Arthur Conan Doyle Arthur Conan Doyle Short Fiction Analysis
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Arthur Conan Doyle Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In spite of his desire to be acknowledged as a writer of “serious” literature, Arthur Conan Doyle is destined to be remembered as the creator of a fictional character who has taken on a life separate from the literary works in which he appears. Sherlock Holmes, as the prototype of almost all fictional detectives, has become a legend not only to his devotees but also to those who have not even read the works in which he appears, the detective being immortalized by reputation and through the media of movies, television, and radio.

Doyle claimed that the character of Sherlock Holmes was based on his memories of Dr. Joseph Bell, a teacher of anatomy at the University of Edinburgh, whose diagnostic skills he had admired as a student of medicine. Bell, however, disclaimed the honor and suggested that Doyle himself possessed the analytical acumen that more closely resembled the skills of Sherlock Holmes. Regardless of the disclaimers and acknowledgments, there is little doubt that Doyle owed a large debt to Edgar Allan Poe and other predecessors in detective fiction, such asÉmile Gaboriau and François-Eugène Vidocq. Doyle records that he was familiar with Mémoires (1828-1829; Memoirs of Vidocq, Principal Agent of the French Police, 1828-1829) and had read Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq (1880). It is the influence of Poe, however, that is most in evidence in the character of Holmes and in many of his plots.

Poe’s character of C. Auguste Dupin bears remarkable similarities to the Sherlock Holmes character. Both Holmes and Dupin, for example, are eccentrics; both are amateurs in the detective field; both have little regard for the official police; and both enter into investigations, not because of any overwhelming desire to bring a culprit to justice but out of the interest that the case generates and the challenge to their analytical minds. In addition, both have faithful companions who serve as the chroniclers of the exploits of their respective detective friends. While Dupin’s companion remains anonymous and the reader is unable to draw any conclusions about his personality, Dr. Watson, in contrast, takes on an identity (although always in a secondary role) of his own. The reader shares with Watson his astonishment at Holmes’s abilities. In effect, Watson becomes a stand-in for the reader by asking the questions that need to be asked for a complete understanding of the situation.

Generally, the Sherlock Holmes stories follow a similar pattern: There is usually a scene at the Baker Street residence, at which time a visitor appears and tells his or her story. After Holmes makes some preliminary observations and speculates upon a possible solution to the puzzle, Holmes and Watson visit the scene of the crime. Holmes then solves the mystery and explains to Watson how he arrived at the solution. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” follows this formula, and it is apparent that Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” had a direct influence on this “locked room” mystery. The murder, the locked room, and the animal killer are all variations on the ingredients in the first case in which C. Auguste Dupin appears. Even the reference to the orangutan on the grounds of the Manor House would appear to be an allusion to the murderer in Poe’s story. The gothic romance influence is also apparent in this adventure of Sherlock Holmes: There is the mysterious atmosphere and the strange, looming manor house; and there is the endangered woman threatened by a male force. Changing the murderer from the ape of Poe’s story to a serpent in Doyle’s story suggests at least symbolically the metaphysical (or supernatural) struggle between the forces of good and evil.

Typically, this story as well as all the Holmes stories ends with the solution to the mystery. Sherlock Holmes acknowledges that, by driving the snake back into the room where Dr. Roylott, the murderer, is waiting, he is indirectly responsible for his death; yet he matter-of-factly...

(The entire section is 3,598 words.)