- Conan Doyle & Holmes: A Tangled Skein of Cause & Effect
IN ARTHUR AND SHERLOCK: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes, Michael Sims tempts us into believing that his study will rely on simple binaries. There is, of course, the title (“Arthur and Sherlock”), and what follows is a volume divided into three parts, each with its own clearly expressed dichotomies: “Part I: Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle”; “Part II: Prophets and Police”; “Part III: Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson.” What follows, however, is something much more complex as Sims draws and redraws patterns of influence, sleuthing his way through a tangled skein of cause and effect as he attempts to account for Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes. In doing so, Sims covers familiar territory throughout, but he does so in a way that repeatedly offers fresh insights into the genesis of one of the world’s great literary figures.
As an epigraph to his study, Sims quotes from a famous exchange between Holmes and Watson in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”:
“What clue could you have as to his identity?”
“Only as much as we can deduce.”
“From his hat?”
“But you are joking. What can you gather from this old battered felt?”
“Here is my lens. You know my methods.”
With this exchange, Sims raises the question of “method” from the outset, at the same time alerting us to the fact that his own book will also be an act of detection, an attempt to “deduce” the mystery of literary influence and creation. What then, we must ask, is Sims’s method? The first move is always to suggest a straight line of influence, to put forward a simple A-then-B kind of logic that encourages us to see a clean, [End Page 414] direct connection between a personal experience or literary model and Conan Doyle’s creation of Holmes. The next step in the method is to disrupt that clean line, not by denying its existence, but by maintaining the line and then intersecting it with other lines of influence. The overall effect is one of clarification through complexity, where Sims reaffirms traditional interpretations of how Conan Doyle conceived of and created Holmes, but simultaneously mystifies those origins.
Sims begins his study with a three-page “Overture” that establishes his method. Titled “Remembering,” it introduces a young Conan Doyle sitting in his medical office at No. 1 Bush Villas in early 1886, “a few months shy of twenty-seven” and determined to build a literary reputation. Understanding that he must write a novel to build that reputation, he recalls the detective stories he always admired, turning over plot ideas but unable to think of a suitable detective to anchor these plots. It is then, Sims writes, that Conan Doyle thinks about “his favorite professor, a short, hawk-nosed wizard named Joseph Bell.” Those memories lead Conan Doyle to think more deeply about Bell’s methods, which build on the keen observation of minute details, and from that point Conan Doyle has in mind “a character [who] would be a new development in crime fiction—a scientific detective.” The Overture concludes as follows: “In the late winter and early spring of 1886, at his window above Elm Grove, in his small office away from the scurry of marriage and medicine, among books and piles of papers, Arthur wrote page after page, sending his memory back almost a decade into the past.”
Sims could not draw a cleaner, more conventional line of influence: to achieve literary fame, young Arthur needs to publish a novel; he decides upon a detective novel, a flourishing Victorian genre; he has plots in mind, but no detective; he thinks hard about a model for his detective, remembering his teacher Joseph Bell and his methods of observation and deduction; then, inspired, he writes “page after page, sending his memory back almost a decade into the past,” turning that past into fiction. This clean line of influence is reinforced as the Overture gives way to Part I of...