robes, tall and imposing . . . accompanied by his disciples” standing at the monastery gate.6

 

 

Notes:   

  1. This article is limiting itself to a selection from among the printed parodies and pastiches of Sherlock Holmes. Apart from them, there are loads of rewritings of Holmes on web as well as on celluloid.
  2. ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ in The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes. (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1981), p.488.
  3. See for example, The Sign of Four.
  4. ‘The Viceroy’s Assistant’ in The Oriental Casebook of Sherlock Holmes: Nine Adventures from the Lost Years (New York: Pegasus Books). Ebook.
  5. Pho-wa is “the yoga of transferring the principle of consciousness from one incarnation to the next without suffering any break in the continuity of consciousness” (Norbu, 242).
  6. Jamyang Norbu. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (Noida: Harper Collins, 2008). p.259.

 

-Deblina Hazra

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