Wednesday, May 31, 2006

He Proves by Algebra

It is a shame that the world is so cruel to the penniless. This truism comes to mind because once early in my life I had the most inspiring, enjoyable and rewarding job that anyone ever had in all the world of space and time. But because I suffered the world's cold indifference to the penurious, I had to give it up for the comparatively princely paychecks on offer in the halls of paperback-book publishing.

The job, which, I liked to joke acidly, paid in the "high four figures" (this in New York City in the mid-Eighties -- not a fashionable time or place to be church-mouse-poor), was as a recording engineer for the Talking Books division of the American Foundation for the Blind. For four ninety-minute sessions a day, I would run a tape machine (marvelous old MCI mono jobs, quarter-inch tape) and follow along in the text as a narrator read a book aloud. In essence, I was the producer for the sessions, making sure no text was skipped, correcting pronunciation, researching foreign terminology, and offering only occasionally welcome advice on line-readings. To boil it down further, I was paid to read books all day. Not a half-bad gig.

The readers at AFB weren't your volunteers or your off-the-street hacks. The money AFB saved on paying their engineers was lavished opulently on them instead. Quite a few of them were among the top voiceover talents of their day, and even today I still hear their velvet pipes over commercials and films.

One such gifted reader was Patrick Horgan, a stage and television actor of amazingly wide experience -- he played a Nazi on an episode of Star Trek: TOS, had long-running roles on the soaps The Doctors and The Guiding Light, had a part in the original Thomas Crown Affair. If you've ever watched the great Woody Allen flick Zelig, for which he provided narration, you'll have experienced the wonderfulness of his plummy accent, so posh it verges on parody. A true Renaissance man, Horgan was also renowned in the world of James Joyce scholarship, and was considered quite a big noise among the devotees of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in particular -- he played Holmes onstage on numerous occasions and was a fixture in the world of Sherlockiana.

Horgan could be irascible with the hired help, if they slowed the session down by fumbling a tape or stopping the proceedings for some triviality. Because I was very good at my job, I think he enjoyed working with me. Once, owing to his expertise in Joyce, he was given both Finnegans Wake and Richard Ellman's magisterial Joyce biography to narrate, and as I enjoyed some seniority among the plebes, I leaned on the boss to slip me those sessions. Looking back on my life now, I can say that those months were unquestionably a high-water mark for me, even if I couldn't afford a new shirt.

Once during a break in those sessions, we chatted of this and that while I rewound a tape. He began to tell me of a research project he had embarked on, a "detective story" that he was unraveling to his enormous enjoyment. It was his contention that Arthur Conan Doyle, a known prankster who, it has been famously suggested, was the agent behind the Piltdown Man hoax, commited his greatest prank of all when he killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 and then resurrected him in 1903. Horgan's belief, which he based on evidence he'd found in the Holmes stories, novels and plays themelves, was that Doyle had always intended to kill off Holmes and resurrect him, and that he had planted clues as to this fact in the Holmes stories both before and after the Hiatus, as a hint to his readers, an invitation to use Holmes' "methods" to embark on a detective story of their own.

One of my life's great regrets is that I didn't immediately invite Horgan to a pub, buy him a beer or three, and prod him further on this audacious idea. In my stupid youthful shyness I didn't think Horgan would have accepted such an invitation from one so insignificant as I -- and besides, I couldn't afford a beer for myself, let alone a few for him.

As we were preparing to continue our session, Horgan gave me one hint about the nature of the clues he was uncovering in the Holmes Canon. He pointed out that The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes begins with the story "Silver Blaze" and ends with "The Final Problem," in which Holmes and Professor Moriarty appear to fall to their doom in the Reichenbach Falls. In "Silver Blaze," the horse at the center of the tale wins the Wessex Cup. In "The Final Problem," Holmes and Moriarty engage in their death-match on "the lip" of the Falls -- a very unorthodox word for Doyle to choose. Horgan continued, "Now surely the pairing of 'cup' and 'lip' suggests to you the proverb that comes to us from the tale of Jason and the Argonauts, doesn't it?" I confessed my classical education was woefully inadequate to answer. "There's many a slip 'twixt cup and lip!" he supplied triumphantly, clearly expecting some sort of lightbulb to appear over my head.

Completely flummoxed, all I could do was smile idiotically.

I have reread the Holmes Canon twice since those days -- I was a slavering devotee as a boy, read the stories incessantly -- but have never been able to discern any sort of pattern to the stories, any hint that Doyle was up to some sort of cosmic deviousness.

