Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and the scientific art of writing
Author: SherlockExtra - Translator: Revati
“The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it's made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it.” - Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Miller Hemingway
Sherlock Holmes and the art of writing
Sherlock Holmes is one of the biggest geniuses of the world. Writing is very important for him, because he works with people and he has to be good at their character and thoughts, since writing belongs to the most effective ways of putting down thoughts and communicating information. Holmes often becomes aware of crimes or the whereabouts of notorious criminals by cable, and he sends telegrams to police stations to make inquiries. In the adventure of The Missing Three-Quarter he finds a new starting point to his investigation by adducing a missing signature. He learns the developments of various cases in written form, from the printed letters of newspapers, and he also has an extensive registry of criminal records. The profession he created for himself is the most important thing in his life, so no wonder he publishes several studies in which he shares his observations. He is delighted when his colleagues appreciate his writings. He often keeps in touch with the good doctor Watson via letters. In the most well-known story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson regularly sends him long and detailed reports of the sinister events on the moor. Sherlock’s most touching message is the short note he leaves for Watson at Reichenbach Falls before his fatal encounter with Professor Moriarty. From the few lines it turns out that he asked his enemy to allow him to write a message. The short time while he is writing this last letter is spent with a pleasant activity, and he not only says goodbye to Watson, but he also settles his thoughts before the duel. As we all know, he survives the encounter thanks to his skills in baritsu, but the fact that he could write down his thoughts certainly gave him some advantage.
It is mentioned in The Final Problem that Moriarty wrote a treatise on the binomial theorem when he was young, and it won him the mathematical chair at a smaller university. Writing is a way of expressing his knowledge for Moriarty as well, and he owes his reputation to it. And don’t forget that in A Study in Scarlet Watson learns his flatmate’s exceptional profession from his publication entitled The Book of Life.
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes: The Granada series
Of course the genius of Baker Street is good at graphology and he is able to find out many things from the envelope, the notepaper, the handwriting and even from the printed letters cut out from newspapers. A good example for this is the aforementioned The Hound of the Baskervilles, where the mysterious message tells the sleuth much more than the others, because he recognizes the tipography, and as he always easily recalls what he had read not long ago, he soon identifies that the text is from yesterday’s Times. In the original adventures Holmes always has a pen with him, and he uses his shirt cuff to take notes. In his home he has a blackboard and chalk to trace his thoughts – House, M. D., who is modelled after him, often uses whiteboard and marker, and Jonny Lee Miller’s and Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock pin their notes on the fireplace or the wall.
So we can say that writing is an important tool of communication for Sherlock, and a hobby at the same time. He is a keen collector of ancient scriptures, he especially likes Gothic texts. Though shortly after their firs meeting dr. Watson incorrectly thinks that the eccentric sleuth is unaccustomed to literature (Link: Misbeliefs about Sherlock Holmes), later it dawns on him that his flatmate is a very literate man. Holmes writes and reads a lot. As Mihály Babits, the great Hungarian poet and writer said:”Reading is thinking, and writing is speech.” Sherlock is the master of cryptography, he uses it and he is able to decode cyphers. In another memorable adventure, The Dancing Men, he has to break a code similar to children’s drawings. His excellent writing skills are an integral part of his successful career as a consulting detective. After his retirement he continues to write – in Sussex he publishes a book on his pastime, beekeeping (Recommended article: Sherlock Holmes and the bees).
BBC Sherlock ( Benedict Cumberbatch ) and CBS Sherlock ( Jonny Lee Miller )
In modern adaptations Sherlock uses mobile phones and computers/laptops to make his work easier. Internet helps his searches enormously. Young people know how to use the World Wide Web and they love to be online. But we must not forget that the detectives of BBC Sherlock or Elementary do not spend their free time looking at pictures or posting short comments. Miller’s Holmes chats about beekeeping, so he uses the net for active communication. His and Benedict Cumberbatch’s sleuth read real books – we often see packed bookshelves in the background. BBC’s detective also plays with a Sudoku cube, this logic game was developed from the Rubik’s cube, invented by Hungarian Ernő Rubik. There is a Goethe bust in Sherlock’s bedroom in the British adaptation – this suggests that he respects the great German poet. In the Canon Holmes quotes Goethe more than once. The detectives of the modern adaptations are not net addicts, they use it but they are not a fiend of it. Frequent and short communication can be more harmful for the brain. We communicate with words. When the number of characters is limited (sms, Twitter), vocabulary wanes and later one finds it harder to see the logical context of things. Using the keyboard too often may result forgetting of handwriting. Watching the computer’s monitor or the laptop dries the eyes, causes sight failing, and the muscles of the eyes are disaccustomed of sideward movements, and above all these too much sitting has many disadvantages as well. The modern Sherlocks use the innovations of their time in reason, and at the same time they also use handwriting.
