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Not So Elementary, Watson

Even more valuable a publication is this past fall’s appearance of probably the last major work by Conan Doyle: Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, again authoritatively edited and annotated by Lellenberg and Stashower. While The Narrative of John Smith is a small book, about the size of a trade paperback, this one is a lavish production, almost a coffee-table volume.

Before launching his career as a full-time writer, Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a moderately successful doctor, having trained at the University of Edinburgh (where he studied with Dr. Joseph Bell, the partial model for Sherlock Holmes). Partway through his coursework, the twenty-year-old medical student, built like a rugby player and fond of boxing, was offered a six-months’ berth as ship’s doctor on an Arctic whaler. Dangerous Work reprints his diary of that 1880 voyage (in facsimile and typed transcription), along with two lectures and two important pieces of fiction partly derived from it—the poignant ghost story “The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star,’” in which something haunts an Arctic whaling ship, and the Sherlock Holmes case “The Adventure of Black Peter,” in which the murder victim is found harpooned.

In the course of his seagoing adventures, Conan Doyle falls into the icy water so many times that the captain of the Hope nicknames him “the great northern diver.” The young diarist, who comes of age “only 600 miles or so from the North Pole,” records how seals by the hundreds are clubbed to death, registers a dream about being “beaten by a gorilla,” and describes the death of an old mariner from an inoperable intestinal blockage.

Like Melville, the only other major writer to describe whaling firsthand, Conan Doyle dwells on the danger of the business, especially of being entangled in the line when a “fish” is struck. Though employed as the ship’s medical officer, he joins in the seal hunts and takes his place in the whale boat. “No man who has not experienced it can imagine the intense excitement of whale fishing.” Conan Doyle comes to admire his shipmates immensely and the captain thinks highly enough of his strapping young surgeon to offer to make him a harpooner on his next voyage.

Instead, Conan Doyle returned to medical school, received his degree, and began to work as a doctor. In his free time, he continued his hobby of writing stories and even attempted a novel or two, including one about an eccentric detective. Published in Beeton’s Christmas annual for 1887, A Study in Scarlet might have been a one-shot, had it not been for the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. On a trip to England, J.M. Stoddart took two rising young authors to dinner at the Langham Hotel and commissioned each to write a novel for the Philadelphia magazine. Conan Doyle produced The Sign of the Four and Oscar Wilde composed The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Yet even that second Holmes novel, published in 1890, didn’t persuade its author to quit his day job. Only when the first dozen “adventures” began to appear in The Strand Magazine in 1891—these included “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-Headed League,” “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” and “The Speckled Band”—did Sherlock mania sweep the world. By 1892 Arthur Conan Doyle was famous and Sherlock Holmes was on his way to becoming immortal.

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