Monday, April 17, 2017

The making of a most beloved detective

kw: book reviews, biography, novelists, short story writers

It would be too much to say that Arthur Conan Doyle saved my life, but during one terrible year, he did indeed save my sanity. More on this anon.

I am pretty sure I have read every story and novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, many of them several times. I have a one-volume edition of the stories that were published in The Strand. Thus, although I almost never read a biography, I could not pass up Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims.

The book focuses on the first 33 years of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle, culminating with the year before he "killed Holmes off", though this is not mentioned; the text climaxes with Conan Doyle's dedication of the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to his teacher, Joseph Bell, the inspiration for Holmes.

I hadn't known that Arthur Conan Doyle used both middle and last names as his surname. I find this is sometimes done in Britain, so Mr. Sims, while usually referring to him as Arthur, also calls him Conan Doyle. Never "Doyle".

The back-story illustrates that nobody really springs fully-formed into maturity, particularly in a creative career such as writing. We find that Conan Doyle began writing for publication while still in medical school. I suppose the curriculum was not nearly so rigorous as that in modern medical colleges. He had his first story published in 1879. His writing mainly spent time going 'round and 'round the circuit of being sent out and returned with a "No thanks". But his works were published from time to time during the eight years before he first created Holmes.

The first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887, but the great detective did not immediately become popular. That took a few years. The bulk of the early Holmes stories were published in The Strand between 1891 and 1893, when "The Final Problem" culminated in Holmes's apparent death along with his nemesis, James Moriarty, in a waterfall.

The Strand collection signaled success to Conan Doyle. He had quit his medical practice to write full time. I find that Joe Bells' assessment of himself and his student, in the light of Sherlock Holmes, brings light to the reality that Conan Doyle himself, having learned all he could of Dr. Bell's deductive method, practiced it himself as a diagnostician, and then brought it to its ideal fruition, taking it beyond what either himself or Bell could do. I do recall noticing as I re-read my favorite Holmes adventures in recent years, that while Holmes is portrayed as making startling deductions about Watson and a few other people they meet, the solving of crimes owed much more to gathering clues, and frequently to staking out a suspect. Holmes thus exceeded Messrs. Lestrade and Gregson in persistence more than analysis. He gathered more "stuff" to be analyzed.

Conan Doyle freely acknowledged his literary debt to prior writers such as Poe and Gaboriau. He sought their influence while avoiding raw imitation. In the public imagination, his Holmes exceeded their creations, which are less remembered.

I was hoping that this book would delve into the rest of Conan Doyle's life, but of course, the ten-year hiatus in Holmes stories from 1893-1904 puts a cap on such an idea. Holmes had been created, had run a popular career, and had apparently died in Switzerland. Finis. So the stories and books that began with The Return of Sherlock Holmes are never mentioned. Neither are the Dr. Challenger stories, The Lost World, the Poison Belt, and The Land of Mist. But here my life intersected with Conan Doyle's world-building in a most salutary way.

In the 1959-60 school year I attended a College Preparatory school, which was suggested by a family friend who had a son there. I hated it. The school contained grades 7-12, which is a formula for rampant bullying, for one thing. It was run along the lines of a British academy. We wore suit and tie daily, no exceptions. I had passed some kind of entrance exam with a very high score, but did not do well academically. High IQ is mainly based on a good memory and lots of reading. I had the social skills of a potato.

A study period each morning and afternoon were included in the long school day. I had the freedom to spend them in the school library. Soon I discovered a complete set of Conan Doyle's books. I had already read nearly all the Sherlock Holmes stories, in various books belonging to my parents. But this collection had everything, all of his fiction. That includes the three Professor Challenger stories, which provided just the right kind of escape for me at a critical period in my life. Naturally, I read each of them at least twice, plus everything else, Holmes and all, at least once through. I found that I connected better with Professor Challenger. He didn't set as high a standard of emulation as did Sherlock Holmes. To this day, when I read a Holmes story, I take it slowly. I read a Challenger story at a more rapid clip.

The life of Conan Doyle is a cipher to nearly everyone, even the most avid readers of the Holmes stories who can quote which odd clue occurred in which story and whatnot. I like Holmes even better now, knowing the men whose accomplishments underwrote his own.

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