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One Hit Wonder

Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, and that's enough.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By BARTON SWAIM
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The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes

The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

by Andrew Lycett

Free Press, 576 pp., $30

Arthur Conan Doyle

A Life in Letters

Edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley

Penguin, 720 pp., $37.95

From almost the moment of his first appearance, in 1887, Sherlock Holmes overshadowed his creator. People would write to the author asking advice on solving mysteries, as though he were a detective rather than a writer. Indeed, some admirers--as we learn from Andrew Lycett's superb new biography--wrote directly to the nonexistent Holmes. The degree to which the detective became more famous than his creator is nicely symbolized by the fact that, while there are no statues of Arthur Conan Doyle in Edinburgh, the city of his birth, there is an enormous one of Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle's literary productivity matched, or excelled, his famously prolific contemporaries. He wrote historical novels, science fiction, thrillers, works on spiritualism, histories and pamphlets on the Boer War and World War I, plays, collections of poems, and innumerable articles and short stories. Yet his reputation rests exclusively on the four novels and 56 stories of the Holmes oeuvre. Apart from those, not a single one of Conan Doyle's works is now read by anybody but academics and specialists.

The two works under review here represent literary scholarship of a high order: clearly and engagingly written, scrupulously accurate, extremely well researched. Yet neither attempts more than a cursory answer to the central question (as it seems to me) of Arthur Conan Doyle's literary career: Why is he remembered for Holmes--and for literally nothing else?

His mother, Mary Doyle, was the preeminent force in Conan Doyle's life. He seems to have written her about once a week from the time he left for preparatory school, aged nine, until her death a half-century later. She was, as he recalled in his fictional autobiography The Stark Munro Letters (1895), "the quaintest mixture of the housewife and the woman of letters." He could remember her stirring porridge "with the porridge stick in one hand and the other holding her Revue des deux mondes within two inches of her dear nose."

It was at the University of Edinburgh's medical school that he encountered Professor Joseph Bell, who taught his students the value of noticing the seemingly irrelevant details of their patients' conditions. Bell would serve as the model for Holmes, whose dazzling powers of deduction made him, as his colleague Dr. Watson put it, "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen."

By the time Conan Doyle set up his medical practice in 1885, in Portsmouth, he had spent a year of schooling in Austria, six months on a whaler as a ship's doctor, and another four months as a surgeon on a steamer bound for West Africa. When his medical practice failed to bring in sufficient funds, he found he could turn his travels to profit by writing swashbuckling adventure stories. The first of these, A Study in Scarlet (1887), the second half of which is set among Mormons in America, earned Conan Doyle a meager £25. (He had sold the copyright, a mistake he wouldn't make again.) His second book, Micah Clarke (1888), a historical novel set during the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, did slightly better.

The most profitable idea of his life came to him in September 1889: "I shall give Sherlock Holmes of A Study in Scarlet something else to unravel," he wrote to Joseph Stoddart of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. "I notice that everyone who has read the book wants to know more of that young man." The result was The Sign of Four (1890). Urged by his publishers to produce more Holmes material, he began writing short stories in which Holmes and Watson remained the lead characters--a literary device original with Conan Doyle. Soon he found he could name his own price, so addicted had the public become to this famous detective's adventures.

At some point in 1892 he realized he could give up his medical practice and support his family--by this time a wife and two children--on writing alone. "I should at last be my own master," he later recalled. "No longer would I have to conform to professional dress or try to please any one else." He wasn't his own master, however: Sherlock -Holmes was, as over time he would ruefully acknowledge. Conan Doyle's other literary works would earn him money, but only Holmes kept him wealthy.

As early as 1891 he was looking forward to killing the great detective. "He takes me from better things," he wrote to his mother. By "better things" he meant historical fiction--the readable but ultimately second-rate novels he would produce over the next decade. Despite his mother's entreaties, he had Holmes plunge to his death with Professor Moriarty in "The Final Problem," the last installment of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894). The Holmes stories weren't the first detective stories ever written, but they were the best, then or since: stylish, highly intelligent, utterly riveting.

They were also easy for their author to write, and profitable. In 1902 he was at it again with The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the following year he began producing the stories that would make up The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904). The detective, it seemed, hadn't been killed in the Reichenbach Falls after all.

Like all great writers of the 19th century, Conan Doyle was restless. He went on lecture tours of the United States and Australia. He popularized snow skiing and, for a time, fancied himself an amateur paleontologist. He was a devoted cricketer and early motorcar enthusiast. He volunteered as a doctor during the Boer War, and when World War I began, he set up a civil defense force in Sussex and became a nuisance to the War Office. In 1906 he led a campaign to clear the name of George Edalji, an Englishman of Indian descent wrongly accused of mutilating animals.

