For most of my life, detective fiction has not been my strong suit in genre reading. Sure, I’ve enjoyed the odd film noir or two, but for the most part it never really clicked with me. Until recently, that is – for the last year or so I’ve been making some slow headway into it by way of Chesterton and Sayers. Yesterday I decided I should get around to reading the codifier of the genre and pick up Penguin’s Complete Sherlock Holmes.
I just finished A Study in Scarlet, and (SPOILERS I suppose) was intrigued to find that halfway through, it suddenly shifts locales from London to Utah and switches genres from mystery to a westernish romance/revenge tale. And for Mormons and Mormonism to suddenly take center stage: a man and a little girl, dying in the desert, are found by a caravan of Mormon pilgrims and accepted into their society. But while things seem idyllic at first, the community turns out to be a totalitarian nightmare where people have a tendency of disappearing in the middle of the night after saying or doing something impolitic. The girl falls in love with a young, non-Mormon, of course, starting the real drama. While the whole kerfuffle can be read as the usual romance-versus-brutal-traditionalism trope, Doyle seems to paint it slightly more as an orthodoxy-versus-cultists deal: the young man is described as a “Christian”, and he views his revenge plot as a means of fulfilling Divine justice, giving things a True Grit flavour.
Anyway, it occurs to me that, sans the avenging Christian, this could almost have been written today. In spite of Mormonism’s increasing breakthroughs into the mainstream, there’s still an air of sensationalism to perceptions of it. Using, say, Hinduism or Islam for the purposes of intrigue is off limits these days, but Mormonism can still be used for eyebrow-raising. Being an unusual religion, it inspires that feeling of otherness in people, but also being a home-grown American phenomenon and having something to do with Jesus, it’s too much of the USA for the mechanism of political correctness to kick in. But given that the Church of the Latter-Day Saints doesn’t have the historical clout of the Vatican, I doubt the Mormons will be given their own Dan Brown anytime soon; there’ s less of a desire for fist-shaking on the part of secularists (they’ll have to settle for Tray Parker and Matt Stone for the time being, I suppose).
Also: it is always neat to find the image-setter of some genre being more playful than their image suggests. But then every great example of a genre is never a typical example.
Also also: (Philosophy nerd alert) Holmes mixes up the meaning of analytic and synthetic “reasoning” (which is also an irregular way of putting it), saying that the former is reasoning from premises to conclusion in a causally backwards fashion, while the former is causally forwards. Both, rather, are forms of “analytic reasoning”, insofar as they consist of merely making explicit in a conclusion what is already implicit in the premises. “synthetic reasoning” would mean using experience to connect two things which are not connected by logical implicature, but happen to be empirically connected. But this is less grievous than Spock’s invocations of Logic, so I’ll let it slide.