ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: An Appreciation

“Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”

Can anyone who has ever read those words forget them?  More than a century and a quarter have passed since The Hound of the Baskervilles was published, but the shock and horror of those nights on the moor outside Sir Henry Baskerville’s estate live on in the minds of all its readers.

I don’t know why I haven’t written an appreciation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle before this.  To me, he is the father of the modern mystery story (apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, but that’s my opinion).

When you consider that Sir Arthur was born in 1859 and created Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 1886, the freshness and modernity of his writing is nearly incredible.  More than 125 years after his “birth,” Sherlock Holmes is still read throughout the world.

He has been portrayed on the stage (William Gillette), in the movies (Basil Rathbone), and the PBS series starring Benedict Cumberbatch is returning to television in January (the less said about Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes, the better).  Anna Katharine Green and Catherine Louisa Perkis were roughly Doyle’s contemporaries, as were Israel Zangwill and Arthur Morrison; seen any television programs or movies about their protagonists lately?

The cleverness of the plots and the charisma of Holmes are what has kept this series alive.  The Hound of the Baskervilles is my favorite of the four novels Doyle wrote, but it is his short stories that show the author at his best.  Who can forget the trickery behind “The Red-headed League,” the snake slowly uncoiling from the ceiling in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” the greed of the stepfather in “A Case of Identity”?  And consider the allure of Irene Adler, the woman in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

That is not to say that all Holmes stories are equally good.  The last ones suffer from comparison to the first, and a careful reader can see where Doyle seemed to run out of ideas for his hero.  The plot of “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs” is uncannily similar to that of “The Red-headed League,” and “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” definitely share the same idea.  But readers forgave Doyle his self-plagiarism, a concept that probably didn’t even exist when he wrote; they were simply too happy to have another Sherlock Holmes story.

Much of Doyle’s biography is well known.  He grew up in a poor Scottish home, was sent to medical school by a wealthy uncle, and during slack times in his opthalmic office started writing detective stories.  In addition to these two occupations, Doyle was, at various times, a whaler, a speculator, and a war correspondent.  A Study in Scarlet was the first Holmes story, and it was an immediate success.  Although Doyle wrote several historical novels and volumes of poetry as well, it is of course for the Holmes oeuvre that he is remembered today.

It may be that Arthur Conan Doyle was disappointed that his mystery novels and short stories were to be his legacy rather than the more serious works he wrote.  But we, his readers, can be forgiven for choosing the unforgettable Holmes and Watson above all of Dr. Doyle’s other literary creations.  There is something in them that resonates with us, that once read cannot be forgotten.

You can read more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creations at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.

 

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