In our seventh instalment of Notes on a Voice, Bee Wilson considers the inventor of Sherlock Holmes
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, September/October 2011
“Dr Watson doesn’t write to you, he talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy, across a glowing fire.” So said John le Carré, one of many writers in thrall to Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). His most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, provides the excitement. But his second most famous, John Watson, provides the voice.
The stories (1887-1927) are infinitely re-readable. Fans focus on Holmes himself, that perfect assemblage of cold calculation and eccentric tastes—the violin, the cocaine, the tobacco in the Persian slipper. “Every writer owes something to Holmes,” wrote T.S. Eliot in 1929. But Holmes would be precious without Watson’s direct, manly presence. A late story narrated by Holmes was hopeless. The prose lost most of its energy and all of its suspense, and became smug.
Watson, the medic ever ready with a pistol and a flask of brandy, was a conduit for Doyle himself, who had been a GP. The doctor is decent, and, contrary to popular belief, not stupid. He shares the reader’s breathless bemusement at Holmes’s lightning deductions. “What can it all mean?” Watson gasps in “The Speckled Band”, the most terrifying story of all. “‘It means that it’s all over,’ Holmes answered.”
Use energetic verbs to add urgency to plots that could seem static. Holmes never stands up if he can spring to his feet. He also grasps, thrusts, jerks and tosses. Watson even “ejaculates” when excited. The innocence adds to the sense of adventure.
1. Conjuring up 221B Baker Street, a masculine setting, far from family life, but cosy. So many of the stories begin and end here. We may have been alarmed by psychotic stepfathers or Ku Klux Klan vendettas, but 221B is still there.
2. Hinting at a vast Holmesian hinterland, as in “the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee”. The endearing zealots who try to flesh out the back story are missing the point. To hear of Holmes’s monograph “Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos” is thrilling. To plough through it would be dull.
Dialogue. Whole pages consist of talk as Holmes’s clients recount their predicaments. This draws us right in, sitting by the fire, drinking Mrs Hudson’s tea. Doyle is good at names—Jabez Wilson, Grimesby Roylott—and not shy of exclamation marks, which lend a staccato vigour: “‘Good God!’ I cried.”
Watson’s trusty adjectives. “Curious” is a regular, as in “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”—a gift of a title, duly adopted by Mark Haddon. Also “grotesque”, “peculiar” and “singular”, which conveys fascination, terror and sangfroid.
The usual suspects are Edgar Allen Poe and Wilkie Collins. Just as important were the Arthurian legends, which Doyle’s mother Mary had read to him, giving him a powerful sense of good and evil, and Walter Scott’s Waverley novels, which he read “by surreptitious candle-ends”. Unlike Poe, Doyle was not gothic in his sensibilities. He was decidedly Celtic.
“Dr Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: ‘Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!’” (From “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.)
"Sherlock" has returned to BBC1 this autumn. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows", Guy Ritchie’s second Holmes film, opens in December
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke