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He Who Laughs

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the serial chuckler

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By JOE QUEENAN
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It is always strange to stumble upon seemingly modern turns of phrase in books that are quite old. It proves that catchphrases and colorful expressions believed to have entered the vernacular in recent times have actually been around for decades, even centuries. What’s more, they often originated in places one would not expect: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for example. It is now widely believed that the first use of the term “crib” to describe a home or apartment can be found in the 1894 Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Reigate Puzzle.” Here, Conan Doyle, writing as Dr. Watson, remarks, “A gang of burglars acting in the country might be expected to vary the scenes of their operations, and not to crack two cribs in the same district within a few days.”  

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the serial chuckler.

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the serial chuckler.

This is not an isolated case. The term “cool hand”—closely associated with Paul Newman’s winning turn as an affable convict in Cool Hand Luke (1967)—surfaces in that same Conan Doyle story, when one of Holmes’s clients describes a supposed burglar as “a cool hand.” More unexpected still is the passage in “The Noble Bachelor” in which Holmes inquires, “What’s up, then?”—proving that the contemporary expression “Whassup?” did not originate in a hip, urban American environment.

Most surprising of all is the frequency with which characters chuckle in the works of Conan Doyle. Yes, chuckle. Sherlock Holmes chuckles heartily in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” He also chuckles in “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist.” He chuckles in “The Golden Pince-Nez” and in “The Red-Headed League” and in “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” Then, in the otherwise-forgettable “The Adventure of Black Peter,” he chuckles in two different situations—once while pouring coffee and, later, when he bursts out into “a triumphant chuckle.”   

And the chuckling is not limited to Holmes. In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” it is a salesman, not Holmes, who chuckles. And, inexplicably, when the man chuckles, he chuckles “grimly.” 

The term “chuckle” came into wide use in the English language in the 1770s, right around the time Great Britain was losing its grip on its North American empire. At the time, chuckling was limited to the chattering classes. Blacksmiths did not chuckle, nor did yeomen, farriers, fishwives, or costermongers. The word “chuckle” rarely appears in the work of Jane Austen, the Brontës, Charles Dickens, or George Eliot, primarily because chuckling was then (as now) viewed as a silly, almost undignified, activity. 

The point is, chuckling is for namby-pambys. It is the sort of thing one associates with Dagwood Bumstead or Tony in I Dream of Jeannie. Chuckling is like tittering or guffawing, blubbering or chortling. Chuckling is simply not cool. Which makes it all the more strange that Sherlock Holmes should be doing it, as Holmes is the quintessence of late-Victorian and Edwardian cool. 

Why, then, does Holmes so regularly chuckle? To answer this question, one must bear in mind that Conan Doyle had decidedly mixed feelings about his most famous creation. Desperate to have his other works taken seriously, Doyle grew to feel trapped in a creative straitjacket by Holmes, whom he actually killed off in “The Final Problem” (1893). 

Recently, a number of critics have provided cogent explanations for the mysteriously rampant chuckling that occurs in the Holmes canon. “Conan Doyle despised Holmes,” says Leigh Ashton-Hinds, author of The House of Suppressed Mirth: Chuckling in Late-Victorian Literature.

He hated the fact that Holmes was more famous than he was. The reason he has Holmes chuckle so often is because chuckling is a dithering, goofy activity. It casts the master detective in a poor light. It makes him look like a ridiculous old fuddy-duddy. Subsequent mystery writers understood this. Sam Spade does not chuckle. Jules Maigret does not chuckle. Kurt Wallander does not chuckle. By writing so many passages in which Holmes chuckles, Doyle is literally saying, “This guy is a clown. He’s a doofus. How could you idiots take this jerk seriously?”

Adele Piggott-Gwynne, author of the controversial Sherlock Holmes, Bootymaster, has reached a similar conclusion about Doyle’s motivation for forcing his own creation to chuckle so often and so inappropriately: 

You never hear of Ivanhoe or Silas Marner or Heathcliff chuckling. Madame Bovary doesn’t chuckle and neither does Madame Defarge. There is no record of Count Dracula ever chuckling, much less the Count of Monte Cristo. Neither Dr. Jekyll nor Mr. Hyde ever chuckles on the printed page. The same holds true for Dorian Gray. By making Holmes chuckle so often, Doyle was literally telling his audiences: “This guy is not in the same weight class as David Copperfield and the Lady of the Lake. So stop acting like this crap is literature. Read my other books instead.”

Last winter, hundreds of rough drafts of famous Sherlock Holmes stories were unearthed in the basement of the British Museum. In them, Holmes chuckles, Dr. Watson chuckles, Mycroft Holmes chuckles, even the demonic Professor Moriarty chuckles. They chuckle often and they chuckle loudly. But Doyle’s editors wisely forced him to delete most of these passages because they did such violence to the otherwise serious mood of the stories.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of One for the Books.  

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