(The World’s Greatest Consulting Detective. Source: Wikimedia)
In my quest to complete my 2013 reading list, I’ve finished another book. This one, The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was a romp, of course, and I raced through it much more quickly than I did the William Bradford history of the Pilgrims that I wrote about last time. Let me say this to the Sherlockians out there: it’s an uneven collection – though generally well written, it’s not hard to see that Conan Doyle’s Holmes work grew increasingly stale. “The Bruce-Partington Plans” is by far the best story in the collection – which includes two stories, “The Story of the Man with the Watches” and “The Story of the Lost Special” in which Holmes appears via some device (such as a letter to a newspaper) as “a well known criminal investigator” -which allows the author to offer Holmes’s explanations without offering us Holmes. That’s how tired of his creation Conan Doyle had become.
Despite Holmes’s incredible popularity (and the attendant riches it meant for him), the author wanted to write about someone else. Artistically, it’s easily understood – if an artist isn’t pursuing new challenges, he/she is stagnating, perhaps even regressing. That way lies madness and, perhaps, financial ruin. Conan Doyle wanted to pursue other sorts of writing (the argument over whether he chose a wise path is another that I won’t venture to undertake here).
In fact, Conan Doyle only returned to writing Holmes stories once he’d thrown the great detective off Reichenbach Falls because he’d been offered “too much money to turn down” by multiple sources (publishers, magazines). The story that “resurrects” the great detective, “The Adventure of the Empty House” is good but not great Holmes stuff. And after that the stories began to carry an uneasiness that sometimes work for hire does: the sense that craft has outstripped art, and that while we can appreciate Conan Doyle’s obvious literary craftsmanship, the stories don’t rise above what they are – formula detective fiction.
One has only to compare Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” (I would argue the most artistic Holmes story) to “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” (well crafted formula detective fiction) to see the difference between a writer in love with (well, fascinated by) his character and a writer doing what John Lennon called “knocking out a bit of work.”
While Conan Doyle/Holmes is perhaps the most famous example of a writer becoming disenchanted by a character, there are other examples. Mark Twain’s treatment of Tom Sawyer has its own history (and not a pretty one – see his treatment of Tom in Huckleberry Finn and the preposterous Tom Sawyer adventures Twain wrote for money to repay his creditors). And Thomas Wolfe (the great Southern novelist, not the journalist and raconteur – though he’s a good novelist, too) became so frustrated with his creation (one would be safe to say alter ego) Eugene Gant that he changed his name to George Webber – though whether this much improved or harmed – or indeed changed – the character at all is open to discussion.
I mention Wolfe because his uneasy relationship with his primary character parallels my own with a primary character in two of my three published books, Morte D’Eden, or Tom Sawyer Meets the Rolling Stones and Completeness of the Soul: The Life and Opinions of Jay Breeze, Rock Star. That character, Charlie Beagle, is at the center of the book I am working on now, The Wonderful Land of Eden.
I’ve shown him as an adolescent entering manhood in the 1st book mentioned above and as a man in his late 30’s trying to come to terms with the premature death of his friend in the 2nd. This last book offers stories from Charlie’s childhood – from his earliest memories (preschool) to the time when he meets another recurring character, Teddy Hatter, who also figures into these two books. These are interpolated with the 40-ish Charlie’s reflections on the loss of another friend, a character from Morte D’Eden, Ralph Dodge.
After this, I’m done. I’ll have told Charlie’s story as fully as I can. Any readers who care will know all about him from age three until his forties. Surely that should be enough.
But I have this terrible feeling that Conan Doyle, Twain, and Wolfe all said this same thing.
XPOST: Scholars and Rogues