Thursday, January 30, 2014

It's All Greek to Me

When I finished reading "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter," I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Among the Sherlock Holmes stories I've read so far, it felt particularly marked by high highs and low lows.

This is the story that introduces Sherlock's brother Mycroft for the first time, and it's quite the introduction. Nearly all the Holmes short stories begin with a brief scene unrelated to the mystery itself, often a minor anecdote between Holmes and Watson where the latter is dazzled all over again by the former's deductive prowess. This time, the (mostly) unrelated opening is what brings Mycroft into the fold, and it's a good deal more involved. It runs perhaps a third of the story's entire length, and in ways feels like more.

That said, it's time rather well spent. Mycroft is as interesting character as presented by Arthur Conan Doyle. He's basically Sherlock Holmes, but smarter, fat, lazy, and even more of an unfeeling sociopath. According to Sherlock, Mycroft could be the greatest criminologist in the world, but for the fact that he lacks any real drive or interest to see his usually-correct deductions through to a conclusion. This make Mycroft a markedly different character from the versions of him depicted in the various modern Holmes adaptations. (Which I do find somewhat interesting, although the sibling rivalry seen in both the BBC and CBS takes is a welcome addition not found here.)

The case itself is actually one of Doyle's more thrilling concoctions. A Greek language interpreter is essentially kidnapped by a gang of criminals who force him to translate for a foreigner they're holding hostage. The criminals are trying to coerce this third party into signing something. The interpreter, for his part, manages to learn something of the man's identity under the guise of his translation duty. But by the end of the ordeal, he doesn't know where this foreigner is being held, and so turns to the Holmes brothers for help.

There's tension in this translator's narrative well beyond what Doyle manages to build in most of his stories. But at the same time, it's all built on a flimsy premise with flaws you have to ignore to be drawn in. These thugs happen to have lost the translator they were using at first to interrogate their victim, and then decide to draw an innocent citizen into their plan as a substitute? And they let this substitute go free, alive and well? They seem implausibly less-than-nefarious.

But the biggest flaw here is that neither Sherlock nor the supposedly more brilliant Mycroft actually provides any true help to this poor translator. Mycroft's solution to find out where this foreign victim was being held is to take the details the interpreter was able to glean and publish them in a classified ad in the newspaper, for potential informants to see. While Mycroft's utter lack of concern for reprisal against the interpreter is certainly consistent with the character as Doyle establishes him, the fact remains that ultimately, neither Mycroft nor Sherlock actually deduces anything in all this. They simply take the interpreter's facts and use him as bait. Hardly worthy of the great consulting detective and his smarter brother.

That covers the "plus" and "minus" column. Now for something I don't quite know how to classify: the ending. Once again, this is a case where the guilty parties aren't definitively caught at the conclusion of the tale. I'd call it disappointing, but I find it strangely more intriguing instead. Reading between the lines, I feel as though with this story, Arthur Conan Doyle was publicly announcing his boredom with his own creation.

Consider the evidence. Doyle spends a large amount of this story not on his two established characters of Holmes and Watson, but on creating a brand new character, a brother whom Doyle acknowledges in the text has never been mentioned before. He tells us that Mycroft really can't be bothered to see a mystery through to its resolution, and then he promptly involves Mycroft in a mystery that, surprise, doesn't really have a resolution. The whole thing feels like the literary equivalent of a heavy sigh, boredom with having to write "yet another Sherlock Holmes adventure." And wouldn't you know it, just two stories later, in The Final Problem, Doyle would just go all the way and kill off Sherlock Holmes. I feel this all offers an oddly revealing glimpse at what was going on in the author's mind.

Despite the flaws, this story caught my attention and interest enough to consider it among the better ones. I give "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" a B+.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That Mycroft introduction still blows me away today. I love it.
But yes, it is a sort of half-assed story. And yes, Doyle was indeed getting bored with his creation. (Not only that, but Holmes was overshadowing his other literary efforts, and Doyle didn't like that.) So he did try to kill Holmes. But the public wouldn't let him. :)


PS: How appropriate! My captcha starts with "solves"...