Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Who Shall Live And Who Shall Die

The heading sounds like I'm going to discuss The Walking Dead.  Actually, this post is about Adventures In The Strand, a book I just read about Arthur Conan Doyle and his writings for Strand Magazine, where he published most of his Sherlock Holmes stories as well as quite a few other pieces.  Conan Doyle was The Strand's greatest attraction from the early 1890s until his death almost 40 years later.

It was a golden age for short story writing.  Think of it--thanks to the industrial revolution and government reforms that followed, you had millions of working class and middle class readers with spare money looking for entertainment.  And this was before TV, before radio, before movies--there was a huge audience out there if you published something gripping.

Conan Doyle wrote war stories, boxing stories, historical romance, science fiction and in other genres, but today he's best known--almost solely known--for his detective fiction with Sherlock Holmes.  It got me thinking about fate.  Conan Doyle felt he wrote better, more important work than Sherlock Holmes (and even killed off Holmes before bringing him back), and his other stuff was popular and well-reviewed in its day.  But it's Holmes that lived.

Indeed, so much that was popular around the turn of the last century is forgotten today.  There were many fictional characters--including some created by Conan Doyle--whom people loved that no one knows today.  And some live on but barely (such as, say, Raffles, gentleman thief, still well known in the 1930s, but not much any more--back then many hoped Holmes would take on Raffles, but Conan Doyle wasn't interested).

So why Holmes?  Well, he was popular from the start, and has never not been popular.  The character is irresistible.  I don't like mysteries, but I've read Holmes. He wasn't the first fictional detective, but he was far more fascinating than previous figures, and has since served as a model for the art of ratiocination.

Even better, Holmes, while excited by the deductive process, is otherwise hard to handle.  He's flinty and condescending, doesn't go in for romance and is a drug addict to boot. Then there's Watson, his chronicler--more the common man, a stand-in for the reader. It's through Watson's words that we get to know Holmes' adventures, while Holmes himself is inscrutable. Characters who come into the scene and solve problems at a high level, but don't give away much of themselves, hold our interest--I'm thinking, for instance, of Jeeves, or Mr. Spock.

Another factor in his popularity are the dramatic portrayals.  Originally it was thought Holmes would not work on the stage, but then actor William Gillette figured out how to play him and by the late 1890s had tremendous success with the character, performing as Holmes across England and America for over 1300 performances.  Other actors followed suit.  When the cinema started telling longer stories, Holmes was a natural, and it's believed he is the character most portrayed in movie history.  Gillette made his first Sherlock Holmes movie in 1916.  Perhaps the actor most associated with Holmes was Basil Rathbone, who appeared as the detective more than fifteen times.  Today, we've got a highly successful series of Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.

So Holmes lives on. But it's not just those movies. The books keep selling, and they've never been out of print.  Conan Doyle went in for spiritualism--was actually a sucker for it.  But he's been proven right, in a way, since Sherlock Holmes demonstrates there's life after death.


Blogger New England Guy said...

Brigadier Gerard needs to come back

1:19 PM, October 26, 2016  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Rex Stout is interesting. His Nero Wolf stories are good stuff, highly engaging.

But what is fascinating is, he wrote several other novels with a handful of other characters--and used the precise same plots.

Those novels are nearly unreadable.

How can this be? I think it's because of the narrator's voice. The Wolf stories are told by Archie Goodwin, Wolf's sidekick. The others are omniscient POV. It's pretty remarkable, the difference.

8:49 PM, October 26, 2016  
Blogger New England Guy said...

Damn those English profs were right that point of view matters. (My first college term paper was on point of view in a James Joyce short story and I missed some of the point)

The other Conan Doyle books are a little stuffy (Brigadier Gerard, the White Company, some supernatural stuff whose name I can't recall) but still fun reads though requiring effort

10:20 AM, October 27, 2016  

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