Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Arthur Conan Doyle World Literature Analysis

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Doyle tended to think of his Sherlock Holmes stories as popular fiction, written primarily to maintain his income while he worked on more important works, such as The White Company (1891). Though this historical novel in a medieval setting is thought to be one of his best books, and though his science-fiction novels about Professor Challenger are also well respected, the tales of Sherlock Holmes are still considered Doyle’s best and most memorable work.

In Holmes and Dr. John Watson, Doyle created well-rounded, interesting characters. Holmes is the utter rationalist, understanding emotions almost exclusively as factors in the solution of interesting intellectual problems. He solves crimes by using keen observation, by building hypotheses based on established facts, and by testing those hypotheses. He is often amusing and entertaining when he and Watson play their game of inferring a character’s habits or recent activities from the observation of details about their first appearance or possessions, such as an accidentally lost cane. Holmes is always superior at finding the correct way to arrange the clues into a meaningful order. Watson, though quite competent, is a more ordinary man, a doctor who eventually marries and lives a prosaic life, except when he is with Holmes on a case. Then his life blossoms into adventure, and his loyalty, medical knowledge, physical strength, and energy serve Holmes well. Holmes is a creative genius, using a “scientific method” in an artistic manner to produce masterpieces of detection. Watson, as Holmes’s Boswell, or biographer, turns these masterpieces into what Holmes often describes as trivial romances, more entertaining than instructive.

One factor that contributes to the enduring popularity of these tales is that readers have found the stories instructive as well as entertaining. Within the conventions of the classic detective story, Doyle tells stories that shed light upon interesting complexities of British Victorian society and upon some enduring social themes.

The classic detective story may be defined as taking place in a world where order is normal. In this way, it is distinct from the hard-boiled detective story, where disorder is the norm. The classic detective becomes necessary when criminals introduce disorder, threatening social and familial stability. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, a diabolical murderer attempts to kill the heirs of an estate to legitimize his more distant claim. In the process, he not only creates disorder in his family and among his immediate victims but also violates his own marriage and disrupts the good work in the community of the recently restored Baskerville family wealth. Furthermore, by making use of the old superstition of a vengeful hellhound that pursues the Baskerville heirs, the murderer undercuts the foundation of rationality upon which communal order rests. Critics have pointed out that Stapleton, the murderer, threatens to turn the whole community into an analog of the Grimpen Mire, an important symbolic setting of the novella, where people and animals can be lost and then sucked into the dangerous muddy pools at the slightest misstep.

Holmes’s function as a detective of rationality is to foil this villain and thereby protect society from disintegration. In contrast, a hard-boiled detective, such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1939), works in a corrupt society to protect the innocent from its dangers, to salvage some order from the dominant chaos. The classic detective relies primarily upon mental work to sort out clues and discover the sources of disorder, while the hard-boiled detective relies more on violence to defend innocent victims. While the most common crime motive in the classic detective story is greed, the more common motive in hard-boiled detective...

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fiction is power. Doyle may come closest to hard-boiled fiction in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House,” where Holmes encounters the organized crime of Professor Moriarty, a criminal for whom power and domination are more important than wealth.

Doyle’s themes tend to concern family relations and their extensions into social and political relations. A number of these stories deal with corrupted relations between adults and children or between men and women, in which the physically weaker are endangered and abused because of their disadvantaged social position. Taken together, these tales provide not only exciting and suspenseful reading but also vivid portraits of Victorian life and insightful analyses of human nature and social life.

“A Scandal in Bohemia”

First published: 1891 (collected in The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 2003)

Type of work: Short story

Sherlock Holmes attempts to save the king of Bohemia from a scandal that would prevent his projected marriage.

As “A Scandal in Bohemia” begins, it is March, 1888. The recently married Dr. John Watson happens by his old bachelor quarters at 221B Baker Street and finds Sherlock Holmes pacing the floor in the brilliantly lit rooms. Since Watson has married and settled into domestic tranquillity, Holmes, for whom the life of the emotions would be grit in his machinery, has been alternating between cocaine-induced dreams and his fiercely energetic solutions of mysteries abandoned by the official police. On this evening, Holmes takes an unusual assignment, unlike those of the two previously published cases, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Indeed, Watson indicates that this is the first case in which Holmes fails, and his defeat comes at the hands of a woman, Irene Adler, an American singer, actress, and adventurer “of dubious and questionable memory,” now deceased.

