Wednesday, August 1, 2012

10. Fiction

“Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.”
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”

In one of Conan Doyle’s only filmed interviews, from 1927, the author gives some indication as to his initial motivations in developing the Holmes adventures. The author states:

I was a young doctor at the time. I had, of course, scientific training and I used, occasionally, to read detective stories. [But] what annoyed me, how in the old-fashioned detective stories, the detective always seemed to get at his results either through some luck chance or fluke, or else it was quite unexplained how he got there. He got there, but he never gave an explanation how […] I began to think of turning scientific methods onto the work of detection.

Indeed, we’ve seen countless examples of how, even in the earliest stories, Conan Doyle utilized bits of his own biography, actual place names, incidents from his travels and historical researches, and characteristics of friends and acquaintances into the Holmes canon. It is perhaps Conan Doyle’s own stated purposes, along with this attention to realistic detail, that have caused many to speculate that Conan Doyle was simply interested in conveying Holmes via his character’s method, above and beyond any other authorial intention. “Speckled Band” puts paid to all that, albeit in a subversive way worthy of a Holmes tale.

 “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” seems to run counter to Conan Doyle’s own stated purposes in writing the stories as well as previously accepted detective story tropes. As former Harvard professor and current Dean of Forbes College at Princeton, John A. Hodgson noted, “when I speak of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" as criminally violating the laws of its genre, I refer…to the laws, not merely of detective fiction, but of realism itself.” There are, in short, and without spoiling the narrative, very few facts in the solution to “Speckled Band,” and no clear route from the facts as presented and Holmes’ deductive conclusion. Indeed, we must question the reasoning behind such a startling reversal.

The answer, put simply, is that, despite evidence and testimony given when discussing the Holmes stories, Arthur Conan Doyle was, in the end, a writer of popular fiction. As such, first and foremost and above all other contrivances, literary or otherwise, that might even have been more to his personal liking, was telling a cracking good story. “Speckled Band,” is fictional bordering on ludicrous, but it delivers. As Hodgson recalls, in 1927, readers of The Strand named it their favorite story out of the forty-four published by that time, the most prominent of all Sherlockian societies, The Baker Street Irregulars, also ranked it at the top in 1944, and 1959, respectively. And, perhaps most tellingly, it sits upon Conan Doyle’s own “twelve best list,” prepared for that same 1927 issue of The Strand. Regardless of all of the attentions paid to the gritty realism of the Holmes canon, or the scientific legacies of Holmes’ techniques, one rule stands up: nothing—not even the facts—should get in the way of good literature. 

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