In a fit of nostalgia a few weeks ago, I Googled Horgan's name to see what he was up to these days. Not only was I able to find him immediately, but I also found that he'd written a book about his Holmes "detective story" project, titled The Detection of Sherlock Holmes. There appears to exist in print only an audio-book version of it, narrated by Horgan himself, but I ordered it immediately, with trembling fingers. It's not often that you're given the opportunity to clear up a twenty-year-old mystery, and I leaped at the chance.

Frankly, I think you should too.

When the CD arrived, I transferred it posthaste into my iPod, and spent a deliriously happy week and a half listening to it during my commute. My enjoyment was perhaps more nuanced than most peoples' might be, as it mingled the immediate pleasure of the detective story with a breathtaking plunge back into my mid-twenties in 1984, when the world was young and Wonder Woman and I were falling deeply in love. Once when I discerned a page rustling along about 3:55 into Chapter Eight, I had to fight the urge to reach to my right, stop the tape and start Horgan back at the top of the graf.

So what exactly had Horgan found in the Holmes stories that led him to believe that Doyle had killed Holmes and brought him back in the greatest literary prank ever pulled? Remember that I said that Horgan was a scholar -- a renowned one -- of both A. C. Doyle and James Joyce? What he did was to apply the sort of close textual analysis to Doyle that you might bring to the work of Joyce. Without revealing too much -- you should enjoy the "detective story" as much as I did -- Horgan has discerned Irish Bardic patterns in character- and place-names, found veiled references to highly specific incidents from English history, identified parallels between the Holmes stories and classical literature, and woven them all together in a series of diagrammatic summaries that are as fascinating as they are baffling.

To listen to Horgan's analysis is to swing violently between dismissiveness and grudging credulity. One moment you will find yourself pshaw-ing: "Oh, right! The housekeeper in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" is a stand-in for Helen of Troy!" But the next you find yourself wondering, "Now why the hell would Doyle have chosen exactly that word?"

The a-ha! moment for me was when Horgan brings up the pedigree of Professor Moriarty. Holmes says of him in "The Final Problem," "At the age of twenty-one he wrote a treatise on the Binomial Theorem, which has had a European vogue. On the strength of it, he won the Mathematical Chair at one of our smaller universities...." What had never occurred to me before, but now smacks me across the face, is that the Binomial Theorem, by 1893 when this story takes place, had been locked down by Sir Isaac Newton! There hadn't been anything new to say about it for two hundred years! Doyle was a very erudite man, a doctor of medicine, and would have known this! This strongly suggests that Doyle wanted us to think of other meanings of the word binomial, and this leads us into -- well. Don't want to spoil the surprise.

Horgan's book is way-up-in-your-head, so-erudite-it's-just-stupid, HyperMegaUltraColossal Brainiac fun. Go for it.


Kevin Wolf said...

I just happen to be rereading His Last Bow.

And Horgan's voice comes fully to mind, since you mentioned Zelig.

I think I'll take you up on this, Neddie, and order the CD. If I go crazy later in a geometric logic, Capt. Queeg kinda way, you'll know what caused it.

Boldly Serving Up Wheat Grass said...

Believe it or not, I have a degree in English and have never read a word of Doyle! Fascinating post, though. I suppose you'd have to read the Sherlock Holmes stories first in order to appreciate Horgan's new work.

Neddie said...

Having reread my post, I fear I may have made the book sound too hyperintellectual. It really isn't: It's a narrative, with interesting characters, a beginning, middle and end, and a plot that revolves around the mystery of Doyle's dissembling. A fun read (or listen, I suppose, in this case).

Neddie said...

Blowing Shit: Off you go to The Sign of Four, and don't you stop till His Last Bow. Now, dude.

eRobin said...

I fear I may have made the book sound too hyperintellectual.

You definitely did! But I intimidate easily after sitting on the sidelines scratching my head during the latest Goldstein kerfuffle. I'm starting to worry that I'm too dumb to read my favorite blogs anymore. I'll have to find an America Has Talent ring that will have me.

Anonymous said...

I do believe that Mr. Horgans book may well be one of the finest works about Doyle, Holmes and ultimately Horgan himself!
Firstly, he commands the English language as very few others have succeeded at doing. This fine gentleman 'epitomizes' what the English language can and should sound like. Take heed you practitioners, students, neophytes and scholars, throw away your Rorschach blots, give up on voodoo you've no need for outside help to learn the lingo. Get a book narrated by Horgan, he's your remedy ... the master is at hand!
Secondly, his erutdition is beyond reproach, such details are given and intimated that it would become a mega-project of one's own to do as much research as Horgan obviously has.
Lastly, this gentleman exudes an attitude of courteousness and warmth. I would be very pleased to listen to any book narrated, read, or promoted by this man!
Thank you Patrick Horgan for all that you have done, for all of the books that have been personalized by your magic readings.

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