It may be because this is one of the earlier Holmes tales that it deviates so interestingly from the pattern of solution that later came to dominate these stories. This story strikingly resembles its great predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” in which Auguste Dupin determines the hiding place of a woman who is apparently of the French royal family and then recovers a letter being used to blackmail her. Like Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Holmes surprises his friend early in the story with an accurate account of Watson’s recent activities based on details about the condition of his shoes.

Holmes’s task is to locate and recover a photograph that shows Adler and the king of Bohemia together. Adler, a spurned lover, has threatened to deliver the photograph to Princess Clotilde, the king’s intended, on the day their engagement is announced. Clotilde and her family would object so strongly to this proof of a previous sexual affair that the marriage would be canceled, disrupting international relations.

Holmes fairly easily determines that Adler, because she is an intelligent woman, would hide the photograph in her own home, but cleverly enough that ordinary burglars—who have already made two attempts—would not find it. In disguise, he observes her home and, by accident, witnesses her wedding to a lawyer. This event in itself might end her threat to the king, but Holmes wishes to make sure. He plots successfully to force her to show him the letter’s hiding place. While assisting in this trick, Watson becomes less sure that he and Holmes are right to violate the privacy of the kind and beautiful Adler, even to help the king.

Holmes and Watson have deliberately set out to break the law by stealing the photograph. Only as the story closes do they both realize that they have taken the side of a powerful man who has won Adler’s love and then cast her aside for reasons of policy. Adler sees through Holmes’s trick, flees with her husband and the photograph, and leaves behind a note for Holmes, saying she will not use the photograph to harm the king unless he threatens her further. She thus earns Holmes and Watson’s admiration, and from then on Holmes refers to her as “the woman” and ceases to speak deprecatingly of women’s intelligence. At the same time, the king earns their contempt for his failure to rise above the conventional demands of his rank to make such a magnificent woman his queen.

This story proves atypical in the Sherlock Holmes series because the detective is called upon to break the law in order to maintain a questionable idea of order. Holmes’s love of mystery and his lack of respect for women help to draw him into this temptation, but his understanding of emotional values, despite his apparent freedom from the softer emotions, leads him to regret what he intended and to admire the woman whom he mistook for a criminal.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

First published: 1892 (collected in The Complete Sherlock Holmes, 2003)

Type of work: Short story

Holmes aids a woman whose twin sister has died mysteriously upon the eve of her marriage and who fears that her stepfather may intend the same fate for her.

“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is probably the most famous of Sherlock Holmes’s cases, not only because of its diabolical plot about a stepfather preventing his twin daughters from marrying and thereby diminishing his income from his deceased wife’s estate, but also because it so perfectly realizes the pattern of detection that became Holmes’s trademark. Watson opens the story with the information that he has been freed to tell this story by the premature death of the client, Helen Stoner.

Helen comes to Holmes and Watson in April, 1883, terrified that she may meet the same fate as her sister, who died mysteriously two years earlier. Encouraged and reassured by Holmes, she recounts the reasons for her fears. Because of repairs on the house, she has had to move into the bedroom used by her sister when she died and has heard a low whistle in the night, just as her sister did on several nights before her death. Her sister died soon after announcing her engagement to be married, and Helen is now also engaged to marry. Furthermore, the stepfather, Dr. Grimesby Roylott of the Stoke Moran estate in Surrey, is well known as a violent and temperamental giant who brooks no interference with his will. Having married their mother in India, where his medical practice was successful until he murdered his Indian butler, he returned to England, where his wife died in a railway accident. He then retired with his young stepdaughters into virtual seclusion at Stoke Moran, where he gives some of his time to collecting exotic animals, such as a baboon and a cheetah, said to come from India, which he allows to roam free on his grounds. He also associates with bands of gypsies that he allows to camp on his grounds.

Summarized, these details about Roylott’s life seem rather silly, but they work fairly effectively to account for Holmes’s initial failure to discover how Helen’s sister died and, therefore, what threat Helen must fear. This body of detail allows Holmes to develop two theories to explain the death, though he claims to have at least seven. The incorrect theory assumes that Roylott, with his clear motive for preventing his daughters from marrying, employs the gypsies by somehow making it possible for them to enter the woman’s room at night and frighten her to death in some way. This theory would explain why there are no signs of violence on her body; why the police have found no way of entering her room once she locked herself in, away from cheetahs and baboons, each night; and why her mysterious last words to Helen were about a speckled band. When Holmes examines the scene, however, he makes several other pertinent discoveries, such as the small opening at the ceiling between the woman’s room and Dr. Roylott’s room, that the bell rope that hangs down onto the bed is not functional, and that the bed is fastened to the floor and cannot be shifted. These and other details make the case clear to Holmes, but he must, of course, test it.

