Magazine | December 31, 2009, Issue

The Eternal Detective

As I waited recently for the Darjeeling Mail in the New Jalpaiguri Station in West Bengal, my eye was caught by three titles in English in the platform bookstall: My Experiments with Truth, by Mahatma Gandhi; How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie; and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

The last was published in 1927, the very last of the Holmes books. In the preface, Conan Doyle, who had by then made several attempts to free himself of his own creation, whose popularity he felt was hindering his other and more serious literary endeavors, expressed the “fear that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who, having outlived their time, are still tempted to make repeated farewell bows to their indulgent audiences.”

Certainly no one could be found in India to agree with this sentiment. All Indians literate in English (and they now number scores of millions) love Sherlock Holmes; you have only to carry a volume of the stories with you there to strike up a conversation with a member of the vast, informal Conan Doyle fellowship. I doubt that there is another author in history who has created such a heartfelt and extensive fellowship: Only P. G. Wodehouse comes near to him in India. 

It is not only in India, of course, that the great detective and his creator inspire such affection and devotion. Practically no country is without its Sherlock Holmes Society; many countries have many such societies, whose members annually reenact in period costume scenes like the struggle between Holmes and Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls. Oddly enough, these activities began well before the canon, as all Sherlockians call it, was complete, or even half-complete; here, if anywhere, is a case of a great author’s work being recognized as such in his own lifetime. 

Also here, if anywhere, is evidence in favor of Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of archetypes. In the preface quoted above, Conan Doyle tells of how old men come up to him to tell him that they remembered with fondness reading the Sherlock Holmes stories in their childhood, though in fact they could not have done so because the stories had not yet been written when they were children. It is as if Conan Doyle had managed to express something for the first time that lay hidden deep in the human psyche. It is not only that once you have read Sherlock Holmes you never forget him; it goes far deeper than that; it is that you felt there was never a time when you had not read him. 

The popularity of the Sherlock Holmes canon is not of a superficial kind, like that of the latest pulp-fiction bestseller, but — if I may so put it — of a deep and abiding kind. For Sherlock Holmes attracts not only the casual reader, those of average intelligence or ability, but the deep student and the brilliantly gifted. The membership of Holmes societies around the world is of high intellectual caliber; their publications are learned and ingenious. Never is pedantry more joyously or innocently employed, for example, than in the ferreting out of the details of the biography of Sherlock Holmes (and Dr. Watson, of course). 

There is now, therefore, a vast secondary literature on Sherlock Holmes, and a tertiary literature also: writing about writing about Sherlock Holmes. It surely cannot be long before there is a quaternary literature too, if it does not already exist: writing about writing about writing about Sherlock Holmes. For no one ever feels he is wasting his time or substance in devoting himself in any way to the study and expansion of knowledge of Sherlock Holmes. 

He brings out the pedant in me, too (though I admit that it doesn’t take much to do so). In the story “The Speckled Band,” for example, it is obvious that the evil Dr. Grimesby Roylett’s method of bringing about the death of his two wards, to prevent them from celebrating the marriages after which the income from their endowments would go to them rather than to him, is not very plausible. He trains and induces a snake, an Indian swamp adder, to crawl through a vent between his own bedroom and theirs and bite them to death. One of them dies of the poison within seconds of the bite, but happily Holmes and Watson are on hand to prevent a double tragedy. 

Among the many implausibilities of the story is the nonexistence of any such creature as the Indian swamp adder. There is an African swamp adder; but in any case, if there were an Indian one, its poison, being cytotoxic rather then neurotoxic, would kill only very slowly if at all. 

But, of course, Conan Doyle is a tease; he knows that his stories oscillate ceaselessly between 221b Baker Street, London W., and Fairyland. In the same story, Holmes says to Watson, apropos of the evil Dr. Roylett: “When a doctor does wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge. Palmer and Pritchard were among the heads of their profession. This man strikes even deeper, but I think, Watson, that we shall be able to strike deeper still.”

