The Victorian Sage

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Month: May, 2017

Review: The Seven Per Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer (1974)

Having discussed my preconceptions and early impressions of The Seven Per Cent Solution in my last post, it seems relevant to provide a review upon finishing the novel. This intriguing novel centres on a meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in Vienna, where they get together to solve a case involving a disorientated and apparently mistreated woman. The case, of course, turns out to be of international importance.


1975 Coronet Edition of The Seven Per Cent Solution

Ultimately, The Seven Per Cent Solution did not meet my expectations. Perhaps these were too high. But to get at the sort of thing I was expecting, here’s a reviewer’s quote from the back cover of the book:

What happens as one mastermind pitches wits against the other and as Freud proceeds to psychoanalyse Holmes and get to the heart of his secrets makes a marvellously entertaining treat for the most jaded palate. –Publishers Weekly

In a work featuring Holmes and Freud, one would indeed expect a large element of psychoanalysis. One would expect, as Publishers Weekly mentioned, a psychoanalysis of Holmes. As I neared the end of the book, I became increasingly surprised to find that no such content was in the book. I was wrong. In the final chapter, Freud does hypnotize and briefly psychoanalyze Holmes, and finds a secret from his past that explain his apparent disinterest in social, sexual and romantic relationships. I won’t give the details away, but it’s not original. It is taken from a well-known Holmes scholar of the time called Trevor H. Hall, which Meyers acknowledges in a footnote:

*This amazing event was actually deduced by Trevor Hall in his essay “The Early Years of Sherlock Holmes”, included in his masterly collection Sherlock Holmes: Ten Literary Studies, St. Martin’s Press, 1969. N.M.

Of course, Hall didn’t use Freudian techniques to arrive at his conclusions; rather he relied on detail from the stories, but the conclusions are the same. Which does prompt the following question: what use is psychoanalysis if it can only bring to light information that can as easily be brought to light by other channels? For this book to have successfully married Freudian thought to the Holmesian universe, it would at least have had to call forth some specifically Freudian knowledge, unavailable to the unassisted intelligence, and certainly not second hand.

And note also the timing of the psychoanalytic episode: the final chapter, when the central mystery had been solved. The word afterthought certainly springs to mind here. Again, the Freudian element should have been more integrated into the central narrative, not tacked on. But Meyer is less interested in the Freudian element than one might have expected.

Of course, there are other more Freudian characterizations of Holmes, if one wishes to find them. Sherlock most of all, as some reviewers have noted. The Seven Per Cent Solution, though, is not such a reading. Indeed, it is curiously reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), another narrative that appears to set itself up as an exploration of the Holmesian psyche, but that ends up following the tropes of the detective story, and leaving psychology and character behind. Stories in popular culture just had not become Freudian enough to support such an ambition at the time. Now, though, cultural tropes have changed, and Sherlock and other modern retellings are more suffused with Freudian theory than Meyer or Wilder could make their stories.


Variations on this theme:

Elementary (S1 E1) and the Freudianization of Sherlock Holmes

Freud, Leonardo, Sherlock Holmes, Asexuality

Freud meets Holmes: The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974)

The prevalence of Freudian readings of Sherlock Holmes, and the tensions they engender in the adapted narratives that make them, is a subject I have touched on before (also here). It was about time, then, that I read Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-per-cent Solution (1974), a shortish novel (221 pages in the Coronet 1975 edition which I will be referencing in this post) bringing the fictional detective and the real psychoanalyst together in an entirely fictional way.


Yoinked from here

In a sense, the novel is an adaptation of Doyle’s famous story “The Final Problem” (TFP), in which he (temporarily) killed off the detective at the Reichenbach Falls in a conflict with Moriarty. It didn’t quite happen like that, is Meyer’s contention. In fact, Moriarty was a harmless Professor of Mathematics whom had become the focus of Holmes’ paranoid fantasies, and Watson and Mycroft (Holmes’ brother) had tricked Holmes into travelling to Vienna to have him checked out by the eminent Dr. Freud. Still less than half-way through the novel, I am not yet sure how they get Holmes to Reichenbach Falls (or if he does end up there in Meyer’s version, as opposed to it being a product of his paranoid imagination. But Vienna is close-ish, the same part of the world, so I anticipate he probably does end up there.)

So the conceit of the novel is fantastic. There is a real philosophical and history-of-ideas interest in the juxtaposing of these two characters: the embodiment of late Victorian Heroism, unemotional and sexless, and the radical Austrian psychologist, upending with lasting effect all previous conceptions of humanity to place sex squarely at the centre of it all. It’s because of Freud that Holmes seems so alien to us (while remaining such an attractive figure.)

