Wednesday, November 21, 2012

26. Death

“It is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognize danger when it is close upon you.”
"The Final Problem"

As recounted in 2007’s Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley, Conan Doyle reported only two words in his notebooks, summing up his indifference upon concluding the last contracted story for the Memoirs—“Killed Holmes.” And, one can imagine the author musing, it couldn’t have happened a moment too soon. As the editors’ recount:

Conan Doyle genuinely believed…that Sherlock Holmes was dead and buried. So firm was his resolve that when his mother asked him to sign something “Sherlock Holmes” to please a friend of hers, he refused…He intended to put Sherlock Holmes behind him for good.

This obvious reversal of the previous mother-son interaction that had once saved Holmes in “The Copper Beeches” bespeaks the degree to which Conan Doyle had begun to tire of the characters and the grind of writing stories on a deadline. He had moved to Switzerland (not coincidentally the final resting place of the great detective) and had committed himself to finishing The Stark Munro Letters, an autobiographical novel that would inaugurate a blooming period of post-Holmes novels, short stories, poems, and a several historical works, fiction and non-fiction. Moreover, Conan Doyle tended to his wife’s illness more than ever, and also spent much time commenting on matters from sport to medicine. Holmes’s death, as it were, gave his author a new lease on life.

As melodramatic as the final conflict on the precarious Reichenbach ledge is, it is also emblematic of how difficult it is not to view the whole of the Memoirs through the lens of Holmes’s death. A reader may surmise that, as the author began to feel the pangs of wanting to end his character’s life, he imbued his character with some kind of foreknowledge of that event, some resignation of its inevitability, and, even, some kind of “death wish.” This latter element seems rife within many of the adaptations and pastiches, most prominently in the grumpy, yet knowing, nihilism of Hugh Laurie’s Holmes-inspired House, M.D. As we have noted, the Holmes of the last twelve stories is more human, more fallible, and more philosophical than the Holmes of the Adventures and early novels. That would certainly lend credence to the theory that Conan Doyle was literally preparing his audience for a fatal error, or pang of conscience that would bravely send the Great Detective to the other side. Thus, the figure emerges of a “double” of Holmes, a dark mirror image that forces him into a corner from which he must risk everything—Moriarty.  

Writing in the Daily Mail after the most recent retelling of Holmes’s death aired on the BBC, Sam Leith put paid to the romantic ideals of Holmes as a heroic figure striding nobly into the shadows, but, rather, “the Final Problem” as an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the stories, while also emancipating the author, that went horribly awry:

The reaction to the great detective’s death was extreme. The Strand Magazine lost 20,000 subscribers — and fans of Holmes took to the streets wearing black armbands….Conan Doyle was less sentimental about Holmes than his admirers: the wild success of Holmes was starting to overshadow the rest of his literary output, and, as he put it: “I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.”

Believing too much in either scenario would seem to come at the expense of enjoyment of the Memoirs themselves. We might rather look critically at the early canon and say that Conan Doyle was likely motivated to end the Holmes stories out of fear of overtly resorting to the clichés of the genre that had inspired him to invent Holmes in the first place: the pat or vague dénouements, the bland and shallow detective who gives no reason or explanations for his deductions, the vain heroics that are grounded in neither reality nor human nature. It is easy to see how Conan Doyle may have feared some of the stories becoming pale imitations of earlier stories, and, rather than risk being thought of as a hack who wrote solely for a paycheck, sought to quit while he was ahead. Moreover, one can in turn critically examine the immense popularity of Holmes himself as indicative of the vestigial Romanticism that so inspired Conan Doyle, and found a new voice and new popularity within genre fiction—so much so that threat of its demise would lead people out into the streets! It would be eight years before Conan Doyle reneged on his original answer—cheating even death. The truth, we suspect, always lay somewhere in between.

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