Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Detective Fiction, and Spiritualism

Remember Jeremy? He has provided a guest post or two. Well, he so happens to come from a well-read family. His brother, Tim, who blogs at Diary of an Autodidact, is here to offer some thoughts on Holmes, Doyle and action figures. (What?) Read on!

(This article, by the way, following on the heels of my recent post on The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.)


I own the complete Sherlock Holmes, including the numerous short stories and the four full length novels. I read them all when I was in High School, which is an indication that I had far more of my own time back then.

Sherlock himself, without a doubt the most famous fictional detective of all time, first appeared in 1887 in the novel, A Study in Scarlet. He was not, however, the first of his kind. The first was C. Auguste Dupin, created by Edgar Allan Poe in The Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841. At that time, the term “detective” had not yet been coined, yet Poe essentially established the main conventions of the detective story in that tale and its successors, including the use of deduction from careful observation. Later, in the 1860s, a Frenchman by the name of Émile Gaboriau introduced the character of Monsieur Lecoq, also an amateur detective who uses scientific and deductive methods. (Doyle name checks Lecoq in A Study in Scarlet.) It was Holmes, however, who became the archetype of the detective; and Watson, likewise, as the loyal but less intelligent assistant.

Further back even than these influences, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, essentially founded the English detective fiction genre. This work was an incomplete beginning. For example, The Woman in White lacks the central personality of the detective as protagonist, but already, the seeds are there. In Collins’ next detective work, The Moonstone, the elements are nearly all there. The list of plot points is remarkable: bungling local police, a brilliant outside detective, a large number of false suspects, a “locked room” murder, the use of the “least likely suspect”, a reconstruction of the crime, and a final plot twist.

After Holmes, numerous British authors wholeheartedly pursued the writing of detective fiction. Such names as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie from the early 20th century are well known for their ingenious plots and memorable detectives.

In contrast to the English Detective Story, American writers subsequent to Poe largely followed the path of the Private Eye novel, or what might be considered the American Detective Story. Major names in this genre would be Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and “hard boiled” would be the operative description. Also related is the police procedural, such as Dragnet. These all differ from the English pattern in that they are more about the process of tracking and accumulating evidence than about determining the perpetrator among a group of potential suspects.

These basic divisions still persist today not only in fiction, but also in television. Think of the difference between, say, CSI (American) and Psych (English). Of course, there are combinations and overlap, but the basic approaches still fascinate us today, nearly 200 years after they originated.

In addition to Detective Fiction, the 19th Century gave rise to a number of significant religious movements which intersected with authors and their works. Major movements which originated during this time are the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Spiritualists. (A minor sect would be the Theosophists, who built a colony near Pismo Beach. My review of The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott has a note regarding this movement since my copy of the book came from their library.)

These new religious ideas arose in the time of general questioning of orthodoxy contemporaneous with and often related to the rise of science and the works of Charles Darwin and others. Doyle’s works were influenced by these ideas in a number of interesting ways.

First, A Study in Scarlet chooses the Mormons as the villains of this particular story. It was controversial at the time, even though the Mormons were viewed with suspicion, because it attributed particularly lurid and violent tendencies to them that were not fully justified.

Spiritualism was an even more profound influence on Doyle. For those not familiar with the term, Spiritualism is the belief that the dead are able to communicate with the living, typically through séances. Although he did not contribute to the religious side of this movement, a major influence was Franz Mesmer, who founded the practice of hypnotism. The spiritualists appropriated this technique as a means of reaching the world of the dead, although it unlikely that this was Mesmer’s intent.

Doyle became a Spiritualist after a series of deaths. His first wife passed in 1906, followed by his son Kingsley in World War One and two nephews and his brother soon afterward. He sunk into a depression, which proved difficult to shake. Eventually, he turned to the hope and belief that he could some day communicate with his dearly departeds through Spiritualist séances. Sadly, Doyle became progressively more gullible as he clung to his belief, despite the exposure of hoax after hoax, even writing a defense of the well known hoax, the Cottingly Fairies. The low point came when he insisted that his friend Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers. Houdini insisted otherwise and in fact did what he could to show how many of the Spiritualist hoaxes were done. This caused a break in their friendship. (Oddly, none of my friends have ever claimed that I had supernatural powers. I obviously need a better publicist.)

What is fascinating to me about this whole episode is that Sherlock Holmes stood for the proposition that all things had a rational, logical explanation, if only one could find it. Many of the events in the Holmes stories seem at first to be spooky, unexplainable by mere human activity, but are proved in the end to be the product of mere criminals, however brilliant. As a later version of the English detective tradition would prove, it was just [villain’s name] all the time; and brains, observation, and Scooby Snacks for all would bring the mystery to light. Doyle himself, however, could not accept the purely naturalistic explanation. Perhaps the despair caused by his losses led him to cling to whatever he could. Perhaps he felt a void in his philosophy. Perhaps he did not actually believe that the entirety of existence could be explained by what could be experienced by the five senses. Whatever the case, the apostle of logic was given life from the man made gullible by loss.

