Arthur Conan Doyle Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Holmes stories mainly to earn money. He did not think of them as serious works of art and was somewhat dismayed at their success. He had apparently stumbled on a formula that would hold the readers of the new mass-circulation magazines that catered to urban readers educated in the public schools of the late nineteenth century. For much of his professional career he felt ambivalent about his creation. While a Holmes story (or later a play) was sure to bring income, Doyle really wanted to be writing in other, more respectable genres. While his Holmes stories were consciously artful, Doyle thought of them as “mere” fantasies, often privately expressing a disdain for them similar to that which Holmes expresses toward Watson’s overly sensationalized narratives of his brilliant cases.

Many critics attribute Doyle’s success in this series to his conceptions of Holmes, Watson, and their relationship. There are, in fact, central elements of the classic detective formula. Holmes is passionate about solving problems and about little else. For example, the only woman ever to earn much of his respect is Irene Adler, the beautiful songstress of “A Scandal in Bohemia” who outsmarts him when he attempts to steal an incriminating photograph from her. Yet his aloofness from ordinary life does not entirely exempt him from ordinary values. He cares touchingly for Watson and at least adequately for the innocent victims of crimes. He devotes his talents to the cause of justice, and he takes his country’s part against all enemies. In contrast, his most dangerous adversaries possess Holmes’s skills but use them solely for themselves. The most famous of these is Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime, who figures in several tales but most vividly in “The Final Problem.”

As in the case of trying to steal Irene Adler’s photograph, Holmes is not above bending or even breaking the law, but he does so mainly in the service of higher levels of social order or justice. He will steal a photograph to preserve order in European ruling families. A killer may go unpunished if the murder seems justified, as in “The Abbey Grange.” Although Holmes may stray from the letter of the law, he never violates its spirit.

Holmes battles crime for two reasons: to preserve order and for the sheer pleasure of solving challenging intellectual problems. Virtually every area of knowledge to which he has applied himself relates to solving crimes. He is credited with writing monographs on codes and ciphers, tattoos, tobacco ashes, marks of trades on hands, typewriters, footprints, the human ear, and many other highly specialized subjects. Among his eccentricities, perhaps only his devotion to the violin and to listening to music are not directly related to his work.

A Study in Scarlet

The learning Holmes cultivates serves his particular method of detection. This method is established in A Study in Scarlet, when Holmes says on meeting Watson for the first time, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” After considerable delay, Holmes explains how close observation of Watson’s skin, appearance, and posture, combined with knowledge of current events led quickly and inevitably to his conclusion. Holmes cultivates close observation of relevant detail to form and verify hypotheses. That is the same general method C. Auguste Dupin describes when explaining how he managed to read his friend’s mind in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” An incident of such observation and reasoning becomes part of the formula of a Holmes story. Holmes considers himself a scientific detective; for this reason he holds himself above the more ordinary human passions that might cloud his reasoning powers. His objectivity can make him seem callous. For example, in “The Dancing Men,” he shows little concern for the victims and is more interested in the solution of the puzzle than in protecting those threatened.

This weakness in Holmes is counterbalanced in part by Watson. Holmes’s interest in a case tends to end when the puzzle is solved and the culprit captured, but Watson’s narratives often offer brief summaries of the subsequent lives of criminals and victims. Watson provides the more mundane human interest. As Cawelti and others have shown, the good doctor is the reader’s representative in the story. Although he lacks Holmes’s transcendent rational powers, Watson has all the endearing qualities of courage, energy, compassion, patriotism, and loyalty, as well as an ordinary intelligence. A kindly and admiring middle-class gentleman, Watson connects the reader to the strange and powerful genius of the detective. Furthermore, within the stories, Watson connects Holmes with the ordinary world, repeatedly calling attention to the human needs of other characters. While Holmes is the specialist in crime, Watson is the generalist, a well-rounded person, dependable when action is necessary but falling short in the art of detection.

One of Watson’s most important functions is to conceal what goes on in Holmes’s mind. Holmes is given the irritating but essential characteristic of refusing to reveal what he knows until he has completed his solution, sometimes waiting until the criminal is caught. Such concealment is essential to the dramatic power of the stories; it creates suspense and an eagerness to continue reading, and it allows the story to build toward the moment of surprising revelation of the criminal or the crime.

Though he developed them in unique ways, Doyle borrowed these elements from Poe: the detached and rational detective, the admiring and more prosaic companion, and the relationship between them that helps connect the reader with the detective while concealing the sleuth’s thinking. Cawelti gives Doyle credit for discovering the full potential of the Watson type of narrator, thus using this sort of character to establish the classical detective genre. Doyle also borrowed the form of his plot from Poe. Cawelti points to six elements that have become conventional, though in varying order, in the plot of the classical detective tale: introduction of the detective, description of the crime, the investigation, the solution, the explanation of the solution, and the denouement. Doyle develops these elements into the modern formula that transforms what was present in Poe into a powerful popular genre.

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902), perhaps the greatest of the Holmes tales, illustrates Doyle’s deployment of these plot...

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