I Say, Jeeves, You're Just a Bally Sherlock Holmes Rip-Off; from Wodehouse to T.S. Eliot, Why Everyone's a Fan of Conan Doyle ... except Women, of Course; BIOGRAPHY

Article excerpt

Byline: BY ROGER LEWIS

ON CONAN DOYLE

BY MICHAEL DIRDA

(Princeton [pounds sterling]13.95 [pounds sterling]10.99)

SHOULD you chance to find in the back of a cupboard a dusty copy of Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887, it will be worth approximately $250,000 at auction. For it was in this periodical -- of which only 11 are known to survive -- that the very first Sherlock Holmes story appeared.

The hallmarks were an instant hit -- footsteps emerging from a wall of fog, Baker Street's gaslight and hansom cabs; what Michael Dirda, in this nutritious little book, calls 'the celebration of plot and atmosphere, adventure and romance.'

Eventually there were to be 56 short stories and four novels. Dirda read them avidly as a youngster and he still reads them now, Doyle's works setting off for him 'little bursts of what I must call verbal happiness, and an almost childlike joy'.

He is far from being alone. T.S. Eliot revered the Holmes and Watson tales and a whole section from The Musgrave Ritual is reproduced (plagiarised) in his play Murder In The Cathedral. P.G. Wodehouse said: 'When I was starting out as a writer, Conan Doyle was my hero.' Agatha Christie was pleased to announce that: 'It is the author, Arthur Conan Doyle, that I salute.' John le Carre has called the canon 'narrative perfection'.

Well, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are a parody version of Holmes and Watson, I can see that, and Christie's Poirot is a Belgian Sherlock, reliant upon his 'little grey cells'. George Smiley, rotund and canny, is perhaps the Baker Street wizard and his dependable sidekick rolled into one.

As for Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859-1930) himself, he was raised in Edinburgh, where he also trained to be a doctor. He was knighted, indeed, not for inventing Sherlock Holmes, but for his services in a field hospital during the Boer War.

HE LIVED a bluff, hearty life -- far more Watsonian than Sherlockian. Doyle as a young man worked on an Arctic whaling ship. He enjoyed hiking, bicycling, golfing, shooting, billiards and boxing. He skied and was 'one of the first to bring the Scandinavian sport to Switzerland'.

According to Dirda, Doyle 'lent his name and pen to causes in which he believed: divorce law reform, the plight of the abused Africans in the Congo, miscarriages of criminal justice, and Spiritualism'. This last might seem a peculiar lapse, but during World War I, with millions of parents grieving for lost sons, it appeared a sort of solace.

But anyway, isn't that what Holmes always does -- see things that no one else can see? Deduce presence from absence? His skills seem supernatural, as he reads clues in pipes, hats, walking sticks, cigarette cases, bootlaces, and polished coffee pots. His very first words to Watson set the scene: 'You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive?' In The Norwood Builder he disconcerts the villain by saying: 'Beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you.'

Doyle got fed up with Holmes, however, and in 1893 tried to kill him off by sending him over the Reichenbach Falls. Grappling together, Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty plummet into 'the swirling waters'. Nevertheless, by 1902, and owing to popular demand, Holmes bounced back in The Hound Of The Baskervilles (though this was set at a time before the Reichenbach incident, with The Adventure Of The Empty House, the next short story, explaining Holmes's supposed 'death' -- he had been lying low in Tibet and 'undertaking arcane chemical research in Europe'). …