Tag Archives: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Secret History of Sherlock Holmes

18 Oct

While Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional master detective, Sherlock Holmes, is known for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt almost any disguise and his use of forensic science to solve difficult cases, rather less is known about his early life and family. This is in part due to the nature of Doyle’s stories, which purposely focus on the investigation rather than the detective and eschew details about Holmes himself, often using the framing device of his colleague Doctor Watson’s narration. Although this is highly effective as a narrative device, it raises as many questions as it answers when it comes to Sherlock the man, as opposed to Holmes the master investigator. Where was he born and educated, did he have any family apart from his brother Mycroft, what happened to him after he finally retired from detective work? etc. Whilst Doyle’s stories allude only distantly to these issues, the many fans of Sherlock Holmes have, somewhat appropriately, through careful detective work of their own, managed to come up with a number of theories, explanations and answers in what is usually described as ‘The Great Game’: a concerted attempt to resolve anomalies and clarify details about Holmes and Watson from the Conan Doyle canon. You may be surprised to hear that, as a result of this exercise, evidence has been found in Doyle’s own work that, among other things, Holmes and Mycroft have another elder brother and even a younger sister!

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The Hunt for the Hound

21 Feb

With its atmospheric setting on the ancient, wild moorland and its eponymous savage apparition, The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of the greatest crime novels ever written. Rationalism is pitted against the supernatural, good against evil, as the great detective Sherlock Holmes seeks to defeat a foe almost his equal. The hound of the title is a symbol of the mystery that unleashes the plot, the dark secrets of the moor, and of the ancestral curse that must be explained away. But what is the origin of the hound? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s friend, the crime writer Max Pemberton, reckoned that the inspiration for the hound came from the Black Shuck of East Anglian lore, while one editor of the Strand magazine likened the creature to the phantom boar-hound of Hergest Ridge on the Welsh Borders. Others have opted for a whole pack of spectral hounds – the wisht hounds that hunted the evil 17th century squire Richard Cabell to his doom at Buckfastleigh on the edge of Dartmoor each Midsummer ‘s Eve. Certainly there is no shortage of tales of ghostly black dogs and demonic hounds in the folklore, myths and legends of the British Isles that might have led Doyle to write this novel.

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Dead Man’s Land

25 Nov

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock recently, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that the Sherlock Holmes industry has never been in ruder health than it is at the moment. There is the hugely successful feature film franchise starring the ‘bromance’ pairing of Robert Downey Junior and Jude Law. Then there is the excellent BBC series Sherlock, made by Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which features a modern-day Holmes played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. Rather less impressive is the tacky and derivative Elementary, which has Johnny Lee Miller playing Holmes as a cross between C3P0 and Rain Man and, to add insult to injury, features a female ‘Joan Watson’ to boot! Nevertheless, despite its (many) limitations, Elementary, like Sherlock and the feature films, shows the enduring popularity of the character worldwide. At a recent author and blogger event at the offices of Simon & Schuster, I had the good fortune to meet Robert Ryan, the author of Dead Man’s Land, a novel which introduces an intriguing new twist on Holmesian mythology.

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The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

30 Sep

One day in 1872 the brig Dei Gratia, while butting her bows through the Atlantic rollers west of Spain, came across another ship that appeared to have been deserted in mid-ocean for no apparent reason – the Mary Celeste. When the Mary Celeste did not reply to their signal, the first and second mates of the Dei Gratia rowed over to the seemingly abandoned ship and hauled themselves on deck, little realising as they did so that they had stumbled across one of the greatest shipping mysteries of all time. It soon became clear that the Mary Celeste had no one aboard and to this day the mystery of what happened to her crew and passengers remains.

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Sherlock Holmes versus The Supernatural

29 Sep

Sherlock Holmes, the most celebrated private investigator in all of literature, famously shunned all suggestion of supernatural agency (as he told his companion Dr John Watson on more than one occasion “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”). Despite this, a surprising number of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the great detective start with strong hints that something uncanny is at work, most obviously The Sussex Vampire, The Devil’s Foot, The Creeping Man and, of course, The Hound of the Baskervilles. There is also the famous missing, though oft-mentioned by Holmes, adventure of The Giant Rat of Sumatra. In the end, however, these seemingly supernatural accounts are always rationalised and we are left with the comforting knowledge that all can be explained, that there is no darkness too deep to be illuminated by the light of intellect and reason. Whilst this may the case with Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, however, it was not the case with all of his short fiction.

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The Devil in Dartmoor?

17 Sep

One evening in early February 1855 snow fell in Devon, and with it one of the strangest unsolved mysteries of all time. For when people awoke in towns and villages across the county, they noticed in the otherwise untrodden snow thousands of very odd footprints – footprints which were found not only on the ground but also across the rooftops of houses, over high walls, and even across a two-mile estuary! But the oddest thing about the impressions left in the snow was the fact that they were left by cloven feet and were so deep and clearly defined that they looked as though they had been burned into the snow by a hot iron. All over Devon curiosity turned to fear as the question was asked: Did the Devil walk the rooftops? Continue reading

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