Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Creator of Sherlock Holmes

Where do I begin?.....
Most boys have their heroes. Icons of virtue, and models from which they can fashion their own future selves. When I was a young boy, all the other boys I knew had hockey players and football players as heroes. But not me. Oh No….. I was always a little different. My heroes were Albert Einstein, Leonardo Da Vinci, Spock, and Sherlock Holmes.
Of course, Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was the real-life deserving hero, but I say Holmes was my hero simply because he more accurately embodied the characteristics I wanted to emulate. It was much later when I matured enough to truly appreciate the talents of Arthur Conan Doyle, the author, separate and apart from the character of Holmes. The fact that he could so accurately portray the differences between Watson and Holmes, and build each character with such realistic detail, was excellent.

Conan Doyle created the character of Sherlock Holmes based on Dr. Joseph Bell, his professor and mentor at Edinburgh University Medical School. Conan Doyle was Bell’s assistant and followed him around and thus observed closely Dr. Bell’s methods. Bell would often deduce the occupation of a man by the calluses on his hands and fingers, and his walk. A sailor walked differently than a soldier, for example. Also, he was an expert in dialects and could place a man to his home neighborhood based on his accent.

Conan Doyle took Dr Bell as a starting point and fashioned a truly timeless icon of deductive reasoning. A fully-rounded character of immense literary stature. The fact that he created multi-dimensional characters in an age when one-dimensional characters were usually enough, was amazing. Holmes was a genius. However, he was also a drug addict (Remember his addiction to a seven-percent solution of cocaine, as described in the opening the “the Sign of Four”), and he had other quirky characteristics. He had a tremendous depth of knowledge about everything from paper manufacture, to tobacco manufacture around the world, to all the various types of mud found in every neighborhood of England. He understood the workings of his world at his time very well, from the train schedules, to the time it takes to bake loaves of bread to all the known chemicals and their workings and properties. However, he did not know or care that the Earth revolved around the sun, or how the planets or the rest of the universe works. It was outside his interest, and therefore entirely dark to him.
His knowledge seemed to be attuned to only precisely what he felt he could use to solve crimes. Also, his highly self-disciplined approach to things, his ego, his semi-maniacal devotion to pursuing a problem to the exclusion of all else, even past the eccentricities allowed by social graces, made him ‘real’.
Because no real person is perfect in every way. We instinctively think that there are always balancing factors. A woman who is very highly intelligent cannot also be beautiful, can she? (It’s possible, of course, but not common. It’s so unfair to all the other women who have one or the other). A man who is unnaturally intelligent cannot also be gifted in sports, can he? Again, it is possible, but rare. We expect balance in this as in most other aspects of real life.
So often, fictional characters from popular literature of the day had an unreal aspect to them, because they did seem unnaturally one-dimensional. John Carter of Mars was an example. He was strong, talented, smart, a natural born leader, AND good-looking besides... No flaws. But Holmes did embody a remarkable ‘singular’ ability to solving crimes. Not through miraculously gifted guesses, but through sheer intellect and hard deductive reasoning, which could, in the end, be explained and made plain to us. It showed us a marvelous engine for solving problems.

This was Holmes’ genius. The invention of this, along with the dichotomy of his genius juxtaposed with his shortcomings, along with Watson as the foil, and guardian of the middle-class sensibilities to allow the audience someone to identify with, combined with the adventure of the chase, and the epiphany of the reveal - was Conan Doyle’s genius.
And he had a very special ability to make the reveal seem to be the genius of the character, rather than merely the plot contrivance of the author. He understood how to build a legend. He understood the value of a mythical archetype, and he crafted that quite deliberately. Conan Doyle also engaged the audience in a way other stories had not done before. Before this, the reader was merely an observer of events. Now he became engaged with the story as he tested his own wits against the clues given.
Conan Doyle cleverly revealed enough to tantalize the readers into guessing who was guilty, or guessing what each new clue led to, and then surprised them with a twist every time. The reader could first be impressed and amazed with Sherlock Holmes, and then, on the next story (These were originally a series of short stories printed in the Strand magazine), they could try and match wits with the great detective using the techniques they had learned from his previous adventures.
Also, Conan Doyle also understood the English self-image and knew how to stroke that. If you support and even enhance what people want to believe and give them more reason to believe it, they will invest you with faith and fierce loyalty and the credibility of massive support. Tell a typical American that they are the good-guy heroes that save the day, and they will buy your stories. Similarly, tell an English reading public from 1905 that they are the elite intellectuals of the world, and they eat it up.
The French Police were even given Sherlock Holmes books as training manuals on the detection of crime. His methods were taken that seriously at the time. Think how that made the British feel… Consider the semi-polite rivalry between English and French for so long. Imagine how the English gentleman was distinguished by being shown to have superior intellectual skills.

Does that help sell stories? You bet. But that was icing on the cake - these stories were great stories too. Full of adventure, and intrigue, and fascinating characters. Even women were represented in a uniquely powerful way. Certainly there were the victim women. The beautiful refined creatures of society, which are described in respectfully dignified and honorable ways.

But also, there was “THE” woman. She was ever after referred to as that. The vastly intelligent mastermind of the female gender. Irene Adler. As clever as any man Holmes had come across. He respected her as an equal, and if there was ever a woman he loved, it was her. Holmes was virtually immune to the charms of all women, regardless of how beautiful they were. All women, except Irene Adler, that is. She was "THE WOMAN". Imagine how THAT tantalized the minds of women who were struggling to gain equal rights with men through the suffragette movement at that time. I was fascinated at Conan Doyle’s choice to keep those thoughts and feelings merely hinted at, and never revealed fully. It is an intriguing style. It keeps the reader wondering. Wanting more details. More insights into the shadowy recesses of a great mind.

