Jeannette library hosts author to examine why Sherlock Holmes endures still today
Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker don't capture anyone's imagination. But if not for a change of heart by Arthur Conan Doyle those names — and not Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson — would be the most famous literary sleuths.
“Ormond Sacker doesn't quite have the John Bull solidity of Dr. Watson,” says Michael Sims, the author of “Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes” (Bloomsbury, $27). “And we'd probably get used to Sherrinford and imagine it the way we do Sherlock. But I can't imagine Nero Wolfe being named anything else, it's just impossible. And we've done the same thing with Sherlock Holmes.
Sims appears April 1 at the Jeannette Public Library.
“Arthur and Sherlock” is the Greensburg resident's examination of the creation of Holmes, among fiction's most memorable characters. Sims traces how Doyle, borrowing elements from the Book of Daniel, Voltaire and Edgar Allen Poe, created the template for the modern detective novel.
But if not for his medical training, Doyle's work might not resonate today. His studies with Dr. Joseph Bell, one of the pioneers of diagnostic clairvoyance — careful observation of all elements of a patient, not just symptoms — had a profound effect on how Sherlock Holmes approached crimes.
“Doyle had witnessed a diagnostic genius (Bell) demonstrate every day how you could perceive little details that were invisible to the rest of us,” Sims says, “and piece together someone's illness, their daily life and their background and where they came from, which road they walked on to get to see you. And Doyle thought, what if Joseph Bell had not been a doctor but a detective?”
Doyle had two advantages: He was a witness to the diagnostic process as a medical student, and “was a very strong and tough and courageous human being.” Thus, Doyle felt an affinity for heroic characters.
But first, he had to circumvent the literary conventions of the day. A lot of fiction in the late 19th century was published as triple deckers, novels in three volumes. Books by Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins were released as triple deckers, but Doyle's work didn't fit the form,
“Doyle did not write three-volume long novels that would be dissecting the culture of a small village,” Sims says. “He wrote sensationalistic fiction, which was timely. So what he did was write almost novella-length, quite short novels and turn not toward the triple-decker library people, but toward the big new thing, which was highly competitive fiction magazines.”
When The Strand magazine bought the first series of Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle's reputation soared even as he bucked the popular format.
“It was as if now someone grew up and really wanted to do movies, but realized there was a renaissance going on in television,” Sims says.
Crime fiction was in its infancy — Wilkie Collins' “The Moonstone,” published in 1868, is considered the first modern detective novel — but Doyle gave the genre its lasting template.
Those who came after Doyle “are either imitating Sherlock Holmes in one way or another, or consciously going in the opposite direction,” Sims says.
Raymond Chandler and his detective, Philip Marlow, had the same rippling effect in crime fiction. Like Holmes, Marlowe became a singular fictional figure that all other mystery novelists had to acknowledge.
But Holmes' stature is more profound and translatable to contemporary pop culture. From William Gillette, the American actor who played Holmes on stage and film in 1916, to Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, Doyle's character has piqued the interest of successive generations of readers and film connoisseurs.
“It's interesting because we don't point to one single book or story (by Doyle) that dazzles us,” Sims says. “It's the distillation of the character, the character himself. … There's a protean vitality to the Holmes character that very few have. Huck Finn is a glorious character, but not endlessly translated. ‘Moby Dick' and ‘Anna Karenina' are unquestionably superior in the depth of their literature and perception and artistry, but they did not conjure this magnificent detective that is still around dazzling people.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.