Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Conan Doyle Syndrome

LONDON, June 16--(U.P.)--Sherlock Holmes, famous story book detective who confounded criminals with test tube and magnifying glass, scorning the while the stupid blunderers of Scotland Yard, died today.
Holmes’ death was announced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose stories of Sherlock have been read by persons of all ages.
Sir Arthur, who latterly has been won from the school of scientific criminology to the occult practices of spiritualism, explained Holmes’ death in the preface to his own “Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.”
“I fear,” wrote Sir Arthur, “that Mr. Sherlock Holmes may become like one of those popular tenors who having outlived their time, still are tempted to make repeated farewell bows before their indulgent audiences. This must cease. He must go the way of all flesh, material or imaginary.”

--Elkhart Daily Truth, 16 June 1927

Eighty years ago today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried for the second time to kill off his most famous creation. While few people clamored for him to resurrect Holmes a second time, he certainly failed to kill the world’s first consulting detective. Every year, countless new Holmes adventures are published. Most of them are not up to Conan Doyle’s standards, though the adventures penned by Nicholas Meyer and Laurie R. King are, at least to me, worthy of the master.

His first attempt to kill Holmes is better-known than the 1927 death by press release:

“[I]n November 1891 he wrote to his mother: ‘I think of slaying Holmes... and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.’ His mother responded saying ‘You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly.’ In December 1893, he did so in order to dedicate more of his time to more ‘important’ works (namely his historical novels). -Wikipedia article, “Arthur Conan Doyle.”

Of course, his mother was right. Public pressure forced Conan Doyle to bring back Holmes; he did so brilliantly in “The Empty House,” in which we find out how Holmes escaped death at Reichenbach Falls. Which brings me to what I’ll call the Conan Doyle Syndrome: to neglect one’s own best work in favor of “more important” works. Today, few people read Conan Doyle’s historical novels, such as The White Company and Micah Clarke. But as you read this, someone will be discovering the world of 221B Baker Street for the first time. (I had the magical experience of reading some of the stories in the original Strand Magazine--the university library had bound volumes.)

And perhaps I’ve caught a minor case of his syndrome. My best writing so far has been in the form of short historical articles and autobiographical pieces. But I’m still plugging away at the fiction that in my heart of hearts, I consider “more important.” Of course, Conan Doyle was able to write the Holmes canon, the Professor Challenger stories, and a number of historical novels. If only…


Peter said...

Take anecdotal comfort from me. My al-time favorite post of yours is "Northeast Philadelphia and the Memorial Church of St. Luke," a wonderful beginning to a piece of fiction. (As I guess you know by now, I like your historical and autobiographical stuff, too.)

I've never really been in Doyle's predicament. I've known it on a small scale (I guess most bloggers have): people sometimes steer clear of the work I love to write and like the writing I find more enervating to produce. But, since I really don't have much of an audience, I don't have Doyle's dilemma, and I try to let myself write whatever I want.

gerry rosser said...

Thanks for this post.
Never read much Sherlock Holmes, maybe I should.

steve said...

Peter--Thank you for your encouragement. I am still working on the Northeast Philadelphia novel. It begins and ends in Northeast Philly, with most of the story taking place in Chicago.

As far as your blog, you give the reader fair warning: It's Slow Reads. Or in the case of your voir dire post, something that needs to be read not only slowly, but more than once. But it's always worthwhile to reade and reread such posts.

Gerry-Thanks. "A Study in Scarlet," the novella that introduces Holmes, gets a little tiresome in the middle section, but is worth reading just to undrstand Holmes and Watson. The best Holmes adventures are the short stories--especially those in the Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.

Peter said...

Thanks, Steve!