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  • Sherlock Holmes and the Problems of WarTraumatic Detections
  • Catherine Wynne

At the height of the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the artist Mortimer Menpes travelled to South Africa to sketch and interview the "distinguished men of Great Britain" who were there to "do their very best work for their country's good."1 Although Menpes records that he tended to shun hospitals, "as being inartistic and unnecessary for my work," he was obliged to visit John Langman's volunteer hospital in Bloemfontein in order to draw Arthur Conan Doyle (Fig. 1) who, having revived his Edinburgh medical training for service in the war, was battling an outbreak of enteric fever (typhoid) in overcrowded conditions.2 Menpes, who cautioned Doyle not to "overwork," comments:

Dr. Doyle did not seem to lack energy. I never saw a man throw himself into duty so thoroughly heart-and-soul. "And are you writing a book of your experiences out here as a doctor?" I asked. "How can I? What time have I to think of it? You have no idea what a tremendous amount of work we have to do! In the midst of all this agony I couldn't settle to literary work. For instance, look at this inferno!" As he spoke he threw open the door of one of the principal wards, and what I saw baffles description. The only thing I can like it to is a slaughter-house. I have seen dreadful sights in my life; but I have never seen anything quite equal to this—the place was saturated with enteric fever, and patients were swarming in at such a rate that it was impossible to attend to them all.3

Doyle's subsequent accounts of the conflict did not result in a medical book but in a military history, The Great Boer War (1901), and a propagandist defence of British policy, The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct (1902), which earned him a knighthood. His sole fictional treatment of the war, merging medicine with detection, occurs in his 1926 Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier" in which the mystery surrounding former corporal Godfrey Emworth's incarceration in a lodge on the grounds of his family home of Tuxbury Old Park is investigated by the detective and the veteran is revealed to be suffering from a condition that has its origins in a combat situation. [End Page 29]


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Fig. 1.

Dr. Conan Doyle Mortimer Menpes 1901

[End Page 30]

Set in 1903 but issued eight years after the close of the First World War, the story emerges when research on war syndromes was transformed by the events of the global conflict. An examination of Doyle's war and medical journalism and a varied selection of stories from the Holmes canon, including The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier," reveals that by engaging in what we may call traumatic detections, Doyle responded to the problems of war in a variety of ways.

Menpes notes that "it was difficult to associate [Doyle] with the author of Sherlock Holmes: he was a doctor pure and simple, an enthusiastic doctor too."4 He nevertheless questioned Doyle about his favourite Holmes story. When Doyle replied that the "story he liked best was the one about the serpent; he could not for the life of him remember its title," Menpes contrasted the absentminded author with his fictional creation: "Curiously enough, in real life, the Doctor has no capacity for detecting anything"—an observation that belies Doyle's medical training.5 The image of an inattentive and (later, when he converted to Spiritualism) otherworldly Doyle recurs in Bernard Partridge's Punch cartoon of May 1926 (Fig. 2). Here an oversized Doyle has his head in the clouds, only shackled or "foot-cuffed" to earth by a miniature Sherlock Holmes whose eyes are fixed, like a good rational detective, on the ground.6 But Doyle's inability to recall the title of the snake story ("The Adventure of the Speckled Band") may be attributed to conditions in South Africa, where an appalling medical situation took precedence over fictional recollections...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 29-53
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-16
Open Access
No
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