PENGUINCLASSICS.COM The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
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Arthur Conan Doyle
by Laurie R. King

"Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms."

It really is the only explanation. Not just for Mr Sherlock Holmes, who says those words as he muses over the source of the detecting abilities he shares with his brother Mycroft (and thus siding with the Detective-as-artist school of thought over the Detective-as-calculating-machine), but equally to explain the man who penned the words, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

How else to account for the strange, vivid, flowers of fiction that burst from this outwardly ordinary British gentleman, except to say that Conan Doyle had art in his blood? Certainly he came from a family of artists on his father's side, and his mother was a born storyteller with a strong sense of the dramatic. That Sir Arthur's father, a failed artist from a clan of successful artists, was also a huge problem to the family—erratic, alcoholic, and finally condemned to a mental asylum—while his beloved storyteller mother was a strong moralist who raised her seven living children to the Roman Catholic faith, served to lay the groundwork for an extreme polarity of vision that was to characterise Conan Doyle's life and work.

Conan Doyle started out ordinary enough. He grew up in Edinburgh, went to an appropriately brutal boy's school in England, followed it with medical school like a good son, did well on his exams, splurged on a brief trip with an Arctic whaling expedition that put some money in his pocket but more to the point gave him Adventure enough to blow the cobwebs of the lecture hall from his brain; then he settled down to work. Except that he didn't. He spent the next ten years hopping from one place to the next, acting as medical officer aboard a West African steamer and training as an oculist in Vienna, marrying and begetting and trying his best to be a responsible husband and father.

But he could not deny the art in his blood. Even while at medical school he had written fiction, and now, in the slow intervals between patients, the doctor sat at his surgery desk and took up his pen. (All praise to the patron saints of storytelling and doctors, for ensuring that the Conan Doyle medical practice, although considerably more of a success than the man's later self-mythologising would indicate, did not roar immediately into packed waiting-rooms.) Mysteries and adventures, historical tales and fantasies, one after another they trickled out and, with gratifying and increasing regularity, found homes for themselves in the pages of Strand and Cornhill Magazine, until in the spring of 1886, Conan Doyle found the character he was born to write: With a sharp cry of triumph and the words "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive," Sherlock Holmes met Dr John Watson, and a legend was born.

Note, please, the sequence in our introduction to the young proto-detective: The ecstatic cry comes first, then the analytical deduction. Holmes might be called a thinking machine, even by his closest friend, but it is that cry that rings in our ears, that almost childlike delight in his discovery over the test-tubes that animates his thin face in our mind's eye, forging a human link to the close analysis of perceived data that follows.

Dichotomy delights. Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective, might think of himself as a cool-blooded calculator of data, might even convince his audience that he is nothing but a feverish brain appended to an inconvenient body, but any reader of Conan Doyle knows better. We know that Holmes' cold and massive rationality is in fact driven by an equally immense passion, for life and action and above all, for Justice. Holmes may indeed be a Thinking Machine, but he is a machine that regularly bubbles over with joie de vivre: He jokes, he rants, he plays pranks, he relishes his food and lusts after the challenge of a good case, he loses himself in music and philosophises on the Goodness represented by the existence of a rose and once, just once, reveals his heart to Watson.

Yet it can not be denied that Holmes at times verges on the inhuman, greeting the news of a client's death with mild regret and a philosophic determination to solve the case regardless, shamefully misusing his ever-faithful companion-at-arms Watson (or indeed any number of other innocents) when a case seems to call for it, and often seeming incapable of looking beyond the puzzle before him to its human elements. Holmes is dichotomy personified: the scientist fuelled by passion, the arch-egotist who lives for the good of his fellow man, the friendless misanthrope adored by millions, and even (whisper this last) the monk-like bachelor who has contributed so much to the fantasy lives of women.

