Analyzable: Arthur Conan Doyle

Notes on the writerly ‘voice’ of Arthur Conan Doyle, from the September/October issue of Intelligent Life magazine:

‘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…

Keep reading.

Image: Screen shot from Intelligent Life

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