Holmes and Away: Arthur Conan Doyle Is Cherished as the Creator of One of the Best-Loved Detectives in English Literature-But His Talents as an Author Ranged Far and Wide, from Science Fiction to Swashbucklers

By Dirda, Michael | New Statesman (1996), November 7, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Holmes and Away: Arthur Conan Doyle Is Cherished as the Creator of One of the Best-Loved Detectives in English Literature-But His Talents as an Author Ranged Far and Wide, from Science Fiction to Swashbucklers


Dirda, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


Step into any bookshop, whether it's that flashy new one on the high street or the little-used paperback exchange in a run-down part of town, and you will almost certainly find--in the fiction or mystery section--some edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. For well over too years, the great sleuth of Baker Street has been a staple of our imagination, known the world over for his Inverness cape, calabash pipe and deerstalker cap. He is quite probably the most famous, most immediately recognisable fictional character ever created.

Eccentficaesthete, expert chemistand linguist, master of disguise, amateur boxer and baritsu adept, occasional philosopher and overall polymath. Holmes lives by his wits and entirely for the practice of his art-- "the art of detection". He is, according to the biographer Hesketh Pearson, "what every man desires to be", nothing less than a "knight errant who rescues the unfortunate and fights single-handed against the powers of darkness".

At his side is his faithful companion and chronicler, Dr John H Watson. In the old Basil Rathbone films, Nigel Bruce portrayed Watson as a bumbling idiot, but more recently actors such as Edward Hardwicke, Jude Law and Martin Freeman have shown that he is, in his own way, as admirable as his better-known friend. A soldier and doctor, susceptible to feminine beauty, a devoted husband to at least two wives, he is both Holmes's straight man and a partial self-portrait of the author. Over the 56 stories and four novels, we see the great thinking machine gradually humanised, to some extent, by the kindly Watson.

Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot once spoke of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, then reverently murmured the single word: "Maitre." Was the Belgian detective referring to Holmes?

  Ah, non, non, not Sherlock Holmes! It is the author, Sir Arthur Conan
  Doyle, that I salute. These tales of Sherlock Holmes are in reality
  far-fetched ... But the art of writing--ah, that is entirely
  different. The pleasure of the language, the creation above all of
  that magnificent character, Dr Watson. Ah, that was indeed a triumph.

Christie is just one of many writers who have recognised and honoured Conan Doyle's artistry. John le Carre has pointed to the "narrative perfection" of the Holmes stories, emphasising, like Dorothy L Sayers before him, their subtle "interplay between dialogue and description", their "perfect characterisation and perfect timing". Peter Ackroyd has spoken of the "melancholy intensity and majestic cadence" of Conan Doyle's prose, "striated with rich local detail, so that he seems effortlessly able to evoke the marvellous and the terrible in the ordinary". Distinguished novelists as various as Eric Ambler, Angus Wilson and P G Wodehouse have been proud to introduce new editions of the tales of Baker Street. Indeed, Wodehouse is arguably Conan Doyle's greatest disciple, creating in Jeeves and Wooster comic versions of Holmes and Watson.

All too often, posterity remembers some authors, no matter how multifaceted their genius, for only one or two books. Who, aside from scholars of Victorian fiction, now reads anything by Thackeray other than Vanity Fair? Jane Eyre has largely driven out Charlotte Bronte's great depiction of loneliness, Villette. From early on, the worldwide popularity of Holmes annoyed his creator, and with cause: the detective's adventures, wonderful as they are, tended to overshadow everything else Conan Doyle wrote, with the partial exception of The Lost World, his i9i2adventure novel about the discovery of living dinosaurs on a South American plateau.

In my new book. On Conan Doyle, I try to redress this imbalance. I discuss the Professor Challenger science-fiction stories, the dozens of supernatural tales and contes cruels and the historical fiction, especially The White Company (which is often derided these days) and the rousing Brigadier Gerard swashbucklers, an important influence on George MacDonald Eraser's Flashman novels.

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Holmes and Away: Arthur Conan Doyle Is Cherished as the Creator of One of the Best-Loved Detectives in English Literature-But His Talents as an Author Ranged Far and Wide, from Science Fiction to Swashbucklers
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