One of the great scenes in the Holmes stories is the night that Watson and the detective spend in the absolutely dark room, waiting for something to happen. Only when the speckled band appears and reveals itself to be a poisonous snake do the two men fully realize that the evil doctor has trained an Indian swamp adder to descend through the opening, down the bell rope and onto the bed, and return. Holmes, now aware of what was supposed to happen, drives the dangerous snake back upon the doctor, catching the murderer in his own trap.

Though there are many interesting variations, this general pattern is usually recognized as the form of the classic Holmes story. A client gives the detective the unconnected clues that form a mystery. The detective invents structures that make sense of these clues and determines which one is correct. Usually this requires a personal inspection of the crime scene and some other research that uncovers unnoticed clues. The detective reaches a final conclusion by means of reasoning about this information, produces and tests the solution, and reveals the criminal. Though this process usually involves some action and danger, the central activity of the detective is solving the puzzle, and the reader’s main pleasure is in attempting to reach the answer before or along with the detective. That is the general form one expects to encounter in the classical detective stories of such masters of the form as Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie.

This story also deals with Doyle’s typical themes. Often, his client turns out to be a young woman who is, in some way, the victim of a powerful male—a relative, an employer, or a former suitor. As is often the case, the motive here is to obtain money and property. All the Holmes stories emphasize the rationality of causes for mysterious events. This story especially, but not uniquely, underlines Holmes’s wisdom. Like his famous contemporary, Sigmund Freud, Holmes is willing to listen to the problems of a nervous young woman, when even her future husband responds only with “soothing answers and averted eyes.” Helen addresses Holmes as one who “can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart.”

That, however, is not true. Holmes is usually characterized as lacking insight into emotions beyond the common motives for crime. What he really excels at is developing and testing logical connections between seemingly unconnected events. Perhaps this apparent contradiction may be explained by Watson’s assertion at the opening of the story that Holmes’s rapid deductions were “swift as intuitions,” suggesting that his logic is so fine an art that it may look like intuition or may mimic deep insight into the wickedness of the human heart.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem”

First published: 1893 (collected in Complete Sherlock Holmes, 2003)

Type of work: Short story

Having trapped the evil master criminal, Professor Moriarty, Holmes tries but fails to evade Moriarity’s attempts to kill the detective before being arrested.

In December, 1893, in the British magazine The Strand and the American magazine McClure’s, readers were shocked to see Dr. Watson’s melancholy account of the death of Holmes, who, according to Watson, was murdered two years earlier by Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of crime. In writing “The Adventure of the Final Problem” and by introducing a new character of mythic proportions in Moriarty, however, Doyle probably effectively ensured that public pressure for more tales would increase rather than diminish.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem” is a tale not of detection but of rivalry and pursuit. Holmes comes to Watson’s home in the night, when by good fortune Mrs. Watson is away on a visit and Watson is free to travel with Holmes to the Continent to escape Moriarty. Moriarty is one of the first great leaders of organized crime in fiction. Doyle presents him as in every way Holmes’s equal, except that Moriarty has inherited criminal tendencies that have made him diabolical. Moriarty has organized a crime network that is like a giant spider’s web, with the professor as the spider at its center: “He is the organizer of half that is evil and of nearly all that is undetected in this great city.” To counter the professor’s web, Holmes has helped the police to construct a net in which those in Moriarty’s gang, including the great spider himself, will be caught. He has not, however, been able to carry out this project without Moriarty’s knowledge. On the day Holmes visits Watson, Moriarty has come to Holmes’s rooms and promised that if Holmes destroys him, the professor will take Holmes with him. Holmes has refused to be intimidated and, as a result, has endured a series of murder attempts during the day.

Holmes requests Watson’s company for a trip to Switzerland, the main purpose of which is to evade Moriarty until the arrests occur, which for unexplained reasons requires three days of waiting. Despite their elaborate measures, Moriarty is able to follow them. When his gang is arrested, Moriarty himself is not caught. The professor overtakes Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls in the Swiss Alps. When Watson returns to the scene he has been fooled into leaving, all the remaining evidence indicates that Holmes and Moriarty, locked in a final struggle, fell into the falls, from which their bodies cannot be recovered.