Now pedants have remarked that Holmes was here deeply in error: Palmer and Pritchard were decidedly not at the head of their profession. Dr. Palmer, popularly known as the Prince of Poisoners, and still the only hero his hometown, Rugeley, has ever produced, was publicly hanged before Stafford Gaol in front of an appreciative crowd of 30,000 (the population of Stafford at the time having been 10,000, the execution was very good for business), turning to the executioner as he approached the hastily erected scaffold and asking the immortal question, “Is it safe?” 

Dr. Palmer had poisoned a widening circle of people around him and, as Conan Doyle, a doctor himself, must have known very well, had never been either a competent or an enthusiastic practitioner of the art and science of medicine. As for Dr. Pritchard, he always had a very dubious reputation, moving about the country leaving dark rumors behind him, until he poisoned his mother-in-law for money and became the last man to be publicly executed in Glasgow, dying with hilariously odious religious sanctimony on his lips. (Incidentally, Dr. Pritchard was born in the very town, Southsea, where Conan Doyle set up, not very successfully, as a general practitioner.)

So far from being an error, Holmes’s remarks are a gentle satire on Conan Doyle’s erstwhile profession — which happens also to be mine. This impression is furthered by a sentence in the story “The Blue Carbuncle,” which appears in the same volume as “The Speckled Band,” namely The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes’s client, called James Ryder, says: “I had a friend once called Maudsley, who went to the bad, and has just been serving his time in Pentonville.” Could it be entirely a coincidence that the leading English alienist (as psychiatrists were then called) of the time was Henry Maudsley, who concerned himself much with the criminal mind, writing textbooks on the subject? Why Maudsley, then, of all possible names for the friend who had gone to the bad?

Dr. Maudsley was a proponent of the kind of theory that Conan Doyle in real life despised, namely that criminality was consequent upon hereditary physical degeneration, a theory taken up by the Italian doctor, physical anthropologist, and criminologist Cesare Lombroso, who believed that criminals could be recognized by certain physical stigmata, a theory very popular at the time. It surely cannot be a coincidence, then, that at the beginning of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Mortimer, an enthusiast of physical anthropology, is gently satirized. He returns to Baker Street after an abortive visit when Holmes and Watson were out:

“You interest me very much, Mr. Holmes. I had hardly expected so dolichocephalic a skull or such well-marked supra-orbital development. Would you have any objection to my running my finger along your parietal fissure? A cast of your skull, sir, until the original is available, would be an ornament to any anthropological museum. It is not my intention to be fulsome, but I confess that I covet your skull.”

Sherlock Holmes waved our strange visitor into a chair. 

“You are an enthusiast in your line of thought, I perceive, sir, as I am in mine,” said he. “I observe from your forefinger that you make your own cigarettes. Have no hesitation in lighting one.”

The man drew out paper and tobacco and twirled the one up in the other with surprising dexterity. He had long, quivering fingers as agile and restless as the antennae of an insect. 

Holmes was silent, but his little darting glances showed me the interest which he took in our curious companion.

“I presume, sir,” said he at last, “that it was not merely for the purpose of examining my skull that you have done me the honour to call here last night and again today?”

There are other things to notice about this passage, apart from the satire. Even without knowledge of the intellectual background of the time it is funny, with a deep, joyous, and almost cosmic humor. I cannot speak for others, but for myself I can say that, however many times I read it, it never fails to lift my spirits. 

Furthermore, Sherlock Holmes’s response to Dr. Mortimer’s odd manner of introducing himself is that of an admirable type, the perfect English gentleman. He is detached, ironic, tolerant, considerate, scrupulously polite and ceremonious at the same time. He is a model of self-mastery of the kind that allows eccentricity to flourish, as it so richly once did in England. 

Nor is this all. The passage answers the question of an Indian friend of mine, who asked why I thought that English teachers in India always used the stories of Sherlock Holmes to teach the language. I replied that I thought Indian teachers were entirely sound in their judgment, for — as the above passage exemplifies — Conan Doyle wrote prose simultaneously of great economy and great beauty, notwithstanding that he wrote very fast. How better to teach children to write metaphorically than to meditate on the comparison of Dr. Mortimer’s fingers with the antennae of an insect? How better the value and proper use of subordinate clauses, than by studying Dr. Mortimer’s preparedness to accept second-best, a cast of Sherlock Holmes’s skull, until the original made itself available? 