Meyer opens with the age-old “found manuscript” gambit. A late dictated text from Dr. Watson, found in an old house that had gone up for sale. This appeal to authenticity allies the book with “the game“, in which Sherlockian scholars treat Holmes and Watson as real people, and Doyle as their literary agent, and all the stories as real happenings, which just have to be put into a correct order to resolve the contradictions Watson left in them (these contradictions being explained by Watson’s need to protect the real identities of his subjects, his forgetfulness, in a couple of cases the stories are deemed to be forgeries not really by Watson, and so on). Dorothy Sayers famously wrote that:

The game of applying the methods of the “Higher Criticism” to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavoured to disintegrate the Bible. Since then, the thing has become a hobby among a select set of jesters here and in America.

But the exponents of the game are many, and are by no means all jesters. Many take it very seriously indeed. Meyer is clearly very familiar with the game, and he takes part in it in Seven-per-cent. For example, Watson as narrator in this novel identifies Doyle’s stories “The Lion’s Mane”, “The Mazarin Stone”, “The Creeping Man” and “The Three Gables” as “forgeries”, and also as “drivel” (17).

The novel proper opens with Holmes arriving at Watson’s practice wanting to speak to him urgently. Holmes’ dialogue during the meeting is filled with nods to Doyle’s stories: references to Reade and Richter, complaints about the lack of high quality crime, and, most centrally, the following direct lift from TFP:

For years past, Watson, I have continually been conscious of some power behind the malefactor, some deep organizing power which for ever stands in the way of the law, and throws it shield over the wrong-doer. Again and again in cases of the most varying sorts — forgery cases, robberies, murders — I have felt the presence of this force, and I have deduced its action in many of those undiscovered crimes in which I have not been personally consulted. For years I have endeavored to break through the veil which shrouded it, and at last the time came when I seized my thread and followed it, until it led me, after a thousand cunning windings, to ex-Professor Moriarty of mathematical celebrity.

On one hand, this is a pretty dramatic and forceful speech; on the other, I have always felt it to be something of a jumping-the-shark moment in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. While the early Holmes were all about the presence of seemingly inconsequential details in often very everyday stories, and the finding of unexpected interesting elements in mundane setups (in the early Doyle short stories, there are very few murders, and in several cases no crime to speak of.) I’m thinking here of a story like “The Red-headed League”: a curious tale whose mundanity is broken only be the comical but hardly sinister detail of the bequest for the man with the best red head! “Copper Beeches” is another classic in this regard. A mundane setting with a few curious details, hiding a very particular set of circumstances that the general reader can hardly begin to guess at.

But now in TFP Doyle gives up the great sense of specificity and eccentricity that attended these early stories by positing an antagonist, an embodiment of criminal evil for Holmes. This is standard narrative stuff obviously, but to me it’s a much less interesting approach than the earlier: from the notion all situations are uniquely interesting; we move to the notion that all crimes are one, with Moriarty at the centre. It’s almost like a move from empiricism to religious thinking; from attention to detail to reliance on symbolism.

So given my take on this, I enjoy how Meyer subverts it here. The preposterousness of Holmes’ idea here is made manifest; in seeing Moriarty everywhere, he’s not noticing a true unified pattern in crime, he’s exposing his own cocaine-fuelled paranoia. This becomes increasingly clear in the second chapter, wherein we meet the real Moriary. He gets in touch with Doyle to complain querulously about Holmes’ following him around for no apparent reason. All of this is much better than Doyle’s own conceit!

It is also clear from the start that Meyer feels the need to rehabilitate his narrator, i.e. Watson: “Students of my work have seen fit to remark that the man who wrote them was ‘slow’, a dullard, hopelessly gullible, totally without imagination, and worse. To these charges I plead not guilty […]. [B]eing in his company often made one feel dull whether or not one possessed a normal intelligence, which, by the by, I believe I do.” (55) Here, again, Meyer is probably showing his familiarity with Sherlockian scholarship, which has long taken exception to alleged popular misconceptions about Watson’s character. This is solidified in the famous Rathbone Holmes films of the late 1930s and the 1940s, wherein Nigel Bruce played an entertainingly imbecilic, comic-relief Watson. One can imagine the nods of satisfaction from Sherlockians on reading in Meyer an author ready to give Watson his due.


As I write, I haven’t yet read to the meetings between Holmes and Freud. This will be the meat of the book, and will decide whether it really lives up to the promise it has shown. There is room for a truly profound work in the Holmes-Freud nexus. Seven-per-cent has started well, promising to be a better solution to the problem of Holmes than Doyle himself found in TFP, a book that couldn’t have been written without Doyle, but that Doyle certainly couldn’t have written.

Hot Dogs, Hideously Large Bosoms and Neon Lighting: Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (1964)

Žižek writes that he favours analyzing popular culture examples because it helps him “to avoid pseudo-Lacanian jargon and to achieve the greatest possible clarity not only for my readers but also for myself” (The Metastases of Enjoyment, Verso, 1994, p. 175). I’m not sure Žižek is always wholly successful in avoiding jargon and achieving maximum clarity, but it’s nice to know that he makes the effort. Raymond Williams famously noted that “Culture is ordinary“, rather than the preserve of an elite, and what could be more ordinary than popular culture – it is, by definition, the property of the many, rather than the few. Thus, popular culture is always a more fitting object of study than any high culture (“serious literature”, “arthouse cinema”, etc.)

