Today (or yesterday, depending on when you read this) would have been Arthur Conan Doyle’s 154th birthday. Whether or not you like Conan Doyle’s work, it’s hard to overstate his impact on crime fiction. One post doesn’t give me enough space for a full discussion of Conan Doyle, his famous fictional sleuth and their popularity. As you no doubt already know, whole books have been written on this topic. Lots of them. I’m just going to touch on a few ways in which I see Conan Doyle’s impact on the genre. Feel free as ever to differ with me if you do.
Conan Doyle fans will know that he created Sherlock Holmes in part because he saw the need for a detective who solved crimes through logic, deduction and the use of science rather than intuition. In A Study in Scarlet for instance, Holmes knows from the moment he meets Watson that Watson has been in Afghanistan. Here’s how Holmes later explains his reasoning to his friend:
‘I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.’
And of course, Holmes is quite right.
This approach to finding out the truth about a case had a powerful influence on crime fiction. For one thing it arguably pushed detective novelists towards creating sleuths who solve crimes in believable ways; that is, not through some sort of implausible intuition or flashes of almost psychic ability, but through knowledge and deduction. Conan Doyle added to this sense of authenticity by making Holmes a student of chemistry, biology/anatomy, current court cases and other fields. To put it another way, Holmes has informed himself on all of the disciplines that may help him in his work, and it’s that information that informs his deductions.
Holmes’ scientific approach to solving cases is also arguably a forerunner of modern crime novels in which forensics testing and other scientific processes play a part in solving cases. Today’s police whether real or fictional rely on such information as fingerprints, DNA samples and other sometimes trace evidence to point towards the criminal. Of course as we all know, physical evidence can be planted by a criminal to implicate someone else, or it can simply be misleading. It doesn’t always tell the whole truth about a crime. But forensics and other scientific tests are an important part of today’s crime fiction. I think Holmes would approve of that.
Both Holmes and his creator hail from the late Victorian Era and their views about many things reflect that. And yet, several of the Holmes stories hint at some more modern attitudes that we see even more strongly in today’s crime fiction. For instance, consider the way women are portrayed in the Holmes stories. In some cases (I’m thinking for instance of A Study in Scarlet and The Adventure of the Speckled Band among others), women are portrayed as victims needing to be rescued. And yet even then, they’re generally not completely foolish or stupid. And there are several stories where women are portrayed as intelligent and capable. The most famous example is of course the woman, Irene Adler. As Holmes fans know, she bests Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia. Rather than being incredulous about it (because she’s a woman), Holmes respects her. And then there’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches in which Holmes helps a young governess Violet Hunter to solve a frightening mystery at her new place of employment. In one sense his attitude towards her is avuncular, perhaps even overprotective. But even so, it’s not particularly condescending, especially considering the era, and she is portrayed as intelligent and able to keep her wits about her.
There’s also Holmes’ character. As fans know, he’s not perfect. He even says,
‘Let me see—what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.’
And of course, he has a blind spot where cocaine and morphine are concerned. He can be arrogant and impatient too, especially as concerns the police. But at the same time, Holmes has his appeal as a person. He can be sympathetic and compassionate. He’s not overly class-conscious either. And he is a brilliant detective. Instead of making Holmes perfect, Conan Doyle chose to give him a mix of strengths and weaknesses and that, to me anyway, paved the way for later sleuths.
The language, some of the assumptions and some of the character types of the Holmes stories are dated. And I have to admit I’m not thrilled with the portrayal of the police in a lot of the Holmes stories. But the underlying plots in Conan Doyle’s work still resonate today. People still kill out of fear, revenge and greed just as they did in Conan Doyle’s day. There are still accidents that look like murder, murderers who frame other people and so on, just as there are in the Holmes stories. And Conan Doyle addicted readers to those plot points and the other aspects of crime fiction in a way that other authors hadn’t done yet. For that alone he deserves to be remembered. That and the body of 4 novels and 56 short stories featuring perhaps the best-known fictional detective ever. Over one hundred years later, people are still eagerly reading them. I don’t know of a lot of other crime fiction authors about whom one can say that. Happy Birthday, Sir Arthur!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Red Krayola’s Sherlock Holmes. OK, perhaps not the most edifying of songs, but I couldn’t resist some of the lyrics…