Repeatedly in this story, Holmes reflects to Watson that his career has reached a peak and, therefore, that he is willing to accept even death if this proves to be the only way to rid England of Moriarty. This fatalistic mood proves prophetic when it appears the two have died in an equal and apparently irresolvable struggle of wit and skill.

That Doyle had some reservations about killing his hero seems clear. While having the bodies lost may seem to annihilate Holmes utterly, it leaves quite open the possibility that Doyle later exploited: that Holmes, in fact, did not die but went underground to avoid the dangers of Moriarty’s remaining friends. In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” Holmes returns from three years of retreat to apprehend Moriarty’s most dangerous remaining agents, among them Colonel Sebastian Moran. Of course, Doyle might have avoided reviving Holmes by “discovering” more of the many cases he solved before his death, as he did when he published The Hound of the Baskervilles. Public pleasure at Holmes’s “resurrection” greatly enhanced the detective’s popularity and ensured a devoted readership for the many more tales Doyle wrote.

“The Ring of Thoth”

First published: 1890 (collected in The Captain of Polestar, and Other Tales, 1890)

Type of work: Short story

In this supernatural fantasy, an Egyptologist stumbles upon a four-thousand-year-old man, who tells him the story of how he came to live so long.

While Doyle is best known for his tales of Sherlock Holmes, he wrote a variety of other kinds of fiction, much of which is vigorous and entertaining. In interesting contrast to the Holmes stories, with their insistence upon rational explanation and natural order, are his stories of the supernatural. At the end of “Lot No. 249,” one of his best supernatural tales, the narrator says, “But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?” Doyle’s tales of the supernatural also help to illustrate the wit and humor that, in fact, show up in many of his stories, for in these tales he often maintains an ironic narrative tone.

In “The Ring of Thoth,” irony is directed at the central character, Mr. John Vansittart Smith, a fellow of the Royal Society. Though Smith is a highly talented scientist, he is also represented as a fickle fellow. The narrator opens the story with an extended metaphor of courtship. Smith “flirts” with zoology, chemistry, and Oriental studies, almost “marrying” each, but finally is “caught” by Egyptology. Then the metaphor turns real: “So struck was Mr. Smith that he straightway married an Egyptological young lady who had written upon the sixth dynasty, and having thus secured a sound base of operations he set himself to collect materials for a work which should unite the research of Lepsius and the ingenuity of Champollion.” The humor continues as Smith journeys to Paris to study materials at the Louvre, where the narrator describes him as looking like a comic bird while he studies. When a pair of English tourists make disparaging comments about an attendant’s appearance, Smith believes they are talking about him, making fun of his lack of physical beauty. Discovering his error, Smith notices that the attendant really does look like an authentic ancient Egyptian.

Smith’s curiosity is aroused, but when questioned, the attendant insists he is French. The ridiculous leads to the wondrous when, in the course of studying ancient documents, Smith falls asleep and remains unnoticed behind a door. He awakens in the early morning to discover the mysterious attendant unwrapping the mummy of a beautiful young girl, for whom the attendant expresses great affection. Then, in the course of searching among a collection of rings, the attendant spills some liquid and, in wiping it up, discovers Smith. As a result of this humorous series of accidents, Smith learns the story of Sosra.

Sosra, the attendant, is really an ancient Egyptian who developed an elixir of life. He and his best friend, Parmes, the priest of Thoth, drank it and became immortal. Then they both fell in love with Princess Atma, who loved Sosra; she soon died of a plague, having been hesitant about taking the elixir herself. Parmes then discovered an antidote for the elixir, making it possible for him to die and join Atma in the afterlife, but he hid it from Sosra so that he and Atma would be separated forever. After four thousand years of searching, Sosra has finally found the Ring of Thoth, which contains the antidote. He tells Smith his story and, along the way, makes it clear that Smith knows little of value about ancient Egyptian culture, even though he is one of the best modern Egyptologists. Then he lets Smith out of the Louvre and goes to join his beloved.

This amusing and entertaining tale of the supernatural contrasts the fickle modern scientist with the dedicated ancient scientist, who by sixteen had mastered his craft and who remained loyal to his first love for four millennia. On the other hand, Sosra’s story contains a warning for Smith, who has given way to a passion for ancient knowledge that may lead him along a path parallel to Sosra’s. The tale also casts an ironic light on the modern rationalist’s faith that one can understand the past or master any area of knowledge, thus providing an implicit, though perhaps not very serious, critique of the world view espoused by Sherlock Holmes.


Arthur Conan Doyle Long Fiction Analysis