Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and the Paranormal: It's All About the Atmosphere

Ectoplasm: one of the odder
variations amongst spiritualists.
The "ectoplasm" is cheesecloth.
Books about Arthur Conan Doyle often read something like this: "But then, after creating the scientific Mr. Holmes, Conan Doyle proceeded to go off the deep end and invest in hunting for ghosts."

Along the same theme, several tribute authors have Holmes shake his head bemusedly at the sad mental decline of his friend/publisher, Mr. Arthur Conan Doyle.

Modern authors and critics make two mistakes here:

(1) Although Sherlock would have found Arthur Conan Doyle a far more bonhomous personality than himself, he would not have found his interest in spiritualism odd--not a Sherlock of the nineteenth century anyway. Spiritualism--at least initially--was greeted by the scientific community as a possible scientific advance. If humans could create a telegraph that communicated around the world, why couldn't humans create a device that communicated beyond this world? Scientific American offered an award to the first person to prove the existence of the afterlife.

Cottingley Fairies
To hugely summarize the Conan Doyle/Houdini relationship, Conan Doyle and Houdini investigated various spiritualists in America. From the beginning, Conan Doyle was admittedly more optimistic and Houdini was miles more skeptical but their mandate, at first, was the same: to uncover hoaxes and find the real thing.

They split when Conan Doyle thought they had found the real thing and Houdini continued to maintain that all spiritualists were frauds and hucksters (Houdini was right).

It is difficult to "get" Conan Doyle's intransigence in the face of what appears (to modern eyes) as obvious wackiness until one remembers that he lost a son and other family members to the horrors of World War I. In his dedication to occult phenomena, he supported the existence of the Cottingley fairies based on images that (to modern eyes) appear absolutely and obviously manufactured. It reminds me of a folklore class in which I showed the famous Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot clip; a bemused student in the front row said, "And people thought that wasn't a guy in a suit?"

In "Possibility Two," Sherlock agrees to investigate
a man who has been "poisoned" by a genetic mutation.
The bee is his payment.
As our eyes become more sophisticated, our expectations for what comprises fraud increase. There's a reason that con artists generally stick to the abstract painters rather earlier artists; it is one thing to fool people with a Mondrian; it is another to fool them with a Rembrandt. However, even with a Mondrian, a true expert can often spot the fraud. Most con artists rely less on the product and more on the mark's willingness to be defrauded. Conan Doyle was willing to be defrauded. Houdini wasn't.

Despite Conan Doyle going admittedly a little strange (with those fairies and all), his hunt for the paranormal was still in keeping with nineteenth century scientific thought. The connection between forensics and, say, palm reading was at that time closer than makes us empiricists comfortable. From this perspective, Elementary's occasional episode in which an extreme scientific discovery plays a role is in keeping with the Holmes' tradition.

I love them all--but don't forget, folks:
Brett is still the yardstick (I realize.
that statement is debatable :).
(2) The Sherlock Holmes' stories, despite their emphasis on forensics, are mainly and principally adventure stories, not CSI-type discourses on fingerprinting.  Grissom is not running around shouting, "Preserve the evidence!" Watson is running around shooting guns. Most importantly, the stories are filled to the brim with atmosphere. All Sherlock Holmes, especially BBC's 1980 series with Jeremy Brett, utilize this atmosphere. Brett/Burke/Hardwicke -- Downey/Law -- Miller/Liu -- Cumberbatch/Freeman, everything up to and including the modernized versions hark back to the dark, oil-lamp London of bygone eras.

Sherlock Holmes has lasted for many reasons and one of them, yes, is the forensics. The forensics alone wouldn't have been enough though. Neither would the adventure. Neither would the characterization. Other mystery writers of the same era were producing forensics and adventure and memorable characterization.

Conan Doyle put it all together into one perfect creation.

And I'm sure Paget's pictures didn't hurt.


Joe said...

How appropriate; I was just about to post a comment about Conan Doyle on your previous blog entry. There is both a criticism and skepticism about Doyle and his fascination with the paranormal, but which assume that Doyle IS Holmes.

He's not. He wrote Holmes. When writing, you can go back and forth in the story, inventing things along the way. Granted, a character can't be roughly more intelligent than the writer, but that's only in generalities. A clever writer can easily make characters appear more intelligent than they really are. After all, and above all, the writer knows Who Did It.

The other problem is that Holmes isn't nearly as smart and clever as people perceive him to be. (Neither is Hercule Poirot.) Quite often Holmes is smart because Doyle says he is and nothing more. This is quite common in literature/movies/plays, especially with good and evil, though also with intelligence. (It is both amusing and annoying when we are repeatedly told of a characters traits when their actions contradict the assurances.)

Katherine Woodbury said...

Another technique--which kinda works--is to give the detective a less-smart appearing friend, not because the friend IS less smart but because the appearance of lesser intelligence will make the detective look brilliant (or, as Cumberbatch's Sherlock says about appearing taller on TV, "You get yourself a short friend!").

The problem with Watson, of course, is that too many tribute writers/television producers have misunderstood Watson's purpose from a writing perspective and made him actually stupid. I've written elsewhere about how much this aggravates me--suffice it to say here that one of my favorite parts of BBC Sherlock is the discussion between Watson and Mycroft in the first movie: "You're under stress right now and your hand is perfectly steady. You're not haunted by the war, Dr. Watson. You miss it."

My second favorite exchange takes place in the third season after Watson goes to a crack-house, ostensibly to help his neighbor but actually because he is spoiling for a fight. As Sherlock explains, "You were a doctor who went to war. You're a man who couldn't stay in the suburbs for more than a month without storming a crack den, beating up a junkie. Your best friend is a sociopath who solves crimes as an alternative to getting high. That's me, by the way. Hello. Even our landlady used to run a drug cartel. John, you're addicted to a certain lifestyle! You're abnormally attracted to dangerous situations and people, so is it truly such a surprise that the woman you've fallen in love with conforms to that pattern?"

Freeman's Watson is an utterly unique person who chooses to associate with a smart-aleck detective, not because he is dumb but because he is looking for adventure. Which was really always the purpose of Watson.

Speaking of BBC Sherlock, the Christmas special is already available through the local library! I am #26 on the hold list. I guess the BBC knew that us Americans would never stand for a 6-month wait . . .