Arthur Conan Doyle World Literature Analysis
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 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,”...
(The entire section is 3,815 words.)