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March 2002
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The Secret Marriage of Sherlock Holmes

The Secret Marriage of Sherlock Holmes and Other Eccentric Readings, Michael Atkinson, The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1996, ISBN 0-472-08566-2 (pbk).


Atkinson presents us with an amusing conceit - educate the reading public in the ways of literary criticism by interpreting a series of Sherlock Holmes stories, each discussed in a separate mode of literary theory. More precisely each story is given an eccentric reading, the thesis being that theory is about modes of reading, the text of his book being an illustration of different styles of reading.

I wanted to write a review of this book but I didn't quite know how to approach it. It occurred to me that Nathan Childers would be just the man for the job, so I wrote him requesting him to write a review. He declined, so I am left without a review. As a palliative I offer his letter of declination instead.


Dear Richard,

I must say that I appreciate the honor you do me by requesting that I write a review for you. As it happens I was one of the persons nominating Atkinson's book for the Edgar Award. Naturally the nomination papers contained my finest thoughts on the book. If I were to do a review for you, neither of us would be content with anything less than my best, and that, alas, has already been given to another.

I surmise that you will proceed on your own to write a review. In lieu of the hoped for review, may I salve your disappointment with a few remarks on the art of reviewing, paying particular attention to the sorts of review that I fear you are likely to write.

Pray do not attempt to use the review as an occasion for writing a critical essay filled with scintillating thoughts. Purge yourself of the urge to do so; for such essays one needs far better material than is yours to command.

Likewise it would be fortunate if you were to cease the practice of presenting a list of chapter synopses as a review. It is a comprehensible fault; you attempt to understand what a book is about by attempting to understand what each chapter is about. This is commendable, but having made that effort, do make the further effort of attempting to understand what the book is about.

Perhaps you believe that the role of a review is to tell your reader what the book is about. If so, disabuse yourself of this notion immediately. Most reviewers have no particular ability to determine what a book is about, and indeed many books are not about anything other than a desire on the part of the author to rid the world of a surplusage of trees.

The true role of the review is to serve as source material for conversations in cocktail parties. Bright young things and dully pulsating older things needs must have an opinion about everything. It need not be correct nor need it be well informed. It suffices that it sound authoritative and that it have a patina of cleverness. I am convinced that you have it within you to write an excellent review.

Sincerely,
Nathan Childers


This page was last updated March 16, 2002.

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