Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books and stories are overlooked masterpieces. The novels are rarely taught in schools, and the short pieces never turn up in anthologies. Despite this, Doyle’s work had as wide a scope and vision as any literary novelist’s in any age.
Like Herman Melville, Doyle struggled his whole life to break free of the chains of his literary success. Doyle even famously killed off Sherlock Holmes, in the hope that readers would finally agree to read about other characters. The readers wouldn’t, and Doyle eventually relented and brought the detective back to life.
Sherlock Holmes is a character you can approach from many angles. Too often he’s a cliche — a dog with a felt cap and a magnifying glass, or Peter Brady with a felt cap and a magnifying glass. In fact Holmes was a troubled loner, a Hamlet figure, playing his violin alone in his chambers at night, drug-addicted and society-deprived, and congenitally incapable of ever approaching the one woman he loves, the untouchable Irene Adler.
Holmes is a city creature who survives in London on one skill — his amazing capacity for observation. He refuses to join the police or take a day job with a detective agency or governmental bureau, but he is constantly employed solving other people’s problems for premium fees. Here’s one of Doyle’s many introductions to his enigmatic main character (Holmes old friend Dr. Watson, of course, is narrating):
“I had seen little of Holmes lately. My marriage had drifted us away from each other. My own complete happiness, and the home-centred interests which rise up around the man who first finds himself master of his own establishment, were sufficient to absorb all my attention; while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings at Baker-street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”
Like P. G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves, the original character is much more interesting than the cliche. You can read Holmes as Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, fettering around for clues in the gutters of the city. Or you can read him as Kafka’s Land Surveyor, the one sane man in a swirling world of foolishness. In his chaste love for Irene Adler, he resembles Cervantes’ Don Quixote. In his loathing for all society, he is Eliot’s Prufrock, and in his extreme personal habits he is Kierkegaard’s Aesthetic Man. Sherlock Holmes is a rare cubist creation; you can read these stories over and over and see a different character each time.
I recently finished the short story I quoted from above, “A Scandal In Bohemia”, and it left me wondering about the author who created this character. For this reason, I was glad to run across the news of a new book, The Man From Beyond by Gabriel Brownstein, inspired by the legacy of Arthur Canon Doyle. I haven’t read this author’s work before, but I like the way he talks about Doyle in this Beatrice article about the book. Brownstein’s focus seems to be on Doyle’s later years, when the famous British author engaged in a literary debate with Harry Houdini on the topic of spiritualism. Fascinating stuff.