As a final word, I would like to address the reason that I have avoided modern movies based on 19th Century fiction. Despite the fact that the 19th Century has given us more memorable characters than perhaps any age in history, modern filmmakers seem to think that these venerable characters and plots cannot possibly be left alone to stand or fall on their own merits. Thus, Around the World in 80 Days (the recent Jackie Chan version) becomes an action movie of sorts, with bizarre inventions and slapstick, and goodness only knows what else. (I never saw the complete movie. The trailer was enough for me.)

Sherlock Holmes has not been immune, alas. I concede that the original was a strong man, capable with a gun, but preferring the riding crop. However, few of his cases even required the use of force. The power of deduction was sufficient both for the foiling of the criminal and retaining the interest of the reader. There is no need to make Holmes into a cookie cutter action hero. There is no need for CGI. The laws of physics should remain in effect.

In this respect, I would argue that these filmmakers are trying to cram an English detective story into an American detective story shaped hole. Sherlock must become Dirty Harry. In confusing the two, Hollywood continues to create movies that are indistinguishable from each other. You can give the movie a 19th Century veneer, a futuristic sci-fi feel, a modern dystopian look, an ironic 1950s glaze. It’s still the same characters, doing the same things, with the same computer generated explosions. Yawn.

Okay, that tantrum out of the way, I would encourage the reading of the originals. Doyle wrote well, and created a truly memorable character, one that has permeated the culture in a way few do. The mysteries themselves are fun to unravel along with Dr. Watson as he follows the dynamic detective along the path of the clues. Read and enjoy, and let your mind create its own pictures – they are better than CGI anyway.


Annette W. said...

Huh! I enjoy both types of mystery...books and tv. (Almost all of the tv I watch is mystery-type...NCIS, Monk, Mentalist, Psych...)

Very enjoyable look into mystery orgins!

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Annette, I mean nothing against tv mysteries - they too can be well done. You have named some of the better modern versions of the English tradition: Monk, Mentalist, and Psych all feature the memorable detective with superior analytic or perceptive powers. If you have not already read G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, you should. You might see some of the roots of these shows.

the Joneses said...

I was absolutely enchanted when I finally read Sherlock Holmes as a teenager. I still love the stories.

I also think it's funny that Doyle got so sick of Holmes that he killed him off, only to have to resurrect him at the demand of the public.

Enjoyed the essay, thanks.

-- SJ

Sky said...

Tim, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Doyle and Holmes.I agree that the original is the best.

Most of my favorite authors wrote in the 18th and 19th centuries, a few in the early 20th.
I love reading the books that prompted others to run with the idea and eventually became household names; i.e. H Rider Haggard bringing about Indiana Jones. Bram Stoker's Count Dracula became an obsession in its time and definitely contributed to the Twilight series. And, as you pointed out, Sherlock Holmes, surpassing Poe's novels even in America, became the quintessential detective.

A personality so well loved that even his own author couldn't commit a successful homicide!

However, I do love the modern take on Holmes, sure Hollywood overdoes it, when don't they? But when it is done right, the core of Holmes is still there and the man, as legend, grows even more. After prolonged trepidation and gritted teeth I watched, and may I say, thoroughly enjoyed, the first Downey Jr depiction of Holmes. Perhaps because I enjoyed seeing the gritty side of the detective. We know from Doyle that Holmes was well versed in hand to hand combat etc but he never really got into the how. For this reason I also enjoy the newest BBC version of Sherlock. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, it brings Holmes into this century and makes him a bit more crazy and arrogant.
For me, it's not a reinventing of Holmes but rather a rounding off of a character so beloved by readers that he cannot be killed.
So, while I will always go back to the original Holmes, I also love that he has strode through time unhindered and is just as intense now as he was when he first came to life beneath Doyle's pen.

(On a side note, I detest CGI, I prefer real stunts performed by real people...)

Diary of an Autodidact said...

Sky, nice to see someone else noticed the Indiana Jones / Haggard connection. It's amazing how many scenes were "borrowed" with few modifications.

Stephanie Kay said...

We enjoy Sherlock Holmes but not so much the latest movies. I don't understand why Hollywood feels the need to add things to great stories. It's very annoying!

Shonya said...

What an enjoyable post! I agree wholeheartedly, and enjoyed some new-to-me insight. I haven't watched Hollywood's version, I'm just sticking with the original. Thank you for sharing!

Brimful Curiosities said...

Tim mentions the recent films (the first of which I did not enjoy in the least), but I'm wondering why no mention of spin off books? I recently finished a middle grade series, The Enola Holmes Mysteries by Nancy Springer and very much enjoyed every title. I'm looking forward to sharing them with my daughter when she is a little older, before she reads the original Sherlock stories. Any others to recommend?

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