Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Influence of Sherlock Holmes

When Arthur Conan Doyle sat down to write A Study in Scarlet, he was approaching the mystery genre as a thing which was more-or-less a clean slate. There were of course previous mysteries, the genre having been created by Edgar Allan Poe, and since Poe's initial publication of The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, writers such as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had had their own try at the mystery story. Yet, Doyle's contribution would change the mystery genre forever, revolutionising it and paving the way for sub-genres in the years to come.

First and foremost, Doyle's contribution to the mystery genre was in the presentation of the hero. Prior to Holmes' appearance in the written format, Poe's detective C. Auguste Dupin was the name most associated with mysteries. While Dupin may have the distinction of being the first detective, and his influence on not only Holmes but other investigators to come, he is nevertheless an incredibly dull character, seldom venturing from his armchair to solve a case. What's more, Dupin, and his unnamed associate-cum-narrator, are both verbose and bordering on the pedantic, which in part mirrors Poe's narrative style, but even to the hardened mystery enthusiast, C. Auguste Dupin does not hold a candle to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a compelling character, not only in his eccentricities, but the way he solves his crimes. Holmes balances the logical train of observation and deduction with a healthy dose of action - Holmes' knowledge of martial arts would have been completely alien in the mystery genre created by Edgar Allan Poe. Interestingly, Doyle was also the first to present the magnifying glass as a instrument of detection. The illustration seen above, drawn by D.H. Friston for Beeton's Christmas Annual (which was the first published illustration of the detective) depicts Holmes using the tool of the detective's trade.

The "how-catch-'em" - The Mazarin Stone
The Sherlock Holmes canon also yields a number of interesting precursors to later mystery stories. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes alone serve as templates for many stories which would come later on: The Speckled Band served as one of the first locked-room impossible mysteries, The Boscombe Valley Mystery featured an early example of the traditional puzzle mystery and both A Case of Identity and The Noble Bachelor feature the well-worn mystery plot trope of characters adopting a number of identities. It is also interesting to point out that the collection of short stories also features something of a throwback to Poe's second mystery story The Purloined Letter in the form of A Scandal in Bohemia and The Red-Headed League would see the go-around later in the canon in both The Stockbroker's Clerk and The Three Garridebs.

As the canon progressed the influence on later generations of mysteries became more evident. The last Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear would serve as one of the first hardboiled detective mysteries (click here to read my evaluation of that novel) and three years later His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes would serve as an early spy story (a rather tepid spy story, but its includes a bit of espionage all the same). Both of these short stories feature a darker edge, particularly The Valley of Fear which features a violent back-story and would serve as a segue to the equally dark final set of short stories The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. The first story in this last collection is The Illustrious Client, surely the most disturbing of all the original short stories. Curiously The Illustrious Client doesn't feature much of a mystery at all and it can be argued that it served as something of a template for the "how-catch-'em" school of mysteries which would come later. A few stories later, this "how-catch-'em" style would return in The Mazarin Stone, which though reviled by many Sherlockians, follows the conventions of that latter genre as Holmes knows the identity of the crime's perpetrators but cannot point the finger of suspicion directly at them.

Holmes Cracks the Code of The Dancing Men
The Holmes mysteries on a few occasions featured secret codes of some kind. Again, though the code-breaking mystery was also the product of Edgar Allan Poe's imagination, making its premier in his short story, The Gold Bug, Doyle's short stories added the deductive, reasoning spin which his other stories boasted. Nowhere else has the code-breaking mystery been so well-done than in The Dancing Men which is actually one of the best plotted of all Doyle's mysteries. The first half works to set up the story as a traditional code-breaking venture, but the second takes the story into the realms of murder mystery, where the story really does pick up speed and affords Holmes some of his finest detective moments.

The revolution of the mystery genre is surely attributed to Arthur Conan Doyle. His works more than any other helped to establish the detective as a figure in literature and following the publication of the original Holmes adventures, a number of other authors tried their hand at writing mysteries, many of their creations being dubbed The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes' influence is felt throughout the history of detective fiction and one wonders if writers such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen or Dorthy L. Sayers could have flourished so greatly without the shadow of Sherlock Holmes standing in the wings.

Are there any influential pieces which I neglected? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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