Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Adventure of the Three Suffragettes

No wonder Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill off his popular character. I got tired of reading about Sherlock Holmes when I was 14 years old, realizing--probably a year too late--that Conan Doyle was a second-rank writer at best, as bad a plotter as Agatha Christie, and basically a one-trick pony.

So, when a new book called The Sherlockian (Twelve), by a newcomer named Graham Moore--all of 28 years old and living in Los Angeles--began to win some favorable reviews, I had my doubts. As I’ve said on this page many times, Laurie R. King (God of the Hive) is the only writer who adds a life to Holmes that his begetter did not bestow. (King herself makes an appearance in Moore’s novel, as a leading member of the Holmes enthusiasts’ organization, the Baker Street Irregulars, greets a late-arriving guest: “Where have you been all week, you old dog? We’ve missed you. Yesterday we had the most marvelous talk from Laurie King about the Woman--her role in the Great Hiatus, all that. Fascinating.” The Great Hiatus, of course, is the three-year span [1891-1894] between the apparent death of Sherlock Holmes at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls--related in “The Adventure of the Final Problem”--and his lamely explained return.)

Moore’s book shifts between two parallel stories and two different time periods, as did King’s absolutely perfect 2007 novel, The Art of Detection. The hero of his present-day adventure is 29-year-old, deerstalker-wearing Harold White, a mild-mannered and bookish researcher and Holmes addict from L.A. White has just been initiated into the Irregulars at a ceremony in New York, when a premier Holmes expert, Alex Cale--who has reportedly found Conan Doyle’s long-lost diary from October to December 1900--is evidently murdered in his hotel room.

The star of the alternating chapters, set primarily in late 1900 and having to do with a mystery involving wedding dresses and the deaths of three youthful suffragettes in London, is Scottish former physician Conan Doyle himself. Although he had grown quite rich and famous from his Holmes yarns in the Strand Magazine, by 1893 the author was finally so pissed at the success of his habitually observant, pipe-smoking creation and the public’s lack of attention to what the author considered his more “serious” fiction, that he determined to plunge Holmes and his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, into the icy Swiss cascade. In his diary entry for that day, Conan Doyle wrote simply, “Killed Holmes.” By 1900, the author had sought to put Holmes out of his mind, but fans continued to hound him with requests to bring back the eccentric sleuth.

“Most Sherlockians sort of ... uh, pretend that Holmes was real and that Conan Doyle had his adventures published as fiction to preserve his privacy,” Harold explains to Sarah Lindsay, the pert and pushy young journalist who passes for his Doctor John Watson in the ensuing investigation into Cale’s demise. “The rival Doyleans, as they call themselves, think the Sherlockians are stupid. If we acknowledged Doyle as the author of the stories, half the room would bleat ‘Blasphemy!’”

The best parts of Moore’s novel are those in which he examines the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes, the way in which that protagonist’s legend took on a life of its own, and his creator’s obdurate enmity toward the detective. The Sherlockian’s mystery elements are far less compelling. Moore gets in some tart observations that will bring a smile to the face of anybody familiar with Conan Doyle and his labors. At one point in this story, Bram Stoker (yes, that Bram Stoker), who was a friend of Conan Doyle and a London theater manager in 1900 (not yet renowned for his storytelling), tells him, “Watson is a cheap, efficient little sod of a literary detective. Holmes doesn’t need him to solve the crimes any more than he needs a ten-stone ankle weight ...” Later, after Conan Doyle involves Stoker in his probe of the suffragettes’ murders, Stoker exploits his friend’s fame to open doors that might otherwise be closed to amateur snoops. “This is Arthur Conan Doyle,” Stoker tells a scruffy landlord who doesn’t want to help them. The man gives Conan Doyle a long once-over. “Yes, that looks like you,” he says at last. “I’ve seen your pictures in the paper, awhile back. You sitting at your writing desk ... looking like a grubby queer.”

Moore also does a fine job of portraying London at the close of the Victorian era, and suggesting that Sherlock Holmes might have been a product of his time, not so comfortable or credible in the 20th century as he was in the 19th. Here he reflects on the installation of new illumination throughout the British capital:
On Westminster Bridge, Arthur was struck by the brightness of the streetlamps running across like a formation of stars. They shone white against the black coats of the marching gentlefolk and fuller than the moon against the fractal spires of Westminster. They were, Arthur quickly realized, the new electric lights, which the city government was installing, avenue by avenue, square by square, in place of the dirty gas lamps that had lit London’s public spaces for a century. These new electric ones were brighter. They were cheaper. They required less maintenance. And they shone farther into the dim evening, exposing every crack in the pavement, every plump turtle shell of stone underfoot. So long to the faint chiaroscuro of London, to the ladies and gentlemen in black-on-black relief. So long to the era of mist and carbonized Newcastle coal, to the stench of the Blackfriars foundry. Welcome to the cleansing glare of the twentieth century.
But as much fun as The Sherlockian can be at times--remarking on Conan Doyle’s opposition to women having the right to vote, speculating on his growing disgust with the police, and showing him at odds with autograph-seekers--it fails to break new ground either in the story of Holmes or his creator. And its conclusion is suggested well in advance of the book’s last page. My advice? Read Laurie R. King’s stories about Holmes and Mary Russell, instead, or pick up a copy of Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (1997), which also deserves high marks.


Man of la Books said...

Wonderful review. Many movies have depicted Holmes as a drunk,drug addict etc. so I think you're not far off the mark in your analysis.

I tweeted this review to my following.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the review. I read the Sherlockian and was disappointed. Laurie King and Julian Barnes are much, much better.

Jersey Jack said...

To call Doyle a second-rank writer is absurd. He created one of the most beloved characters of all time.

dick adler said...

Yes, Joizy, but the point of the book (and of my review) was to show the affect Holmes' creation (never recorded in his diaries, as far as I know) had on the only decent character he ever invented. Why did he hate him so much? Holmes had made him one of the richest writers in the world!

Let's face it: Doyle was no Dickens, no Wilkie Collins. Like Christie, he had a small talent for plotting -- and like her was a snob of the first water.

Scott Parker said...

Glad to read this review as I was giving it serious consideration for my Christmas list. I think, instead, that I'll ask for some L. King books and get The Sherlockian from the local library (or, better yet, an audio version to help pass away commuter time).

As far as Doyle himself, I'll admit that I've not read the last three collections. I've only read the Adventures, the Memoirs, and all novels, only two of which I actually enjoyed. And, when you read the Adv. and Mem. in order, you can see how ACD was basically excited in the beginning and slowly tapered away as the stories wore on, with Silver Blaze being the last unique tale in these twentysomething stories. Perhaps ACD "wrote them in his sleep" so that he could focus on more serious fiction, the, uh, bulk of which no one remembers.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Since I have also read The Sherlockian, I'll put in my two cents on this subject.

I thought the strongest parts of the book were those featuring Arthur Conan Doyle and his stand-in for Dr. Watson, Bram Stoker. They were a fun pair, and Conan Doyle especially made a fine protagonist.

But the parallel modern story, in which a long-missing diary is pursued, was much more predictable and less enchanting. And it ended with too many things being wrapped up far too neatly. Life doesn't offer such efficient closure, and neither must fiction. I would have preferred to see more ambiguity in the book's ending. And maybe it should have focused exclusively on Conan Doyle, and abandoned the modern story altogether.

On the topic of Conan Doyle's writing excellence, let me say that I think he was a far better plotter and creator of characters than he was a writer. That doesn't detract from his contributions to the genre, which are considerable and to be honored at every opportunity.