January 30, 2017


How Conan Doyle Landed on Sherlock Holmes and Why He's Stayed With Us : a review of ARTHUR AND SHERLOCK  : Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes  By Michael Sims  (Graham Moore, Jan. 26th, 2017, NY Times Book Review)

[H]ow did a 26-year-old doctor, with only two unpublished novels and a few ignored short stories under his belt, create, in the span of six weeks, the most enduring literary accomplishment of his generation?

This is the puzzle Michael Sims sets out to solve, with all the brilliance of Sherlock himself, in "Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes." Sims's magnificent work of scholarship isn't a birth-to-death biography of Conan Doyle but a more specific investigation into the events leading up to those fateful weeks in the late winter and early spring of 1886. From what personal adventures did Conan Doyle draw when he invented the world's first "consulting detective"? From whom did he derive inspiration?

Sims's narrative reads something like a superhero's origin story as we follow Conan Doyle from his poor childhood in Edinburgh through a medical education with an eccentric yet astonishingly astute diagnostician, a stint as the medical officer on a whaling ship, a medical practice established on shaky financial footing, a marriage and a first novel that was not merely unpublished but literally lost in the mail. Yet the omens of a blood-speckled creativity are there: An alcoholic father who stopped drinking away the family's few coins only when he was sent to live out his remaining days in a sanitarium; the teenage street brawls after which Arthur would boast not of winning but of having done the most damage to his opponent. While murder and police work were unknown to Conan Doyle by his 20s, violence most certainly was not.

In Sims's telling, the figure of Sherlock Holmes looms over Conan Doyle's early days like a Delphic prophecy. When we read of Conan Doyle's initial literary rejections, we know the riches and fame that will one day greet him. When we read of his fears and frustrations at not becoming the writer he hopes to be, we know that the success awaiting him is greater than anything of which he might dream.

Sims derives dramatic tension from this disconnect when, for example, he describes the advertisements for the first Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet" -- with Conan Doyle's name misspelled. The initial reviews are middling. Finally there's an outright rave, which even manages to get his name right. Such moments serve as cliffhangers, closing out chapters. "This review ended with a prediction for Arthur: 'His book is bound to have many readers.' " That's one way of putting it.

Posted by at January 30, 2017 5:43 PM