That lack of total visibility, that mystery, is part of what made him seem real, of course. Because only fictional characters are completely open with all their innermost thoughts and feelings shown. In real life, we don’t have that luxury.
This was another clever writing technique by Conan Doyle. And it’s amazing when you consider he was trained as a doctor, not a writer. But in those days, you were what you presented yourself to be.
Of course, the things that really impressed me most about the stories were the riffs of sheer deductive reasoning. That is the core of what it was all about for me. But also, I was drawn in by the precision of thinking, the discipline of thought, the impartiality, and the intellectual honesty. It wasn’t just the brilliance of deduction, it was also all those admirable qualities that went along with it.
As with Spock, I didn’t just appreciate his intelligence, but also his integrity and discipline impressed me, and made me want to conduct myself to those same standards. I came to feel that those higher qualities were all part and parcel of developing the higher intelligence levels. Since they were my heroes, I tried to live up to those standards as much as my more modest abilities would permit, and the effort has at least served me well my whole life. One saying of Holmes in particular has been very useful. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, is the truth.” This is very powerful. It not only gives a method for deductive reasoning, but it also speaks to the issue of being open-minded, and of accepting the conclusion regardless of the implications. This makes you a much more powerful thinker than you could otherwise be.
For a while, I became almost addicted to the methods of Sherlock Holmes. I would walk into a restaurant with my parents and we would sit waiting to be served, and I would always be observing people. Quietly making mental notes about their clothes, size, shape, habits, manner of speaking, etc. I
remember Holmes once saying that he could recognize people in disguise by the shape of the ear, because that was such a unique identifying aspect of a person. So I would look at the exact shapes of people's ears even - just to practice observing details. from the clues of dress, speech, movement, etc., I would try and guess what each person did for a living. It was a little game I played with my father. Look at all the clues, and make deductive reasoning work to come up with an answer. It was fun. At first, I wondered at how Conan Doyle worked out the logic of the deductions, but of course, I realized then that he could cheat. He could work backwards from the solution. He knows what the crime is and who committed it, then he simply covers up the tracks and clues, and tries to leave only the thinnest of threads for Holmes to follow to find his culprit.

Nevertheless, Conan Doyle was brilliant. Another favorite son of England. He did much to advance the world’s view of the intelligent, educated Englishman.
The Holmes stories also, for me, encapsulated England at the turn of the century. It showed me civilized life at that time, and the extents of people’s knowledge and imaginations. Also their innocence, naiveté, and the depths of their crimes as well. The convolutions of plans within plans were beautifully rendered. The skill of storytelling, combined with the skills and techniques of deductive reasoning were intriguing, and wonderful, and unique for the time. Now of course, the concepts behind Sherlock Holmes are successfully exploited everywhere in movies and TV. CSI shows show the state-of-the-art forensic techniques that made Holmes fascinating and unique for the time.
A series like Monk shows a brilliant detective mind, with highly evolved observation and reasoning skills, but combined with a flawed personality. This is a completely similar formula. In his case, the man has OCD. It gives the comic relief woven through the crime and detection story. The influence of Conan Doyle is felt every day everywhere in the world now, since TV and movies of crime drama are everywhere. So few people have affected the whole world to that degree, and become such an important part of the world psyche. Conan Doyle actually created a timeless archetype.
As for the movies and tapes of Sherlock Holmes, I have a reasonable collection, covering audio books from the original radio dramas to the many incarnations of Holmes from TV and film. My favorite versions are without doubt, the first ones I saw where Basil Rathbone played Holmes and Nigel Bruce played Dr. John Watson.

Here is an interesting personal memory. When I started to work in the computer field it was in the computer operations area, and I worked shiftwork. Sometimes, on the overnight shift, I would borrow the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films from the library, along with a big projector and a huge screen, and actually brought them in to work and set them up right in the computer room so all the guys on night shift could watch the old black and white Sherlock Holmes movies with me. It was great fun. we'd have popcorn, and such. We still got all our work done. It didn't slow us down at all. But it made the graveyard shifts tolerable, and also built a little cameraderie, I think.

Conan Doyle deserves much more than my praise, but I will at least offer that, in appreciation and gratitude. Conan Doyle and Shakespeare both. They not only entertained me, but they made me smarter than I would have been otherwise. They helped in part to evolve my mind to wherever it is today. And they did the same for millions upon millions of others. I hope they did that for you too.
Somehow I doubt that kids today will get the same advantage from SpongeBob SquarePants.


At 12/06/2007 3:50 PM, Anonymous Maggie said...

Love your blog on Sherlock Holmes, and that you mentioned CSI - I assume you mean CSI Las Vagas?

I think Conan Doyle deserves all our praise. Ouite frankly, I find him more interesting as a man and writer than I do Shakespeare.

Maggie in Florida

At 2/04/2009 11:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish, he was born in Edinburgh and lived in Edinburgh most of his life and based his character on a Scottish mentor he was working under whilst studying in Edinburgh.The reason I am mentioning this is because you are constantly refering to England, and even going as far as to say that he was 'another favourite son of England'. Well, seeing as he only spent a very short period of time there I dare say that he was not, and was in fact a favourite son of Scotland or indeed Britain. I understand that Sherlock Holmes was English, he was, however, a fictional Character created by a man who was very much Scottish. Did Sherlock Holmes help to show the intellegence and creativity of the englishman, no? Of the Brit, yes.

Sherlock Holmes Fan.


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