As a writer, however, he wasn't just restless; he was aimless. As Lycett puts it, "He could not commit himself exclusively to any style of writing." Again and again we find him spending time and energy on (to put it kindly) unpromising literary projects. In 1896, for example, apparently out of a desire to memorialize his friend James Payn, he wrote a play based on Payn's novel Halves; the plot involved two brothers who go their separate ways but first agree to meet after 21 years and share their fortunes. In 1893 he collaborated with J.M. Barrie on the libretto to a comic opera, Jane Annie; or, the Good Conduct Prize. George Bernard Shaw called it "the most unblushing piece of tomfoolery that two respectable citizens could conceivably indulge in public." During World War I, Conan Doyle managed to secure a commission to write an official history of the conflict. It was a failure. "He has worked hard," concluded a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, "but it is not his métier to write military history."

Similarly detrimental to Conan Doyle's literary output--or so his admirers have either argued or assumed over the years--is his interest in spiritualism. His Roman Catholicism had died away while he was a student; in 1887, at 28, he attended a séance in which the medium said about him, "This gentleman is a healer. Tell him not to read Leigh Hunt's book." Conan Doyle was shocked: Apparently he had been intending to read Hunt's Comic Dramatists of the Restoration but hadn't mentioned this to anyone.

His spiritualist interests came and went over the next two decades, but after the death of his son Kingsley and his brother Innes in World War I, he became heavily involved in "automatic writing" and the like. (It is interesting to note that the death of his first wife Louise, in 1906, hadn't spurred any desire to make contact with the dead.) His second wife, Jean, joined her husband's spiritualist activities, and soon they were making contact with Kingsley and Innes and following the advice of a spirit guide named Pheneas--the subject of one of his last books, Pheneas Speaks: Direct Spirit Communications in the Family Circle (1927).

Yet neither his spiritualist zeal nor his aimlessness as a writer explains why he never achieved enduring literary success with anything but Holmes. To put it simply, Conan Doyle wrote fiction as though he were afraid somebody might miss the point. His novels are always well-crafted and often gripping, but he explains too much, too often. Every adumbration and allusion must be clarified, every irony made explicit.

Take, for instance, The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898), one of his more successful non-Holmes novels, written after the Conan Doyles had taken a trip down the Nile. It's the story of a group of Western tourists kidnapped by a band of Muslim zealots--a relentlessly fast-paced adventure that makes serious points about Britain's unenviable role in the Middle East. But The Tragedy of the Korosko might have been an excellent novel if it weren't for passages like this one. The tourists have just been abducted in the desert west of the Nile, and one of them, Headingly, has been murdered:

What a chasm gaped between their old life and their new! And yet how short was the time and space which divided them! Less than an hour ago they had stood upon the summit of that rock, and had laughed and chattered, or grumbled at the heat and flies, becoming peevish at small discomforts. Headingly had been hypercritical over the tints of Nature. They could not forget his own tint as he lay with his cheek upon the black stone. Sadie had chattered about tailor-made dresses and Parisian chiffons. Now she was clinging, half-crazy, to the pommel of a wooden saddle, with suicide rising as a red star of hope in her mind. Humanity, reason, argument--all were gone, and there remained the brutal humiliation of force.

It's almost as if the Holmes stories were written by somebody else. And in fact, they were--by Dr. John Watson. Watson, of course, has no opportunity to discourse eloquently on the nature of the situation unfolding before him for the excellent reason that he didn't understand it. Watson is a dry man with the medical doctor's habit of recording only the empirically observable facts. He is always a step or two behind Holmes, whose reluctance to vent his suspicions ensures that Watson remains more or less in the dark until the climactic moment when the truth is known to all.

Whatever Conan Doyle's strengths or weaknesses as a writer of fiction, he understood one essential thing: "The final court of appeal," he observed in an 1890 essay on Robert Louis Stevenson, "must always, in the long run, be public opinion." The Holmes stories pleased Conan Doyle's readers, and he had the good sense not to experiment with them. "I do not wish to be ungrateful to Holmes," he once wrote, "who has been a good friend to me in many ways. If I have sometimes been inclined to be weary of him, it is because his character admits of no light or shade. He is a calculating machine, and anything you add to that simply weakens the effect. .  .  . I would say a word for Watson also, who in the course of seven volumes never knows one gleam of humour or makes a single joke."

What saved the Holmes stories from the frequently cloying and preachy narrative style of Conan Doyle's other fiction was a simple business calculation not to alter a successful formula. And the essential characteristic of that formula is that Dr. Watson, plain, humorless Watson, is the narrator. Dr. Watson is certainly dull by comparison with Holmes, but his dullness is precisely what raises these stories to the level of high art. His lucid style, together with his inability (as it seems) to understand exactly what's happening, gives the stories that character of understated intelligence that is unique in English literature.

Here is a passage from "The Red-Headed League."

Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy gray shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. A frayed top-hat and a faded brown overcoat with a wrinkled velvet collar lay upon a chair beside him. Altogether, look as I would, there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his -features.

Sherlock Holmes's quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. "Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else."

If only John Watson had written the rest of Conan Doyle's books.

Barton Swaim is author of the forthcoming Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere.