Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Naked Is the Best Disguise: Review

Naked Is the Best Disguise: The Death and Resurrection of Sherlock Holmes by Samuel Rosenberg is a literary criticism revolving around Sherlock Holmes, but unlike most Holmesian critiques it focuses on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than on examining the works themselves for the sake of the work. Rosenberg speculates that Doyle left clues throughout his work that reveal hidden meanings and connections between the Holmes stories (and other of Doyle's work) and Nietsche, Oscar Wilde, Dionysus, Christ, Catullus, John Bunyan, Frankenstein, Robert Browning Racine, Flaubert, T. S. Eliot and others.

The title, which may seem odd at first, comes from William Congreve's The Double Dealer and preface the book.
No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise.
And Rosenberg claims that Doyle has used the open "truth" in his stories to disguise his real meaning and display his true self.

Samuel Rosenberg was a literary detective who also published surprising discoveries about the work of Mary Shelley, Melville and others. In this work Rosenberg posits that Doyle was a brilliant allegorist who left "purloined letter" references to both literary figures and people from real life. He would have us believe that the blueprint for Professor Moriarty was Friedrich Nietzsche and that Irene Adler stood in for George Sand.The author encounters the people who knew Doyle and who, he says, turned up in his stories; displays clue after clue about Sir Arthur himself; and claims the discovery of the real meaning behind the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. 

I must say that Naked Is the Best Disguise reads rather oddly from someone claiming to be a literary detective. Rosenberg's prose actually reminds me of Dorothy L. Sayer's Miss Climpson. His work is littered with exclamation points and italicized words and I can almost hear the breathless, urgent tone as he declares his earth-shattering revelations! Although, perhaps I am doing Miss Climpson a disservice--because Lord Peter Wimsey's right-hand woman is much clearer in her reports to Lord Peter than Rosenberg is in his ecstatic "discoveries" about Doyle. If his literary detective work is really that accurate (and I have severe doubts that it is), then he certainly shouldn't need to broadcast it at the top of his lungs and highlight it with little neon signs to say: "Look at this brilliant bit of deduction! Aren't I clever? Nobody else has figured this out yet. And if I use enough exclamation points and italicize all the important words, then you, poor reader, can't possibly miss my point."

So...the method of delivery is quite distracting--as is his frequent digressions to explain just where he was when each brilliant discovery about Doyle's work occurred to him. On a train. At a hotel. Wandering around the countryside. Because, by golly, where you are when you suddenly realize that "This reference is exciting!" (yes, he actually put that right there in the text) is just about the most important thing you can relate while trying to convince your audience that Moriarty is Nietzsche. Or wait---maybe that's Colonel Sebastian Moran.  Yeah--he's Nietzsche. NO....they're both Nietzsche! Did I mention that he seems a bit confused? 

I don't know if Rosenberg is actually as earnest as he seems to be about all this exclamatory nonsense or whether this is a bit of literary critique parody put on for his friendly group of Holmes aficionados. It doesn't much matter to me. All I know is it was tedious, convoluted, and pedantic when it wasn't being all breathless and urgent and I can't say that I recommend it at all. He has not convinced me with the comparisons he's made. It's sort of like statistics--you can make them mean anything you'd like them to mean. One star. Maybe.


J F Norris said...

I've seen many copies of this book in used book stores and book sales over the past fifteen yeras. I finally bought one and threw it in in a bag of books ages ago but never bothered to read it. And now I think I never will. This sounds less like "literary detection" or even literary criticism than it does one long flight of fancy. Rex Stout wrote a parody of this kind of literary finagling in his essay "Watson Was a Woman." I wouldn't be able to take any of this book seriously.

fredamans said...

Sounds like a book that would drive me nuts. I love your review though, very diplomatic.

Bev Hankins said...

John, trust me...I didn't take it seriously. There was no way I could with all those exclamations and italics.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bev - I believe I shall be staying away from this one ...