Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lessons from Arthur Conan Doyle

I make no bones about it: I am in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes mood. I've seen the movie (loved it; my take in this week's podcast), read all four novels (A Study in Scarlet; The Sign of Four; The Hound of the Baskervilles; The Valley of Fear), read a graphic novel (my take) and now am working my way through the short stories, re-reading some and reading (for the first time) others. I find that when a mood strikes me, I just ride the wave and think very little of it. I'm enjoying myself. Who cares.

In reading the four novels back-to-back, some of Conan Doyle's stylistic choices can easily be seen. They are simple rules, really, but ones that jumped out at me. I'd like to share three.


While Holmes had fifty-six short adventures, he has four novel-length ones. The first two novels are also the first two times Holmes made his literary appearance. How does the twenty-seven-year-old author handle pacing?

Not bad. In the first novel, A Study in Scarlet, there is a fair amount of sitting a talking. Conan Doyle is making his case for the existence of Holmes and, thus, treats readers to a lecture in the form of dialogue. As the novels progressed, the pacing increased. One thing Conan Doyle stopped doing is having his characters sit and do nothing but talk. Sure, the same information is being presented but the characters are moving. They might be in the carriage with Mary Marstan traveling to meet her mysterious visitor. Watson and Sir Henry Baskerville walk and talk. The end result is that you get the information dump Conan Doyle needs you to have but in a fashion that's deceptive. It's a trait picked up by other authors, Edgar Rice Burroughs, to name a classic example, and James Reasoner, to name a modern one. I marveled at how Reasoner had hero Gabriel Hunt and various other character talk about stuff whilst driving away from the bad guys. It speeds up the inevitable info dumps. We'll leave to another post info dumps in general.


If you read an Elmore Leonard book or Ken Bruen story, you'll notice something. Or, rather, you may not. These writers give but there barest amount of description. Leonard has said more than once that he uses his characters dialogue to flesh out their physical descriptions. It works, too. You don't really need to know what Carl Webster look like in "The Hot Kid." A few descriptors are provided and then Carl does the rest, with his actions and his speech.

Not so with Conan Doyle. While he may be panned by the literati as a hack, the man could spin some glorious descriptions. And he does it in few words. When Watson first sees the moors in "The Hound of the Baskervilles," Conan Doyle writes that the granite rock rose above the ground like foaming waves flecked with white cotton. You can see it now, in your head, right?

I was really struck with the importance of description when Watson went to visit Laura Lyons in "Baskervilles." In one paragraph, Watson walks in a describes the room. Now, having done that, I can pretty much make out what Lyons looks like without any physical description. However, Conan Doyle gives us some, a complete paragraph's worth, before Watson gets to utter his first word. In the first few seconds, I got irritated. Just get on with the story! But, the paragraph won me over to the point where I noted its importance. Leonard's got his way of writing. I'm not sure I'm in his camp.

Leave the Hero in the Story

By reading all four novels within a three-week span, I realized that Conan Doyle wrote "A Study in Scarlet" twice. Not really, but the structure of "Scarlet" and that of "The Valley of Fear" are almost identical. The first half of the book has Holmes and Watson doing their thing. The second half of the book has completely different characters and, in the case of "Valley," a completely different tone. Frankly, I hated it. How can you have your hero not in the book. "The Sign of Four" rectifies the problem by having Holmes and Watson present when the culprit tells his extensive back story. This allows Holmes to interject from time to time, giving us, the reader, a better in-the-moment feeling.

Baskervilles is a different matter. As pretty much everyone knows who has read the book (SPOILER ahead if you haven't and want to), Holmes disappears for the middle third of the book. There's a perfectly good reason for it and Watson has a chance to shine. To be honest, Baskervilles works so well within the structure Conan Doyle created that it left me with the feeling that Watson, not Holmes, is the real hero of the book. Intriguing.

These are just a few things I noticed while reading the Holmes novels. I'm sure, as I wade through the short stories, others will arise. If, and when, they do, I'll let you know. Unless, that is, y'all are getting tired of Sherlock Holmes All The Time. To date, I'm not. I'm having a blast.


Paul D Brazill said...

Interesting piece, Scott. I'm off to see the film this week.

Dana King said...

Re: Description. You're right: it depends on the story. The Holmes stories are all about attention to detail, what Holmes notices the average person won't. The descriptions are important because you never know what Doyle is dropping in there that's going to be important.

With Leonard--who I also love to read--different things are important, and he can afford to move things along and let you fill in what Carl Webster looks like however you like. It's not a big deal.

Then there's Chandler. Marlowe isn't Holmes, but Chandler's descriptions are so beautifully I don;t mind waiting while he walks me into a room I might never see again. Yes, he's probably showing off, but he's so good I don't mind.

Unknown said...

"Not having the hero in the book" is a major problem for the modern audience of Valley of Fear. You'll find this discussed in some detail in "Blast from the Literary Past" at www.blackhorsewesterns/com/bhe13 My take on a broadly similar storyline, Blast to Oblivion, is now available (January) from Ulverscroft in a large-print, trade paperback edition.

Unknown said...

Sorry that URL has a slash too many. Make it

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