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The Case of Arthur Conan Doyle

T.S. Eliot’s most successful feline—the depraved Macavity in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—is well known as a straight lift from Professor Moriarty, the saturnine villain in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem”:

He is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organiser of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city…. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a house to be rifled, a man to be removed—the word is passed to the Professor, the matter is organised and carried out…. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught—never so much as suspected…. [He] is, I dare say, working out problems on a blackboard ten miles away.

Thus Sherlock Holmes, in portentous form. And thus Eliot, making sport of him:

And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair—
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!

And when the Foreign Office find a Treaty’s gone astray
Or the Admiralty loses some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless to investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
“It must have been Macavity!”—but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.

Having in passing satirized the plots of two other Holmesian escapades, Eliot closes by saying that there are other foul toms in London but that they

Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!

This is all in jest, but see how Eliot phrases a grave moment in his Murder in the Cathedral. A “tempter” has been sent from King Henry to Thomas Becket, offering him secular power in exchange for an acknowledgment of royal supremacy over the Church. Becket engages the emissary in a cryptic exchange of call and response:

Who shall have it?”
“He who will come.”
“What shall be the month?”
“The last from the first.”
“What shall we give for it?”
“Pretense of priestly power.”

In an early Sherlock Holmes case, entitled “The Musgrave Ritual,” a piece of mysterious doggerel holds the clue:

Whose is it?
His who is gone.
Who shall have it?
He who will come.
What was the month?
The sixth from the first.
What shall we give for it?
All that is ours.

Since the subject of Murder in the Cathedral is the martyrdom of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the occult or arcane topic of “The Musgrave Ritual” is the retrieval of the crown of King Charles I—“King and Martyr” to the Tory faction, and upholder of divine right—one can surmise that, this time, the Anglo-Catholic Eliot was annexing Conan Doyle for more than just cartoonish material.

Conan Doyle is one of those popular authors who create—to borrow a telling phrase from Harold Isaacs—“scratches on our minds.” W.H. Auden, in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage,” says that the mystery tale is a species of fantasy in which “the job of the detective is to restore the state of grace in which the aesthetic and the ethical are one,” and that “Holmes is the exceptional individual who is in a state of grace because he is a genius in whom scientific curiosity is raised to the status of a heroic passion.” There is no doubting that Conan Doyle would have been baffled and embarrassed by such tribute, but then there is no question that his deerstalker-and-bloodstain pastiche is one of the most salient examples in literature of an unintended consequence.

The creator of the ascetic and introverted sleuth—highest instance of what Jacques Barzun termed “the romance of reason”—was himself a hearty, athletic, patriotic type: an exemplar of Victorian values. Born to a “good” family that was nonetheless compromised by alcoholism and indigence and (probably) insanity on the part of his father, Conan Doyle tried all the avenues that were open to those without capital: Arctic and African expeditions; colonial and military postings; the medical profession. (The option of taking holy orders—often reserved for the fool of the family or for the least promising younger son—did not appeal to him. He experienced an early revulsion from Christianity as a consequence of being sent to a harsh Roman Catholic public school.) Forced to settle for the life of a general practitioner in Southsea—the scene of childhood for Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling—he found in himself the cacoethia scribendi, or the urge to scribble, and hoped to become a historical novelist on the model of Sir Walter Scott. Personally, I think his romances of high medieval England, especially The White Company, to be grossly underrated. And his tales of the Napoleonic wars, related through an attractive if slightly farcical French gallant named Brigadier Gerard, are something better than well crafted. It was his fate, however, to invent a stop-gap fictional “character” with whom to pay the bills, and to have his second-order creation take over, golem-like, his life and reputation.