So, if you want to know our culture, know the artefacts of popular culture in depth. And what could be more resoundingly and enduringly popular in Western societies (at least Anglophone ones) than the figure of James Bond. Most of us know him now through the continuing  film franchise, but he started off as a literary creation in a hugely popular series of books by Ian Fleming. Fleming started publishing Bond in 1953, but after the first film (Dr. No) appeared in 1962, he continued writing new books while older ones were being adapted until his death in 1965. You Only Live Twice, you novel I will write about here, belongs to this late period. Published in 1964, it was the last Bond novel to appear in Fleming’s lifetime.

You Only Live Twice takes up where the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, left off. That is, Bond’s wife Tracy has been killed by Blofeld’s goons. So the Bond we meet in Twice is shattered by grief, drinking too much and failing at work. He’s very similar to the Bond we saw recently in the film Skyfall (2012), who seems to be physically past it, mentally jaded and fit for the scrapheap. But in both works, M. decides to pull Bond out of it by giving him a big mission. Here, 007 is sent to Japan on a diplomatic mission to check up on what the Russians are up to there.

In fact, the book opens with Bond already in Japan, having a meeting-confrontation with the ambiguous Tiger Tanaka. Tiger embodies the whole mystery and menace of Japan in the book. It’s not really clear if he’s friend or foe. He’s the head of the Japanese secret service. This service is never named: “‘Some unpronounceable Japanese rubbish'” (Vintage, 2012, p. 35), is  M.’s contemptuous non-effort to render it.

This opening chapter introduces a quite extensive selection of Western cultural cliches regarding Japan: geishas and sake figure prominently; sumo, kamikaze, samurai and Fu Manchu also get mentions. It’s the images of the samurai  and kamikaze that loom largest throughout the book. Tanaka himself is described as having a “formidable, cruel, Samurai face” (p. 8), and this description accurately prefigures the depiction of the Japanese and the idea of Japan by Fleming in the book.

This idea of the cruelty, menace and mystery of the Japanese is part of a long history of orientalism, but should perhaps also be seen in the context of WWII memories remaining fresh. There the Japanese violence especially in the Rape of Nanjing had shocked Western consciousness. In many respects it was more alien than the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. The Nazis, like the Allied powers in their atomic bombings of Japanese cities, preferred their slaughter to be cool, distant and bureaucratic. The violence of the Japanese was undertaken at a personal level, and with a sadistic relish that echoes through depictions of the Japanese character in Western culture.

Also in the first chapter, Bond semi-jokingly tells Tanaka that in a game of paper-scissors-rock he will win and thus “display not only the superiority of Great Britain, and especially Scotland, over Japan, but also the superiority of our Queen over your Emperor” (9). This anxious national competition is central to much of the book.


After this scene-setting first chapter with the ambiguous Tanaka, we move to the aforementioned backstory of Bond’s state post-Tracy and M.’s decision to send him to Japan. Only midway through chapter 7 do we again catch up with chapter 1, and we have more debate between Bond and Tanaka about the national character and political systems of their respective countries. Tanaka is particularly exercised by the change in Japanese culture since WWII, which he blames on the American presence:

Baseball, amusement arcades, hog dogs, hideously large bosoms, neon lighting – these are the part of our payment for defeat in battle. they are the tepid tea of the way of life we know under the name of demokorasu. They are a frenzied denial of the official scapegoats for our defeat – a denial of the spirit of the samurai as expressed in the kami-kaze, a denial of our ancestors, a denial of our gods. They are a despicable way of life[.]” (80)

Bond listens politely to Tanaka’s catalogue of horrific Americanisms, and offers his sympathy. That Fleming allows a voice to such anti-Americanism is an index of the fact that the Americans themselves are seen as slightly threatening in this book, no longer such a straightforward friend to Britain as in earlier novels. This type of politically-invested dialogue is very characteristic of Twice, and it is worth noting that it is precisely this type of matter that is not reproduced in the contemporaneous film versions of Bond. Twice has a very definite political context with plenty of detail (e.g. discussion of the differences between the CIA under Alan Dulles and under his successor John McCone [34]), such that an entire ideologico-political position is sketched out, and is as important to the text as the purely narrative elements (which are admittedly particularly weak in this novel, as has been noted by others).

For Fleming and his readers, there was clearly a need to reconsider and debate various elements of Western society and of the democratic ideal. “I stand for government by an elite” (53), Bond’s Australian friend Dikko Henderson says (and he also fervently opposes votes for Aborigines). Fleming never puts such strong political opinions in Bond’s mouth, so the status of such pronouncements is unclear. By giving them to bit part (albeit overall sympathetic) characters, Fleming is bringing such ideas into play without committing to them. He subtly plays with anti-democratic ideas, forcing the reader to confront them but not to accept them. In the light of the films, it remains an interesting exercise to return to the book, and to see the anti-democratic political tendencies that are much more visible here and that underlie much of the Bond narratives.


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