Under the Influence: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



"It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment."


     My last post reminded me that I hadn't yet posted anything about the original -- an oversight that I now rectify!


     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a man of wide experience and education – a doctor who served on both a Greenland whaler and a steamship on a voyage to western Africa, a scientist with a keen sense of justice, a man fascinated with the unknown and unknowable. Though he had many notable achievements in his life, he is best known today – as he was for much of his life – as the creator of the quintessential investigator, the "world's first consulting detective", Sherlock Holmes.


     Anyone who writes mysteries cannot possibly escape the titanic shadow of Doyle's most famous creation. While Sherlock Holmes was not the first fictional detective, he codified many of the tropes of the genre, and established many methods and approaches of detection which laid the foundation not merely for fictional detectives, but real-life forensic investigators. Sherlock Holmes was not merely a man with a keen eye and a sense for right and wrong; he was a scientific investigator, who solved crimes utterly without regard for what his society expected, but purely based on what the facts laid before him said: the type of ash found on a carpet, the length of stride and characteristics of boot-prints, the prints of fingers on glass, the chemical characteristics of blood or other substances, these were his witnesses, and they did not lie when human beings did.


     Many of my stories have elements of mysteries, and I am always, always conscious of Holmes' precedents when I write those portions of my stories. This is true even when I'm writing stories influenced more by other authors (such as Rex Stout), simply because those authors were, themselves, influenced by Sir Arthur's creation as well.


     Sherlock Holmes' adventures invented, or codified, tropes other than the merely investigative; the now-classic combination of a genius investigator paired with a less-capable chronicler who serves as assistant and sounding-board has roots going back to Classical times, but was codified forever by the relationship of Holmes and Watson and echoed since by many other authors, including those of equal note among the mystery field such as Christie (Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings) and Stout (Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin).


     The idea of a true criminal mastermind is another trope that, if not original to Conan Doyle in its entirety, was solidified and codified by him in Professor James Moriarty. It is in fact a tribute to the power of the concept that Moriarty has dominated the imagination of those who have done follow-on work in Holmes-based fiction, despite the fact that he appears in precisely two canonical Holmes stories (The Final Problem and, more indirectly, The Valley of Fear) and is of significance in the background of only one other (The Adventure of the Empty House) although he's mentioned in a few others.


     Holmes is also one of the earliest, if not the earliest, examples of a franchise refusing to die. Feeling that Holmes stories were absorbing too much of his time and attention, time and attention which could be turned to pursuits he found more interesting, Conan Doyle decided to end the series by killing Holmes off in The Final Problem. This… did not work out quite as planned. There was a tremendous outcry and demand for more Holmes stories which did not die down as Conan Doyle must have hoped it would; after eight years he finally gave in, producing what some consider the greatest Sherlock Holmes mystery of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then shortly thereafter bringing Holmes officially back to life with The Adventure of the Empty House.


     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did write other stories, of course, and those of one other character were also influential: the adventures of the fiery-tempered, oversized, red-bearded Professor Challenger. Not as well remembered as Holmes, Challenger still casts a considerable shadow over the literary landscape, having the original Lost World to his credit (a land separated from the ordinary and having survivors from ancient times thereon, such as dinosaurs) and the concept of a series of adventures driven by far-out scientific investigations. 


Challenger and Holmes shared some traits but were polar opposites in others. Most particularly, Challenger was more open-minded on many subjects and especially on those bordering the fringes of science in his day, while Holmes was a complete and strict materialist and rationalist; this served him well in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, when he utterly ignores any implications of the supernatural to cut through the mystery and find the mundane explanation.


Despite this, many writers seem to take joy in placing Holmes in supernatural situations and pitting his purely mundane yet superior intellect against powers beyond ordinary science; most such writers have Holmes emerge the victor, though not always a complete victor. One of my favorite pastiches of this sort is Fred Saberhagen's The Holmes-Dracula File, featuring Saberhagen's own version of Dracula (which influenced my design of Verne Domingo) meeting up with Holmes – who just happens to look rather remarkably like Dracula. This similarity is used to good advantage by both.


Holmes' ultimate influence on me – and on others – is the faith in a rational, thinking person being able to solve any problem and resolve any mystery. I think this shows most clearly in my Jason Wood stories. While Jason is more Archie Goodwin than Sherlock Holmes, his rational, analytical approach to even the most outrageous mysteries, combined with quick thinking and action in tight spots, is certainly informed and influenced by Holmes.


I've read the stories many times – for myself, and to my two oldest children thus far. They never fail to entertain, and sometimes to chill; the image of The Hound of the Baskervilles remains a fearsome one indeed, and despite the dry Victorian prose many of Holmes' other cases have elements of horror and tragedy that strike hard, though in most the long arm of the law – guided by Holmes – reaches the perpetrators and brings justice. I also have a complete collection of the Challenger stories, and those are also well worth reading – although, due to Science Marching On, they have not survived quite so unscathed.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legacy remains one of my most powerful influences, and I thank him for it, even though I, like Holmes, rather doubt there's any way for him to hear those thanks.




Your comments or questions welcomed!