Writing sees through the life of the eccentric, pipe-smoking genius. We learn of his adventures mainly from the writings of dr. Watson, Holmes himself put down only two of his own adventures. We know of his existence, death and coming to life again via the Canon – which is the work of Renaissance man Arthur Conan Doyle. He gave us the fascinating Sherlock Holmes.
Conan Doyle and the art of writing
Conan Doyle was a highly educated author with unbelievable imagination. He was an ophtalmologist, but he had so few patients that he began to write to fight boredom. He would certainly agree with the following statement of Italian writer Alessandro Baricco:”Writing is the only painless way of waiting.”
Doyle modelled his most famous character mainly after Professor Joseph Bell, who was widely known for his excellent observation skills, but he got inspiration from many other people (More information: Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter). In the end he named his hero Sherlock Holmes after several unsuccessful versions (Link: The name of Sherlock Holmes). While writing the stories, Doyle made use of his scientific knowledge, his imagination and the details and news he read or heard about different crimes.Through the adventures not just Holmes becomes a legendary figure, but crime solving improves from inefficient hard labour to a special branch of science that brings a bright career for him and a safer life for Victorian people. Readers of the stories receive lots of joy and the incentive not to be afraid to think – this way they will have a more successful life. Above the thrill of crimes there is always a moral lesson in the stories.
Arthur Conan Doyle had the ability to create staggeringly realistic characters. Reading the adventures of Baker Street’s detective duo everybody was convinced that Sherlock Holmes and dr. John H.Watson are alive. Out of respect we still speak about them as if they were living persons –it is a worldwide tradition. Sherlock already won people’s hearts when he made his debut in the first story. It shows the greatness of Doyle that he dared and could improve the character in the sequels. The stories have a delicate wit, which is really amusing.
The author also wrote some short Sherlock parodies – but he never humiliated or changed the main characters.
The diligent notes which show how much Doyle earned for publishing the exciting adventures of Holmes are still accessible. Then some time later the writer got tired of his legendary creature. In The Final Problem he organized a deadly encounter between him and Professor Moriarty. It seemed that none of them survived the fall, but the fans of the great detective could not accept the death of their hero. Doyle received lots of written and verbal threats. His mother, Mary also rebuked the death-rate of Sherlock Holmes. Conan loved her very much and she had always been very important for him. Mother and son had an extensive correspondence, some of Conan’s letters still exist today. Their letters show that the author wanted to concentrate on his historical novels instead of the adventures of the Baker Street sleuth. Doyle was an outstanding writer who showed his talent in numerous literary genres from poems to stage plays. Winston Churchill thought that Conan’s historical novels exceed even the quality of the fantastic Sherlock stories. The author was knighted in 1902, and his opinion was that he received this honour mainly for his pamphlet The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct. We can say that writing new Holmes stories was an urge for him and also a kind of withdrawal. But he was paid well for the detective stories and made many people happy with them. Lots of authors asked his permission to write stage plays about the sleuth, but Doyle contemplated a lot before granting his permission. He liked the play of William Gillette very much. The American actor contacted him via letter, then he travelled a lot to meet him personally and read out his script. This happened when Conan already „killed” Holmes. He allowed Gillette to use the characters, and his hand-written note in which he admits that he was glad to hear from Sherlock again is still available. The good-natured actor and the famous writer became lifelong friends, and Conan thought his performance was perfect. This wonderful and inspiring friendship could not have been come into existence without the letters and the stage play.
Conan Doyle and the art of writing
Lots and lots of authors, more than ten thousand people wrote about the immortal British character. Many people are familiar with the film/movie adaptations only, yet these are often shallow or their characters are negatively changed. The most authentic television adaptation is the Granada series starring Jeremy Brett. During club and society meetings it is a common experience to read the adventures together. The most significant societies have their own online or printed magazines with interesting articles and news of the Sherlockian world.
Nowadays letters and telegrams give place to emails and chats. We, the editors of Sherlockian-sherlock (Revati and SherlockExtra) also found each other through the internet, on a Hungarian Sherlock Holmes forum. Later we worked together on a Hungarian Sherlock Holmes site, then we created this English website. We learned each other’s thoughts via writing, we got to like each other and became friends and colleagues. As we live quite far from each other (practically half of Hungary divides us), the fact that we can communicate daily through email, chat and sms is very important both for our work and for our friendship. Being in contact would be much slower via letters. Last, but not least, internet helps us in reaching our readers and partners.
Keep in mind the thought of Hungarian psychiatrist, graphologist and writer Erika W. Barna:”During writing the dimensions between the material and the immaterial world become permeable. Because writing is a soul materialised in letters.” Writing is a great secret that makes the world better and more valuable.
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories
Sherlock Holmes illustrators