Holmes is not the only one of Conan Doyle's creations to demonstrate the author's innate sense of polarity. One of the Professor Challenger stories frankly shocks modern sensibilities by blithely murdering off the world's entire population in order to prove the Professor right; one wonders uneasily if Mrs Challenger was saved merely to provide necessary genetic material for the next stage of human development. Certainly the Professor's affections did not extend to his neighbours, his long-time employees, or even his King, any of whom might have benefited from a word of warning concerning the efficacy of oxygen—even though, by all accounts, the author himself was a man of hearty affections and considerable loyalties. He would not divorce a dying wife, even with an eager and much-loved second-wife-to-be waiting patiently in the wings. His softness of heart led him to lengthy advocacy of strangers (such as the case of George Edalji, a half-blind Indian accused of the nocturnal serial mutilation of...cows. Holmes would have burst out in his famous biting laugh.) The doctor was an easy touch for causes.

Which brings us, necessarily, to Conan Doyle's spiritualism. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world's great rationalist, was a fervent believer in all things spiritual, ghostly, ectoplasmic, and charlatan. A self-declared agnostic who stated firmly that he could not accept an unprovable thesis such as Christianity, he later seized on the eminently disprovable performances of mind-readers and automatic writing to explain his world. Particularly after the disasters of the Great War, he became ever more deeply committed to the belief that his dead son had survived the grave and that his mother was watching over him; in the end he gave all his energies and most of his fortune to the sort of muscular spiritualism that called to him, declaring the furthering of mediums to be his mission in life. He was convinced, for example—he knew to his bones—that Harry Houdini escaped his chains not by mere trick, but by dematerialising from within their iron bonds and resuming his corporeal self off to one side. He stuck to his belief even when Houdini explained, over and over again, that it was mere technique: Poor deluded Houdini might not recognise his own psychic powers, but Conan Doyle did.

A bundle of contradictions, Sir Arthur: gullible skeptic; earth-bound romantic; law-abiding suburbanite whose great hero had little respect for the law or the law's agents; spokesman for rationality who yet joyously accepted a child's simplistic photographs as proof of the existence of fairies; creator of a character any writer would kill for (as those of us who have tried to write Holmes are too painfully aware) who after a brief seven-year run heartlessly tossed the character off a high waterfall because he was threatening to interfere with his creator's "real work" of historical romances; unschooled literary force capable of tight-knit prose studded with such nerve-tingling gems as the horrified, "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"; or the admission that a mystery was proving "a three-pipe problem"; and the most famous of all his exchanges, the protest, "The dog did nothing in the night-time" followed by Holmes' enigmatic reply, "That was the curious incident."

Immortal, language-enriching phrases, vital, immediate places and people flowed from the doctor's pen with an ease that makes a writer writhe with envy. And the most frustrating thing is knowing that the Holmes stories were so easy for Conan Doyle, he discounted them entirely. They were of such minor importance in his own mind that he would toss off a story with little revision, send it off, pay his bills, and then return to his real work. Conan Doyle was like some artist capable of exquisite, evocative pen-and-ink sketches who yet sees value only in the huge, overworked oil canvases he insists on producing.

The only revenge a poor imitator can take is the knowledge that the unloved detective won out in the end, that the light and unimportant fiction Conan Doyle reverted to when time came to support a family and his spiritualist enterprises managed to sneak around the backs of those closely researched and utterly earnest historical novels and take on a life of their own away from their creator, leaving Holmes standing alone, uncreated, timeless, and infinitely more immediate in the world's eye than the stolid British doctor under whose name the stories are kept on shelves from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar.

(It may even be a good thing that Conan Doyle did not take the Holmes stories seriously, or we might have seen the detective's personality stretched and twisted to promote the cause of spiritualism. Holmes depending on automatic writing to solve a case, or consulting an ectoplasmic medium—one shudders at the possibilities.)

Thus, in the end, Sir Arthur was overtaken by his own creation, Holmes' great shadow engulfing his own. Surely there can't be many writers who habitually receive mail addressed to his or her fictional character—and, moreover, get it delivered by the postman? We might spare a moment of sympathy for the good doctor's dignity, as he battled to free himself from the sticky webs of his own brilliant fiction.

But perhaps only a moment. I for one am happy enough to take up my slim, engagingly worked volume about, and by, a man transformed by the art in his blood; I join with a throng of others in a Babel of languages, all of us eager to step again into those pages lit perpetually by the hissing gas jets, as we prepare to flag down a hansom cab in the pursuit of villainy. The game, surely, is still afoot.

Arthur Conan Doyle
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