Why does the mystique of Sherlock persist? Auden supplies only part of the answer but, I think, the most important part. Comparable authors in the middlebrow English market—John Buchan, say, or “Sapper” with his Bulldog Drummond—have dated badly because they made uncritical assumptions about the British Empire, and because they encoded social and racial prejudices that were questionable even in their own time. (In the case of Bulldog Drummond, one might add that there was a shocking element of sadism, while the bigoted and semiliterate pulp produced by Agatha Christie raises only the uninteresting mystery of its own success.) With Holmes and Watson, however, Conan Doyle achieved something closer to the ageless if not the transcendent. The two men can be ranked fictionally with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, or Jeeves and Wooster, and (since many people subconsciously refer to them as if they were, in fact, real) with Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. They are wholly anchored in time and place, to be sure. But the gaslight and the fog and the hansom cab are not enough on their own to explain the almost numinous appeal.

The two essential elements, common to almost all the stories, are, first, a commitment to science and the forensic as positively healing powers—almost on a par with medicine itself—and, second, a thirst, or perhaps better to say an instinct, for justice. Holmes is not exactly Robin Hood. On more than one occasion he acts with lofty discretion for illustrious or potent clients, and in one rather regrettable instance (“The Priory School”) seems positively to solicit money from a venal duke. But his exertions are generally rendered on the side of the powerless or the wronged and there is usually no mention of any fee.

Though violence is used and neither Holmes nor Watson is in the least bit pacific, it is sheer power of mind that does the trick, and that turns the tables not just on evil but—by letting in the light—on superstition and nameless dread as well. It must be for this reason that Umberto Eco, in The Name of the Rose, awards the name Sir William of Baskerville to the lucid, deductive investigator who dispels the cloud of monkish obfuscation.

Contemptible though he found his own literary success—“The Final Problem” was not the first time he had contemplated shoving Sherlock into the caldron of the Reichenbach Falls—Conan Doyle was proud of the associations that it brought him. Recalling his “breakthrough” as a celebrated author, he wrote:

At that time I was practising in a small way as a doctor, and in a draper’s shop close by H.G. Wells was an assistant. There was also a raw-boned Irishman rolling about London. His name was Bernard Shaw. There was another named Thomas Hardy, and there was a young journalist struggling for a living in Nottingham, whose name was Barrie.

Anthony Hope, author of The Prisoner of Zenda, observed that Conan Doyle looked like a man who had never heard of a book, and one can imagine the bluff and beefy rugby-playing provincial doctor regarding this as no insult. Daniel Stashower’s rather jaunty biography returns us to the days of George Gissing and New Grub Street, the age of an awakening mass literacy and of popular fiction magazines like The Strand, the perhaps latent connection between Victorian optimism and the stirrings of science fiction. (Conan Doyle tried his hand at that, too, in the stories about the eccentric but rationalist Professor Challenger: the debate between the partisans of Darwin and the last-ditch creationism of Bishop Wilberforce was still resounding at that period.) In the world of the London stage, Henry Irving was unchallenged, with the help of his adroit business manager Bram Stoker. It was to the future author of Dracula, indeed, that Conan Doyle sent his most successful play—a sentimental but well-wrought piece about the last survivor of the Battle of Waterloo.

Extensive though his newly won acquaintance was, it must still have seemed incongruous to Conan Doyle to find himself seated one evening next to Oscar Wilde. The occasion was a dinner given by Joseph Marshall Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, who had come from Philadelphia to recruit new talent. The year was 1889 and, although Wilde’s exposure and persecution lay ahead of him, he had already been lampooned for his aestheticism by Gilbert and Sullivan in their philistine production Patience. However improbably, Conan Doyle found himself much impressed by Wilde’s depth and courtesy and wit, and also by his “curious precision of statement.” Imagining how a future war might be conducted, Wilde had simply said: “A chemist on each side will approach the frontier with a bottle.” This remark could hardly have been better calculated for the Zeitgeist or for its amateur-scientist hearer. But Lippincott’s did the best out of the evening, by proposing that both authors produce a short novel for the magazine. Conan Doyle turned out The Sign of the Four (originally entitled The Sign of Four). Oscar Wilde came up with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Conan Doyle defended that story from the obloquy that fell upon it when published, and it’s of great interest that, in after years, he continued to manifest praise and sympathy for Wilde. Though he felt, as many did in those days, that homosexuality was a disease, he at least did not regard it as a crime. (One of Holmes’s most repeated maxims is that prejudice is fatal to the proper approach in a case.) Nor was his decency in the Wilde matter a single instance, or an example of his being star-struck. Having taken a voyage down the coast of Africa as a ship’s doctor, he formed an unfavorable opinion of white settler life and was highly impressed to meet Henry Highland Garnet, the abolitionist son of a slave who was then American consul in Liberia.

There was a certain coarseness in the way Conan Doyle wrote of his experiences—the natives, he said, “begin to get their stew-pans and sauce-bottles ready when they see a Stanley or any other modern explorer coming down on them.” But, like Conrad, he had seen the demoralization and misery inflicted by slavery and empire, and when the time came he wrote an extremely powerful pamphlet against King Leopold’s appalling empire in the Congo. His ally and friend here was Sir Roger Casement, another promiscuous Irish homosexual. It speaks well of Conan Doyle that, when Casement was sentenced to death for his part in the Irish rebellion of 1916, he organized an exceptionally dogged campaign to have him reprieved. Nor was he deflected from this by the British government’s cynical release of Casement’s lurid private diaries. (The use of sexual frame-ups by the British against the Irish—from Parnell to Wilde to Casement—is perhaps a subject on which Holmes would not have chosen to write one of his celebrated monographs.)

Conan Doyle’s 1891 novel The White Company had been dedicated “To the Hope of the Future, The Reunion of the English-Speaking Races,” and speaks feelingly of the common ancestry of these races in the Anglo-Saxon yeomen and bowmen. There was a fashion in that period, very closely identified with Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling, for reunifying North America with the British Empire. (The founding statutes of the Rhodes Scholarships made this aim an explicit one.) Conan Doyle was a stout partisan of the idea, but he did not have the Rhodes or Kipling attitude toward the lesser breeds. Indeed, there is an unconscious or unacknowledged loophole in the concept of “English-Speaking Races.” Might this not apply to Bengalis, Gaels, Zulus? Like many such contradictions, this remained unresolved in Conan Doyle’s mind. But it also remains the case that, in the large cast which populates the Sherlockian universe, there is no shifty and cunning Jew, no brutish and prognathous blackamoor, no drunken Hibernian lout.1 In the context of the times, this counts as a sort of humanism. Of course, in the late Victorian period it was very much easier to guess a man’s background or occupation by mere physical inspection—as Dr. Joseph Bell, Conan Doyle’s celebrated mentor at Edinburgh University medical school, had shown him how to do. Nowadays, the distinction between “profiling” and “stereotyping” can in itself be an obstacle to good police work.

Holmes has one thing in common with every fictional detective since, which is an innate lack of respect for the official gendarmerie. The forces of law and order are not represented as corrupt or cruel, but they are depicted as if they are not up to their job. Law-and-order man as he was, Conan Doyle became involved in a number of nonpolitical cases of justice miscarried. The most renowned of these campaigns was his exhausting but finally successful effort to clear the name of George Edalji, an unpopular and ill-favored Parsee Indian, living near Birmingham, who was falsely accused of a series of cattle mutilations. On other occasions—sometimes approached by admirers who believed that he must possess Sherlockian skills, but also in his capacity as a gentleman and a conscientious public figure—he was able to identify a serial killer, to reopen the case of a victim of mistaken identity named Oscar Slater, and to reprieve a collie dog named Rex, who had been set up for savaging a sheep.

The intense Englishness of some of these episodes did not prevent his being referred to in the public prints as a Dreyfusard. Anticipating what is now sometimes called “the blue wall” of police complicity, and foreshadowing some even more harrowing conspiracies to pervert the course of justice that have lately surfaced in British-Irish relations, Conan Doyle put it as plainly as it has ever been put by commenting that

What confronts you is a determination to admit nothing which inculpates another official, and as to the idea of punishing another official for offences which have caused misery to helpless victims, it never comes within their horizons.

