Friday, May 22, 2009

Remembering Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle

Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes series of detective stories. Conan Doyle was born in Scotland to parents of Irish descent and became a physician as well as an accomplished athlete and author. He eventually set up medical practice in southern England but work was slow, and so, with time on his hands, as the story famously goes, he turned to his writing avocation. Eventually writing became his sole focus, and although he was a prolific author particularly proud of his historical novels, his most endearing and lasting works have been the 60 short stories and novellas, the canon, featuring private consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his particular friend and colleague Dr John Watson. After many rejections from publishers, the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, made it to print in 1887.

Holmes is a solitary, brusque, eccentric, and enigmatic figure of eclectic intellectual interests who uses his tremendous skills of observation and deduction to solve mysteries. He lives with his physician friend Watson in London, famously at No. 221B Baker Street. Through the great descriptive powers of Conan Doyle, the stories evoke both the genteel civility and the sinister edges of a bustling, fog-bound, cacophonous late Victorian London at the height of Empire. And who can forget the Persian slipper, jack-knifed correspondence, Watson’s wound from a jezail bullet, the useful coal scuttle, the fitful violin playing, and the 7% solution.

Particular favorite stories of mine include Silver Blaze, with the curious incident of the dog in the night-time; A Study in Scarlet, wherein Holmes first meets Watson and remarks “You have been to Afghanistan, I perceive”; The Blue Carbuncle, featuring Holmes’s deductive discourse on a lost hat; and The Abbey Grange, wherein Holmes impanels Watson as a one-man English jury and exclaims “Vox Populi, Vox Dei.”

Holmes and Watson have been brought countless times to radio, movies, television, and even theater. Until recently, the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce series of radio and film adaptations have been the best known, although grating to any lovers of the original stories. For some reason, adaptations commonly but inaccurately portray Watson as a bumbling fool, presumably to better showcase Holmes’s logical mind, but this device does disservice to the original stories and makes both characters almost comic-book like.

But Holmes aficionados have been rescued forever from such debased adaptations. Twenty five years ago almost to this very day, the definitive treatment of Holmes and Watson and the Conan Doyle stories appeared on the scene from Britain’s Granada TV (link), with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke as Dr Watson. Burke described the films as “faithful to the original in spirit and in detail,” and one reviewer wrote that Brett’s performance “has wiped the memory clean of all previous portrayals.” Granada filmed 41 painstakingly detailed Holmes stories until Brett's untimely death in 1995. This series is a triumph.

I think for those who come back to these stories time and again the lure is the portrayal of two devoted and loyal friends, different yet complementary, and their lives, adventures, and travels in a well-drawn atmosphere of late Victorian Imperial Britain. I was captured by these stories as a boy and remain hooked, and I can still remember reading them years ago late into Chicago summer evenings with my imagination off in some fog-shrouded London street.

Richard Balsamo

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