Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Case of the Sherlock Holmes Casebook - a Literary Note.

d/j of Ist 1927 ed via Wikipedia.

“The character Sherlock Holmes is protected by copyright,” said Benjamin Allison, a lawyer for the (Conan Doyle) estate, adding, “Holmes is a unified literary character that wasn’t completely developed until the author laid down his pen.” (quoted in The New York Times article "Suit Says Sherlock Belongs to the Ages" by Jennifer Schuessler, March 6, 2013).

Benjamin Allison's resort to literary argument flies in the face of the literary evidence and represents an attempt to have the tail (those Casebook stories not yet in the public domain) wag the dog of the whole Holmesian Canon.

However, the literary having been introduced into this lawsuit evidence, it is pertinent to answer in the language of literary criticism.

If the Federal Court of Illinois proposes to make a ruling which respects the spirit of the Canon and takes account of the author's artistic choices the following remarks may be of value.

1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle cast every Sherlock Holmes story in the form of reminiscence, usually in the fictional narrative voice of Dr. Watson, twice in that of Holmes and even in the few third person narratives.

2. The third person story entitled "His Last Bow", published in 1917, records the events of 2 August 1914. By definition, no story in the Canon invites the reader to imagine events after that final retirement date. The spirit of the Canon determines this story as representative of the most mature Sherlock Holmes we shall ever encounter. 

3. Hence it is a literary logical nonsense to advance the notion that any of the last ten published short stories offer anything that may be identified as "development". The literary truth is that when "the author laid down his pen" (after composing the last sentence of "Shoscombe Old Place", he had simply completed 'writing up' notes we are asked to imagine his narrator, Dr. Watson, made (according to the plurality of Sherlockian chronologists) in May, 1902. Was Holmes more developed in 1902 than 1914? I think not. Neither would Conan Doyle.

4. Allison uses a particularly equivocal term when he refers to Holmes as a 'unified' literary character. Literary critics understand static and dynamic - essentially unchanging or deliberately developed. Whatever his meaning, it is worth reminding ourselves that he is talking about a world-famous fictional character who had by 1927 been instantly recognizable by the general public for at least 37 years. Are we seriously to conclude the reading public was responding to a half-life creation undergoing a lengthy gestation?

5. My forthcoming post based on The Solitary Cyclist will illustrate the means by which Doyle had fully established Sherlock Holmes in the imagination of his readers certainly by the close of The Sign of Four and arguably with A Study in Scarlet.

6. Copyright law is law and the Conan Doyle Estate has legal right and duty to protect those Casebook stories still in copyright in the USA. Beyond that, its lawyers will need to go back to the 60 Sherlock Holmes stories with clearer critical insight if they are to persist in deploying literary arguments to claim 'ownership' of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

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