Fashions in punishment and retribution change, of course, and though the authorities would unhesitatingly put Oscar Wilde on a jail regime that alternated between solitary confinement and the treadmill, they would not have thought then of interfering with the following victimless crime:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Thus the opening of The Sign of the Four, the very novel that Doyle wrote for Lippincott’s as a bookend for Dorian Gray (which last he described as written “upon a high moral plane”). It’s true that Watson protests energetically about the abuse of his friend’s powers, if only for the look of the thing, but Victorian England was sunk in opium- and coca-based remedies at that date, and Mr. Stashower is certainly right when he says:

To Conan Doyle’s way of thinking, however, the syringe would have been very much of a piece with the violin, the purple dressing-gown, and the interest in such abstruse subjects as the motets of Lassus…. He needed to cast his detective as an artist rather than a simple policeman.

This is not the only sense in which Doyle used Holmes as his alter ego. The cold-bath school of sexual sub-limation—even misogyny—in Baker Street was partly necessary for Doyle’s audience and editors, who could read of seven-percent cocaine solutions without blanching yet would have recoiled from an undraped ankle or calf. But it was also necessary in his own private existence. With a bedridden and tubercular wife, and a doting, not to say domineering, mother, and a younger woman with whom he was certainly in love, he could write unironically of the need to “steady myself down” by concentrated work on Ernest Renan, adding almost self-parodically that this stern regimen, “with plenty of golf and cricket, ought to keep me right—body and mind.” It is notable that he didn’t turn to the bottle, or to the array of consolations that a doctor’s medicine cabinet might lawfully have supplied. On the other hand, though many critics have noticed Conan Doyle’s dependence on the detective plots of Edgar Allan Poe—a dependence which he proudly acknowledged—I did not appreciate until reading Mr. Stashower that there is another influence to be traced via the work of the French author Emile Gaboriau. His Parisian sleuth Monsieur Lecoq, like Dupin of the Rue Morgue, has a dull-witted chum, and a brain too fine to be appreciated by the dunderheaded flics. His amiable but dense Sancho Panza, though, is named Father Absinthe…. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes himself expresses scorn for the bumbling methods of Monsieur Lecoq, but perhaps out of deference to the sensitive Watson, omits mention of the useless Father Absinthe—who sounds like a presage of a Graham Greene character.

The most astonishing disjunction between Conan Doyle and Holmes is the one which occurs in the realm of the supernatural. In “His Last Bow,” the only tale which is written in the third person, the time is the doom-laden month of August 1914. Holmes the undercover agent has infiltrated the Kaiser’s embassy (posing, one notes, as an embittered Irish-American Anglophobe) and has outwitted the diabolical von Bork. In all respects, the story resembles a John Buchan plot more than a Holmes one, and recalls both Greenmantle and The Thirty-Nine Steps. Their task over, and the outbreak of war only a matter of hours away, the two old friends repair to a view of the sea:

Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we will ever have…. There’s an east wind coming, Watson.”

I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.”

Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it’s time that we were on our way….”

This little parable of the jingo and “preparedness” movement—the story was published in 1917—reminds us that, whatever the appeal of the stories may be, it does not always lie in the writing. More than this, within a year or so of the appearance of “His Last Bow,” Conan Doyle was to receive news of the deaths of his brother, his son, his brothers-in-law, and his two nephews. The loyal, uncynical England that he had loved was to be laid waste, and his fantasy of Anglo-American and Anglo-Saxon imperial rapprochement was to evaporate.

Some defenders argue that his conversion to spiritualism—the most feebleminded of all the cults that sprang up in the 1920s—was not the outcome of trauma, or of a half-acknowledged desire to establish “contact” with the lost and the beyond. And it is true that Conan Doyle had evinced some interest in tableturning, Ouija boards, haunted houses, and ectoplasmic emanations before the First World War. However, it was only after the calamity of the Western Front that he became the patron and captain of that sad, deluded faction which sought to peer through the curtain of separation. (Since almost one third of the British casualties in that war have no identified resting place to this day, the phenomenon in itself is no great cause for wonder.)

