Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Arthur Conan Doyle Mystery & Detective Fiction Analysis

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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...

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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 elements as well as the highest level of his artistic achievement in this series. Watson introduces Holmes’s powers by means of a friendly competition that becomes an important structural and thematic element. Watson examines a walking stick left by a client and makes inferences about the client’s identity, concluding that Dr. James Mortimer is a successful elderly country practitioner. Holmes notes that while Watson is partly correct, he is mostly wrong. Mortimer is a country doctor, but he is city-trained, young, active, and unambitious, and he owns a dog. Holmes is careful to point out that Watson’s errors helped him to find the truth. This pattern is repeated in the central portion of the novella, the investigation. This introduction of Holmes, Watson, and their relationship emphasizes the relative power of Holmes to get at the truth in tangled and fragmentary evidence. Watson’s attempt is well done and intelligent, but it cannot match Holmes’s observation and reasoning. This difference becomes much more important thematically when the duo is trying to prevent a murder.

Doyle artfully handles the description of the crime. Mortimer presents three accounts of events that set up an opposition between supernatural and natural explanations of the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville at Dartmoor, his Devon estate. The first is a document telling how a remorseless ancestor brought a curse on the Baskervilles in the shape of a hound from Hell that kills those who venture on Dartmoor with evil in their hearts. The second is a newspaper account of the inquest into Sir Charles’s death. The coroner concluded that he died of his weak heart while on an evening stroll, but Mortimer has noted details of the scene he investigated that suggest foul play. Sir Charles’s behavior was unusual, and there was at least one footprint of a gigantic dog at the scene. Mortimer has come to Holmes to ask what should be done to protect the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, soon to arrive from Canada. After illustrating Holmes’s incredible powers, Doyle presents him with a problem that may be beyond those powers: dealing with a supernatural agent.

One consequence of Doyle’s development of the potential of Watson as a character narrator is the extension of the investigation section of the story. As it becomes possible to extend this section in an interesting manner, the story can become longer. In A Study in Scarlet and in his later novella, The Valley of Fear (1914), as well as in several stories, Doyle stretches the narrative by interpolating long adventures from the past that explain the more recent crime. Though such attempts seem clumsy, they point toward the more sophisticated handling of similar materials by writers such as Ross Macdonald and P. D. James. In The Hound of the Baskervilles Doyle prolongs the story while exploiting the gothic aspect of his theme by making Watson the investigator.

After several clues and mysteries develop in London, Holmes sends Watson with Mortimer and Sir Henry to Dartmoor. The brief London investigation sets up another theme indicative of Doyle’s art. The man who shadows Sir Henry proves to be a worthy adversary of Holmes, using an effective disguise and successfully evading Holmes’s attempts to trace him. On his departure, this suspect names himself Sherlock Holmes. This doubling of Holmes and his adversary continues throughout the tale.

At Dartmoor, Watson studies the few local residents and encounters a number of mysteries. His investigation successfully eliminates the servants as suspects and discovers the secret relationship between them and Selden, an escaped convict in hiding on the moor. On the whole, however, Watson is bewildered by the mysteries. The moor becomes a symbolic setting; Watson often reflects that the landscape of the moor, with its person-swallowing muck, mirrors the danger and impenetrability of the mystery. Though he can see and understand much of what happens, he cannot fit together all the pieces. The only master of the landscape appears to be Mr. Stapleton, a naturalist who has come to know the area in his pursuit of butterflies.

Holmes, however, has also mastered the moor by studying maps and, without Watson’s knowledge, hiding on the moor to investigate the situation secretly. Almost as soon as Watson learns of Holmes’s presence, the rival masters of the landscape prove to be rivals in crime as well, for Holmes has concluded that Stapleton is the man responsible for Sir Charles’s death and for the attempt on Sir Henry that the two sleuths witness that evening. Within a day of Holmes’s arrival, the whole crime has been solved. Holmes learns that Stapleton is really a lost Baskerville relative who can claim the inheritance when Sir Henry dies, and he learns how Stapleton tricked a woman into luring Sir Charles outside at night, where he could be frightened to death.

