Those Weird Sherlockian Eighties (1982)
Sherlock Holmes's Conception of a Thin Man
(From The Baker Street Chronicle, Volume 2, Number 4, July-August 1982)
By Brad Keefauver
Great men are like the moments of history they create. They pass on, and their like is never truly seen again. Each is a unique combination of man, place, and time that never can be recreated. Their offspring, while often possessing many of their forebears famous qualities, are tainted by a myriad of factors, including the time passed and even the fame of their illustrious parent. So it is that the great men do not often live again in their children. So, it would seem, was the case of Sherlock Holmes and his son, Clyde.
Yes, the Masters son was named Clyde. Not Nero, Scott, or any of the other previously theorized or fictionalized descendants. The true son of Sherlock Holmes did not even attempt to follow in his fathers footsteps as the romantics among us would wish. This does not mean that his life went completely unknown to students of detection. Ironically enough, Clyde Miller Wynant was not fated to solve murder mysteries, but to be a suspect in one. His lifes wrong turn would be the case that entered the name Nick Charles on the great list of celebrated criminologists. Dashiell Hammetts record of the case The Thin Man is titled after Wynant, whom Nick Charles referred to as "one of the thinnest men Ive ever met." Later, motion picture versions transferred the title to Nick Charles himself as well as making their usual alterations to the case. In addition to his thinness, Clyde Wynant was over six feet tall, as was his father. He is said to be about fifty when the case takes place, in approximately 1933, but his already white hair suggests that he may be older. And he was, from five to ten years.
To go back to the circumstances of his birth then, we must go back to the 1870s. Sherlock Holmes was a young man in that decade, having not yet met his later friend and biographer, Dr. Watson. During those young and hasty days, Holmes would meet a woman who would have the greatest effect on his later life, though their relationship was relatively short-lived. She would be the source of both the American influences that Holmes.later exhibited and his marked aversion towards women. Their love was intense and fast-moving, like Holmes himself, but it would quickly become a stormy series of battles once young Sherlocks perceptive nature cleared of the fog of infatuation. By the time the affair ended, the young American woman was pregnant, although she may not have known it until she was already on her way back to America.
To find out why their relationship fell apart so quickly, and something of the personality of the woman from Holmess early life, we must look at the wife of his son. Its often said that sons marry women much like their mothers, and this must have been such an instance. Clyde Wynants wife Mimi was a very attractive blonde who could be charming, when it was to her benefit. When it wasnt, she was hardly so pleasant, being selfish, conniving, and a terrible liar. A relationship with a woman of her ilk can easily be seen as the cause of Sherlock Holmess bitterness towards women. And Clyde Wynants un-named mother would be just the woman.
The only thing Holmes gained from the affair was a son, whether he knew it or not, and two grandchildren. The oldest of these was a girl, Dorothy, in whom traces of her mothers personality could already be seen. The other was a boy, Gilbert, and in him lies the most fascinating part of the story.
Gilbert, at the time of The Thin Man, is eighteen years old. Hes described as "gangling," having inherited height and thinness from his father. From his mother came his features, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a somewhat effeminate look. And from his grandfather?
There are currently no records of what Sherlock Holmes was like as a teenager. Very little imagination at all is necessary to see that he must have acted very much like Gilbert Wynant. From his first encounter with detective Nick Charles, Gilbert is shown to be a flurry of questions. He had studied criminal history and psychology, among a myriad of other subjects, and wants to know the practical side to what he has learned.
How do habitual criminals feel about false accusations? Can you tell a drug addict by superficial characteristics? How does it feel to be stabbed? His questions seemed never ending, yet each specific and knowledgeably asked.
Gilbert was hardly satisfied with merely reading and asking questions, though. He was constantly studying people, especially when they didnt know he was around.
With an extremely Holmes-ish attitude, he experimented with himself and others to further his learning. The most notable of these experiments was testing morphine on both his sister and himself to observe its effects. Even more interestingly, he wanted to try such an experiment with cocaine, but has been unable to acquire any. The grandson of Sherlock Holmes showed sparks of brilliance and a lot more promise than his father. His intellect was first-rate, without a doubt. Aside from his criminal studies, Gilbert was also learning Chinese and writing a book on knowledge and belief. But still, as with his grandfather Holmes, his fine mind contained within it the seeds of its own possible destruction, as can be seen in his drug experiments. The course his life finally took seems, at this point, lost to history.
His father, we know, thanks to Dashiell Hammett, had a life un-like what one would expect from the son of Sherlock Holmes. Whether from the influence of living under the shadow of his distant father, or due to his mothers poor child-raising, or from some other cause entirely, Clyde Wynant did not have a good time of it. Even though his career as an investigator seemed to go well for him, he eventually wound up spending time in a mental institution for problems not told. His curious behaviour during the "Thin Man" case apparently surprised no one.
Fortunately, the torch is not always passed directly from father to son. In the case of the Holmes bloodline, it skips the generation of Clyde Miller Wynant only to surface again in the form of Gilbert Wynant-Holmes. The eighteen-year-old Gilbert, related in "The Thin Man" to us by Hammett, obviously has yet to meet his famed grandfather. His intense interest in Nick Charles shows that Charles is the first detective Gilbert has ever met. Perhaps in his later life, the Holmesian torch was passed face to face, from grandfather to grandson.
With the tutoring of the master of detectives, Gilbert Wynant may have come close to that intellectual ideal, Sherlock Holmes. The possibility even exists that, given the benefits of the masters mistakes, Gilbert was able to surpass his ancestor. The one fact we can be certain of, however, is that Gilbert Wynant did not have a publicist like John Watson working with him.
Its true: there was, and is, only one Sherlock Holmes.
With luck, his heirs were very special one-of-a-kinds an well.