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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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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: