Wednesday, January 9, 2013

32. Repetition

“This may be some trifling intrigue, and I cannot break my other important research for the sake of it.”
“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”

“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” provides the critical reader with a none-too-rare opportunity to pronounce upon Conan Doyle both praise and blame. What is more unique is that, to adequately critique the author in this case, one must do both the praising and blaming simultaneously. On the positive side, as it were, Conan Doyle is, in “Solitary Cyclist,” keenly interested in developing a tightly-wound suspense narrative around a central motif: stalking, some 93 years before its criminalization in the United Kingdom. Conan Doyle’s prescience here even extends to Holmes’s meditations on the perceived motivations for the act, including romantic attachments and psychosexual pathology, topics once verboten among polite Victorian letters but, in the aftermath of the much publicized Whitechapel murders of 1888, considered an all-too-familiar element of both crime fiction and the real world it depicted. However, despite this one crucial element so inspired and ahead of its time, we appear to have, in “Solitary Cyclist” a surrounding narrative so over-familiar as to be hackneyed even within the canon. We have the set-up of a summons for exceedingly remunerated employment to a person by either a mysterious personage or connected by a blood relation, as seen in “Red Headed League”  “Engineer’s Thumb,” “Greek Interpreter,” “Copper Beeches,” and “Norwood Builder.” The depiction of Violet Smith, typical of the characterization of female clients in the canon, is underdeveloped, having been seemingly patched together from other stories, including “A Case of Identity” and “Copper Beeches.”  The story itself also bears some similarities to “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.” With so many obvious points of comparison, it begs the question: why so much repetition?

A possible answer lies in the publication history of the story. Writing on the “Solitary Cyclist” in the Baker Street Journal, Randall Stock noted:

Conan Doyle had mixed feelings about “The Solitary Cyclist” but didn’t make major changes to the story. He wrote an initial draft, revised the manuscript, and sent it to be typed […] He had a commitment to write more stories and so proceeded to work on the others.

It is, per Stock’s account, the incessant pace of writing for periodicals that kept Conan Doyle in constant pursuit of new inspirations, motivations, and machinations for use in his plots. As discussed previously, failing those bursts of creative momentum, Conan Doyle simply recycled. If possible, he would later revise, but more often than not, he lacked this editing time, and so continued apace. What makes “Solitary Cyclist” a unique example of this is not that it is a repetitious story in itself, or an altogether weak one, but that it was initially rejected by Strand editor H. Greenhough Smith. Ultimately, having the story sent back to Conan Doyle for review and possible revision promoted “The Dancing Men,” originally intended to be the fourth story, in publication for the Return series. As Stock, again, noted:

After completing “The Dancing Men,” Conan Doyle reviewed “The Solitary Cyclist” again:

It strikes me as a dramatic & interesting & original story. The weakness lies in Holmes not having more to do. But Watson now prefaces his account by meeting this criticism. I have gone over it carefully & can do no more to strengthen it. I consider that these four stories will beat any four consecutive Holmes stories that I have done.

The preface referred to does not appear in the manuscript. It’s a single sentence appended to the end of the first paragraph: “It is true that the circumstance did not admit of any striking illustration of those powers for which my friend was famous, but there were some points about the case which made it stand out in those long records of crime from which I gather the material for these little narratives.” This is only a token change to the story, but it does show that the author thought about his editor’s comments.

In retrospect, there is considerably more to praise in the “Solitary Cyclist” than to blame its author for—the story lives up to the label of dramatic, interesting, and certainly, at least in its premise, original. That it is able, from a singular image of a woman cyclist being followed by a man, conjure so much mystery and suspense at a time when such an image would be considered most benign, is laudable indeed. Moreover, in the context of stories like Holmes’s return in “The Empty House,” “The Dancing Men” and the rich descriptions of “Norwood Builder,” one can see where Conan Doyle felt the pressure to produce something smaller in scope and scale before continuing onward to the next great adventure.  

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