restricted access The Sherlock Holmes Letters, and: The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Thirteen Biographers in Search of a Life, and: Arthur Conan Doyle (review)
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Reviewed by
Richard Lancelyn Green, ed. The Sherlock Holmes Letters. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1986. 266 pp. $19.95.
Jon L. Lellenberg, ed. The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Thirteen Biographers in Search of a Life. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987. 236 pp. $19.95.
Jacqueline A. Jaffe. Arthur Conan Doyle. Boston: Twayne, 1987. 161 pp. $15.95.

Sherlock Holmes is probably the best known character in world literature. Even more remarkable is the fact that the response to Holmes in the popular press, which was almost immediate, has never slackened. An unending barrage of comment on the Holmes stories has continuously appeared in newspapers and magazines in England and America for 100 years. Doyle's detective has captured the imagination of readers in a way that few, if any, more "classical" literary creations have, until today the writings about Sherlock Holmes almost equal in volume those devoted to literary giants like Shakespeare and Dickens. Green's collection, The Sherlock Holmes Letters, illustrates this phenomenon. It contains reviews and brief articles, letters and notes, and an occasional poem or jingle. There are serious comments, humor, parody, and burlesque. Most are on a popular, not a scholarly-critical level, and have never been reprinted.

In his Holmes stories Doyle was often careless about details, perhaps because he considered his detective fiction less important in terms of literary achievement than his historical romances (to which little attention is paid today). Also, as time passed, he grew tired of Holmes although he continued to write about him for ever-increasing fees. The pieces in Green's book often attempt to reconcile or justify these careless flaws of plot and character, the discrepancies in dates and [End Page 294] times, and "the Watson problem," the question of Dr. Watson's reliability as observer and narrator. Other matters often brought up include Doyle's debt to predecessors like Poe and Gaboriau, parallels between elements of Holmes stories and those of Robert Louis Stevenson, the real life model for Sherlock Holmes, parallels with actual crimes, and praise from police for Holmes's methods of crime solving.

In 1912 Ronald Knox wrote an essay titled "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes." Taking problems from the Holmes stories for his subject, he parodied solemn exegeses and heavy-handed scholarship and set the pattern for the serio-comic approach to Holmes adopted by so many writers ever since. Another special type of humor that developed was the letter to a newspaper or magazine signed by Sherlock Holmes himself, Dr. Watson, or another prominent character from the stories. And magazines like Tit-Bits and Punch found the figure of Holmes useful for their specialized forms of humor.

In his Introduction Green discusses high points of both the serious and the facetious considerations of Holmes and Doyle in this collection. Humor predominates, but often beneath the humor lies serious comment on the character of Holmes and on Doyle's literary technique. The fact that the reader must work his way through a considerable amount of nonsense to find criticism of Doyle is probably a reflection of actuality. The humorous approach to the figure of Holmes has clouded Conan Doyle's achievement and detracted too long from the objective evaluation of a supreme writer of entertainment, creator of a body of fiction that is undoubtedly read today as often as the greatest masterpieces of literature.

It was mainly as creator of Sherlock Holmes that Conan Doyle attracted the attention of biographers, although he wrote on many other subjects and in many genres. In The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jon L. Lellenberg gathers a group of Doyle scholars to assess both biographical studies and Doyle's autobiographical writings. Lellenberg begins and ends the book with his own essays on the problems of Doyle biography; then the contributors focus on individual studies. The best known and most readable of these is John Dickson Carr's The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1949). As H. Lachtman points out, Carr worked with the blessing of the Doyle family and had some access to their archives. D. A. Redmond discusses the objectivity of Pierre Nordon's Conan...


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