Scattered on almost every page are lessons in how to write and also to think. When, for example, Holmes tells Watson that he sees but does not observe, is this not an object lesson in the proper distinctions of which our language is capable? Since the ability to make proper distinctions is both rare and necessary, those who study the canon are far from wasting their time. 

Conan Doyle’s fundamental humanity and decency, as evident in his life as in his work, shine through the canon. This in itself is a matter of interest, if it is accepted — as I think it should be — that the canon is itself a manifestation of literary genius. We have been so persuaded that genius and disgraceful conduct go together that we find it difficult to believe that an affable man such as Conan Doyle can be possessed both of goodness and of superior talent; indeed, appalling conduct is sometimes itself taken as evidence of the greatest talent. If geniuses are badly behaved, ought that not to mean that the badly behaved are geniuses? 

The irresistibility of the Holmesian canon is likewise sometimes used to detract from or disparage the talent necessary to have created it. But if the elaboration of an entire fictional world, both realistic and fantastical, capable of being mined by intelligent people for scores of years for layers of meaning, giving innocent pleasure to millions of readers from the very first acquaintance, endlessly rereadable, and timelessly appealing in all quarters of the globe, is not a sign of literary genius, it is difficult to know what would count as such.

Conan Doyle no less than Holmes himself was an enemy of injustice, and his instinct for when it had been committed was strong. The unusual generosity of Conan Doyle’s feelings is evident in the story “The Yellow Face,” written at a time when racial prejudice, if not quite universal, was at least very strong indeed. The story revolves around the fact that an Englishwoman has had a child in Atlanta, Ga., by a black husband, an excellent man, who died in the great fire there. Returning to England, she falls in love with and marries a man called Grant Munro, from whom she desperately tries to conceal the evidence of her “shame,” the child she had by her first husband. When Grant Munro discovers the mixed-race child, however, he does not react as his wife expects: “It was a long ten minutes before Grant Munro broke the silence, and when his answer came it was one of which I [Dr. Watson] love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife. . . . ‘I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think that I am a better one than you have given me credit for being.’” 

Watson’s and Grant Munro’s sentiments were Conan Doyle’s, and it is no coincidence that the two cases of miscarriage of justice against which he fought courageously and campaigned for many years, contrary to prevailing public sentiment, and spending a great deal of his own money, involved an Anglo-Indian called George Edalji and an East European Jew called Oscar Slater; nor that he was an effective campaigner against the Belgian atrocities in the Congo. 

As Conan Doyle managed to combine brilliant prose with abiding entertainment, so he was able to combine compassion with psychological realism while avoiding sentimentality. When a terrible murderer called Selden is killed after having escaped from the prison on Dartmoor where he is serving imprisonment for life, his sister, the wife of Sir Henry Baskerville’s butler, Barrymore, mourns him: “To all the world he was a man of violence, half animal and half demon; but to her he always remained the little wilful boy of her own childhood, the child who had clung to her hand.” As I know from experience of having worked in a prison, this is a perfectly accurate, and deeply compassionate, description of the reaction of the mothers or sisters of very bad men who die in captivity; but Conan Doyle did not take the further, and horribly sentimental, step of alleging that, because of their grief, the imprisonment had been wrong in the first place. He was far too well-balanced for that. 

No film, however good or bad, can add to or diminish the luster of Conan Doyle’s inspired creation. There is no doubt that this great and good man added enormously to the pleasure and instruction of the human race. Of how many of us can this be said?

– Mr. Dalrymple, a doctor, is the author of several books, including The New Vichy Syndrome: Why European Intellectuals Surrender to Barbarism, forthcoming from Encounter Books in March 2010. 

Theodore DalrympleMr. Dalrymple, a retired doctor, is a contributing editor of City Journal and The New English Review. His next book, False Positive: A Year of Error, Omission, and Political Correctness in the New England Journal of Medicine, will be published in June.

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