Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes / Der Hound of the Baskervilles
Published by Manesse, Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1981
No, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not receive his knighthood for his stories about Sherlock Holmes, even though his readers think he would have deserved it.
Doyle’s private detective Sherlock Holmes and his unfailing intuition have had a long-lasting influence on the detective novel. Since 1887 a pattern has been established for the detective story: the whodunnit. It begins with the crime. And the crime is a mystery. Its gruesome and spooky nature reveals itself neither to the witnesses, nor to the police, who with its limited resources fails to solve the crime. Sherlock, the ingenious detective, alone is able to shed light on the events by paying attention to minute detail and his brilliant deductive skills. The readers’ experience resembles that of Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ untiring companion. He cannot unravel the mystery until the very end, when Sherlock reveils it in a dramatic final scene.
So far, so good. What Sherlock Holmes is doing here doesn’t seem too much out of the ordinary since detective stories in the style of Sherlock Holmes have become ubiquitous. Take Gilbert Keith and his Father Brown, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Umberto Eco’s Franciscan monk William of Baskerville – they all represent the ultimate detective story following Doyle’s pattern.
But there is more to the stories of Sherlock Holmes than just their plot. They are a perfect mirror image of English society at the turn of the century. We meet all the gentlemen of the city of London in their natural habitat, all the adventurers of the British Empire, which are haunted by their past. We are guests in clubs and country estates, and we meet the guttersnipes that Holmes likes to hire for his investigations. Women tend to play a minor role. With one exception. In “A Scandal in Bohemia” Sherlock Holmes finds an antagonist in Irene Adler who is not only his equal but one step ahead of him. It’s very telling that Irene Adler is not from British descent but from Bohemia, a very exotic place for the Londoners of the time.
Doyle’s novels achieve an effect of realism that is so powerful many readers insist on understanding Sherlock as a real person and mourning his literary death. This makes treating the novels not as literature but as historical sources a very special intellectual enjoyment.
Arthur Conan Doyle wouldn’t have minded. He tired of Sherlock Holmes soon anyway and tried to attract the public’s attention with other ambitious projects. He crossed theMaienfelder Furka on skis, took part in the Boer Wars, and published a fierce pamphlet on the (very real) atrocities of the Belgian King in the Congo. But what is a genocide compared to the ingenious schemes and crimes of a Professor Moriarty?
It may have come as a consolation to Arthur Conan Doyle that at least the Queen held him in esteem for other life achievements than writing Sherlock Holmes and awarded the knighthood for his work on the Boer Wars.
Translated by Teresa Teklić