Doyle creates a characteristic sensation by having Holmes suddenly appear on the scene and show that he has effectively mastered the situation. The gothic mystery and ambiguity of the moor pushes men of common sense such as Sir Henry and Watson toward half belief in the supernatural, toward confusion and irrational fear. Like a gothic villain, Stapleton feeds these weaknesses, using his superior intelligence and the power of his knowledge of the landscape. Only Stapleton’s good double, Holmes, can understand and thus resist this power. Even Holmes has difficulty, though, when the moor seems to help Stapleton (a dense fog develops on the night of the capture), and Stapleton succeeds in surprising the generally unflappable Holmes. Stapleton does this by smearing glowing phosphorus on his killer hound’s muzzle to give it the supernatural appearance of a hound from Hell. The sleuths are surprised that the dog is able to attack Sir Henry before they can shoot it.

Both the fog and the dog work against Stapleton finally, showing that nature is, in reality, a neutral force in human affairs, as it must be if Holmes’s scientific art is to triumph in finding the truth and bringing justice. Stapleton’s wife, an unwilling accomplice, finally rebels against using the hound to kill and reveals Stapleton’s hiding place. Stapleton apparently loses his way in the fog and sinks into the mire.

In this novel, the explanation of the crime coincides on the whole with its solution. These are the most important and dramatic parts of a classical detective story because they satisfy both the reader’s anxiety for the fates of the possible victims and the reader’s desire to understand the mystery. Bringing them together as Doyle does produces a sensational and dramatic effect appropriate to a detective story with a gothic setting and gothic themes.

The denouement belongs partly to Holmes and partly to Watson. Watson deals with the human interest, explaining something of the fates of the important characters. Holmes clears up a few remaining mysterious details, including the one clue that led him from the first to suspect the Stapletons, the brand of perfume that so slightly emanated from the anonymous warning note they received in London at the beginning of the case.

The Hound of the Baskervilles illustrates Doyle’s more important contributions to the familiar conventions of the classic detective story. His invention and exploitation of the relationship between Holmes and Watson enable him to engage the reader more deeply in the human interest as well as in the intellectual problem of the tale. Furthermore, the relationship enables Doyle to extend the investigation portion of the plot, forging an effective structure for longer tales.

One element of Doyle’s art in these tales that ought not to go unmentioned is his wit and humor, of which this novel offers many examples, not the least of which is Holmes’s successful deducing of the breed of Mortimer’s dog by observing it from his Baker Street window. The thematic oppositions Doyle establishes between Watson and Holmes, the natural and the supernatural, and Holmes and Stapleton are evidence of Doyle’s art as well. Doyle knowingly develops these oppositions within his gothic setting, making a symbolic landscape of the moor and creating ambiguous images of nets, tangles, and the detective himself to underscore what Cawelti has identified as the central thematic content of the classical detective genre.

According to Cawelti, one characteristic of the classic formula is that the frightening power of the gothic villain is brought under control and used for the benefit of society. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, that struggle for control is directly reflected in the doubling of Stapleton and Holmes, as it was in the earlier Holmes works through the doubling of Moriarty and Holmes. Furthermore, Cawelti observes that classic detective fiction addresses the issue of middle-class guilt over repressed sexuality and aggression and over exploitation of the lower classes. The detective rescues ordinary characters from irrational fear and superstition and discovers that one person, a criminal or outsider, is the real enemy. This pattern of removing generalized guilt and pinning it onto an outsider is clear in The Hound of the Baskervilles—even though the victim has a title. Sir Henry, a modest Canadian farmer suddenly elevated in status by his uncle’s death, intends to benefit his community with his new fortune. Stapleton’s opposition threatens to frustrate this noble purpose and to turn the power of the estate toward the pure selfishness of the originally cursed ancestor; he would reinstate the old, evil aristocracy at the expense of the new, socially responsible aristocracy toward which the middle class aspires.

Doyle’s achievements in the Sherlock Holmes series include creating memorable characters and stories that have remained popular throughout the twentieth century, expanding the classic detective formula invented by Poe into an effective popular genre, and bringing considerable literary art to a form he himself thought subliterary.


Arthur Conan Doyle Short Fiction Analysis