At all events, prior to 1914 Conan Doyle had shown no more than a sympathetic curiosity. He was slightly overimpressed by Daniel Dunglas Home, a celebrity adept of the mid-nineteenth century and original of Browning’s “Mr. Sludge,” who was said to be able to levitate and to make heavy objects do the same. Home made a vast impression on Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote excitedly to her sister on the occasion of the master conjuror’s nuptials: “Think of the conjugal furniture floating about the room at night, Henrietta.”2 As against such abject credulity, Conan Doyle was able to set the militant skepticism of his friend and hero Oliver Wendell Holmes (after whom the great detective is named). This Holmes denounced the spiritualist movement as a “plague.”

It is painful to read about Conan Doyle’s declining years. Even his great fan T.S. Eliot wrote regretfully of the “mental decay” that was apparent in the writing. Once the reserves of scientific doubt were gone, his sails would swell at the least zephyr of anything fraudulent or inane. He fell for everything, from photographs of fairies to spirit mediums. He quarreled with everyone, from Harry Houdini—the greatest charlatan-buster of his day—to the poltergeist-fancying Society for Psychical Research, which in his view had become too self-critical. His last public action was a campaign to repeal the Witchcraft Act, a statute dating from James I and prohibiting various forms of sorcery. But it is notable that he never allowed his main character to succumb. In one of the very last stories, “The Sussex Vampire,” published in 1924, Holmes expresses himself forcefully on the subject of necromancy and kindred foolishness:

Are we to give serious attention to such things? This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply. [Italics mine.]

And indeed, in short order, the puncture marks on the victim’s neck are shown to be susceptible of a rational explanation. This must come as something of a blow to Mr. Stephen Kendrick, a Unitarian enthusiast who, in Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes, looks for hidden luminosities—a new-age version of the Reverend Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies—in the fact that Holmes fails on seven occasions, or in his claim to have passed some time in Tibet after faking his own death at the Reichenbach Falls. As he puts it:

On a research trip to London on a cold February morning, my son Paul and I stood on Baker Street with friends Dawn Tibbetts and Dermot Walker. In front of the Abbey National Building, we were reading the respectful marker at the place where 221-B, holy of holies for Sherlockians, is supposed to have been. Dermot turned to me and asked, “Stephen, don’t you think it is odd that we are visiting an imaginary address of an imaginary person?”

Not such a searching question when you think about it: many of us have the same sensation at the thresholds of churches or ashrams. Conan Doyle claimed to have been contacted by the shade of Joseph Conrad, who asked him to finish the writing of his uncompleted novel Suspense. This handsome offer was succeeded by another one from the spirit of Charles Dickens, who said that if he made a good job of the Conrad he might consider himself entitled to try and round off The Mystery of Edwin Drood. “I shall be honored, Mr. Dickens,” Conan Doyle reported that he said (in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research). “Charles, if you please,” the great man supposedly responded. “We like friends to be friends.” Conan Doyle never executed either of these potentially great exercises in mediumship but then—even more remarkable when you think of it—neither did Mr. Conrad or Mr. Dickens use their presumable powers to do the job themselves. Thus we may be grateful that, when he took himself over the precipice and into the maelstrom of babble and superstition, Conan Doyle left his main man behind on the ledge, there to bear witness to the beauties of deduction, and to the consolations of philosophy, mentation, ratiocination, and hard drugs.

  1. 1

    The lamentable exception occurs in a very late story, “The Three Gables.” But more than one Sherlockian has surmised that this episode, together with some others of the concluding ones published in the 1920s, was either “ghost-written” (if the phrase may be allowed) or not written by Conan Doyle at all. The final court of appeal here is the nine-volume Oxford Sherlock Holmes, edited by Owen Dudley Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1993) and annotated with great thoroughness and brilliance.

  2. 2

    The recently published Complete Works of George Orwell (London:Secker & Warburg, 1998) contains a scornful review by him of an overly respectful biography of Home enti-tled Heyday of a Wizard. See Vol. 19, p. 388.

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