Deconstructing Doyle

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.

12 Responses

  1. Holmes is well defined,
    Holmes is well defined, and

    Thanks for writing this short essay. Sherlock is a complex and wondrously approachable character, and Conan Doyle deserves recognition for this accomplishment, too often overlooked.

    Just looking at the number of plays, movies, TV shows, novels, and stories using Sherlock or about him, should be testimony to the strength of the writing and the characters.

    Years ago, I tried to learn characterization by trying to flesh out a lead character in two or three pages, ala Conan Doyle. It is damned difficult.

    Masterpieces of the genre, indeed.

  2. agreeI think ACD’s work is

    I think ACD’s work is overlooked, especially if you take in consideration that Holmes stories are the first books many people read when they were kids. I’ve just translated three Holmes stories to Portuguese here in Brazil. The publishing company wanted new editions and the old translations were outdated, so to speak (1955). It was a great honor. By the way, ACD “killed” Holmes to pursue his great interest that was Spiritualism, a subject he wrote extensively about. He got into it mostly due to the terrible losses his family sufferd on WWI, when he lost a son, a brother and a brother in law. Well, he spent all his fortune traveling around spreading the good word and came back to Holmes later in life. Cheers, J.

  3. If you like Poe…You gotta
    If you like Poe…

    You gotta like Doyle. In fact, Doyle led me to Poe as a kid, which led me to Burroughs and Kerouac as a teen. You are correct; he is very underappreciated, but mainly by critics and the industry. His books still sell, even a movie made about young Holmes twenty years ago, and whole societies are based on him. That’s all that really matters. Kerouac didn’t need Rexroth’s ok to inspire this site and all these writers. Staying power is true proof of appreciation and effect.

  4. Synchronicity, My Dear
    Synchronicity, My Dear Watson

    Holmes is one of my all-time favorites. You know what is really strange? Just last night, I was watching a TV show called House which is about a doctor who has some parallels to Sherlock Holmes. For example, he has keen observation skills, he constantly baffles his staff, a collective “Dr. Watson”, with his powers of deduction, and he is dependent on pain-killing drugs. Now, last night, the TV show featured an amusing little reference: Dr. House and one of his colleagues have just finished searching someone’s apartment. When they walk outside, you can see an address in the background, 221-B!

    221-B Baker Street is where Holmes & Watson lived. I wonder how many people caught that. And why, Levi, did you decide to write about ACD & Holmes, the day after I saw that reference on TV?

    Spiritualism, I say!

    I have read that for years, when people visited London, they asked to see 221-B Baker Street, many of them believing that Holmes was a real person.

  5. SherlockDon’t see why anyone

    Don’t see why anyone would think Doyle is underappreciated — just the opposite, it seems to me. As witness all the active Sherlockian societies — the “Baker Street Irregulars” is the most famous one, but there are similar clubs in almost every country. Also as witness the innumerable Doyle/Holmesesque novels, stories and films that seem to appear each year. I call that super-appreciation, and deservedly so. And yes, I did try to find 221B Baker Street when I visited London. It’s a popular tourist spot and if I remember correctly there’s a plaque where it should be, even though it never existed.

    But I digress. What really caught my eye in your posting was a reference to Gerald Brownstein. It involves a mystery that I hope can be cleared up by your all-knowledgable readers. An actress named Rachel Brownstein (1821-1858) was the queen of the French national theatre in her time. She was of Jewish heritage, but what intrigued me is a reference I found about her that indicated she was also the mother of Napoleon Bonaparte’s grandson! I googled Rachel Brownstein and got lots of info, but couldn’t fine any verification of this little bit of trivia, If Sherlock were around, he undoubtedly would come up with the elementary answer, and it might even make a good story when written up by Dr. Watson. If anybody knows about this Napoleon/Brownstein connection, please enlighten me.

  6. Well, first of all, Holmes is
    Well, first of all, Holmes is a popular character but Doyle’s name is almost never mentioned when important writers are discussed. The writer and his character are relegated to the “genre ghetto”, and I think many literary-minded people who would really appreciate his books never give them a try.

    About the Brownstein connection, quite interesting … so she had a relationship (married or not?) with Napoleon’s son? I believe Napoleon had only one legimate son, Napoleon II, which would put Rachel into a lofty but possibly sensitive position. Yes, quite Doyle-esque …

  7. Yes, in fact Doyle’s interest
    Yes, in fact Doyle’s interest in spiritualism is the theme of the Gabriel Brownstein book. I guess this was a big craze at the time (and I guess it still is today).

  8. This is a bit confusing, but
    This is a bit confusing, but it appears that a modern day author named Rachel Brownstein has written a book called Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise, which may or may not be fictional, I haven’t yet been able to discern that aspect of the puzzle. Here, my good sir, are some clues. The game is afoot!

  9. levi, have you read “the star
    levi, have you read “the star rover” by jack london? it is his last book, and a tribute to his mother that was into spiritualism. it’s a great story. by the way, here in Brazil spiritualism is very popular, mostly influenced by a french thinker, alan kardec, who I guess started this religion.

  10. An interesting observation on
    An interesting observation on your part, Bill. I, too, have enjoyed that show whenever it’s on and I am ‘there.’

    I venture to say that every detective novel/movie/series owes its very being to Doyle’s Sherlock … the genre has taken new dimensions through TV series like CSI and Law & Order. The Law & Order/Criminal Intent show with the main character Goren, (an extremely eccentric man and his sidekick, a woman who understands him and appreciates his keen eye) is another current example of the Sherlock/Watson duality.

    Many of the offshoots of those two shows (CSI LV, CSI Miami, etc.) using observation mixed with high tech, no doubt owe their success to Doyle and Holmes.

  11. No doubt, m.t.Holmes’
    No doubt, m.t.
    Holmes’ influence is quite pervasive. Good to hear from you, by the way!

    Now, if only I could explain the frequency of synchronous occurences in my day to day existence.

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