Arts & Culture

Not so elementary, my dear Watson

5 min read

Symposium studies Doyle’s various contributions to literature

For more than a century, Sherlock Holmes, the most famous creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has captivated mystery fans, literary scholars, and researchers of virtually every stripe. But, as dozens of Doyle scholars and Sherlockians showed during a recent three-day symposium at Harvard, the Holmes stories represent only a small part of Doyle’s contribution to literature.

To mark the 150th anniversary of Doyle’s birth, dozens of scholars from around the world gathered at Houghton Library May 7-9 for the symposium, titled “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Sesquicentennial Assessment,” which featured speakers including Andrew Lycett, Dan Posnansky, Leslie Klinger, and Giles Constable, as well as the screening of several Sherlock Holmes films, presented by the Harvard Film Archive.

The three-day event was complemented by an exhibition of Doyle material, “‘Ever Westward’”: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and American Culture,” which includes rare books, manuscripts, and ephemera from Houghton’s collections, including the H.W. Bell/Speckled Band of Boston Collection and the Baker Street Irregulars archive, which was recently given to the library, and private collections. The exhibition will be on display in the Edison and Newman Room in Houghton Library through Aug. 8.

“Many people have tried to answer the question as to why Sherlock Holmes has endured,” said Dan Posnansky, member of the Baker Street Irregulars (a prominent Sherlockian society) and co-curator of the Houghton exhibit. “I think it’s a matter of Holmes, the man … and most of all the time he lived in, Victorian England.”

Though Doyle is most widely known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, the portrait that symposium participants rendered ran far beyond detective fiction. Doyle was voraciously curious, a meticulous researcher who often spent months studying history before putting pen to paper, an innovator in genres such as science fiction and fantasy, and an author quick to heap praise on the writers he felt inspired his greatest creations.

“Doyle never missed an opportunity to praise Edgar Allen Poe,” said Daniel Stashower, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars and author of “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle” (Henry Holt, 1999) and five mystery novels. “Doyle referred to him as the ‘supreme short story writer of our time.’”

Doyle’s high praise, Stashower suggested, illustrates the degree to which Doyle believed he owed Poe a literary debt. With his “Dupin” stories, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe created an early template for the detective story, which Doyle would later build on: the brilliant detective, the story narrated by the sleuth’s close friend, and the mystery’s solution resulting from a leap of deductive reasoning.

While Doyle may have drawn inspiration from Poe in his creation of Holmes, in the century since the detective’s first appearance, many more — including many prominent scholars — have since turned to the resident of 221b Baker St. for inspiration. A medieval history professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., and author of more than 20 books, Giles Constable told attendees that echoes of Holmesian deduction can be traced through virtually every academic pursuit, including history, game theory, psychology, and art history.

“I would not suggest to a young historian,” said Constable, “that they take Holmes’ principles as their primary guide when they conduct their research, but they could do much worse than to keep them in mind.”

The four Sherlock Holmes novels and 56 short stories represent barely more than 10 percent of Doyle’s total writings, said Thomas J. Francis, a Baker Street Irregulars member who discussed Doyle’s other writings.

Though they made him rich and famous, the Holmes stories were not among Doyle’s favorites. He reserved his greatest affection for his historical novels, particularly “The White Company.” The novel remains in print today, and was so popular during World War II that, despite a paper shortage, the British government set aside paper to ensure a sufficient supply for the book’s printing, Francis said.

Doyle also wrote extensively on sport, including several well-received novels on boxing, as well as novels and short stories on French history. He also wrote eight books on spiritualism and several volumes of poetry.

But perhaps Doyle’s greatest influence, aside from detective fiction, Francis suggested, came in the genre of science fiction. Following extensive research on fossils and science, Doyle authored “The Lost World,” a novel detailing an expedition to a plateau in Venezuela where dinosaurs and other extinct creatures still survive.

“The science fiction and fantasy work of Conan Doyle has had a profound impact on the genre, right up until today,” Francis said, citing the very first film adaptation of the book, in 1925, which introduced the stop-motion animation technique.

Andrew Lycett, author of “Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes,” addressed Doyle’s biographers and described a handful of sources he used in researching his acclaimed biography, including Doyle’s personal notebooks.

“Conan Doyle always tried to bring a measure of scientific inquiry to whatever he was interested in, whether it was the nature of tuberculosis or paranormal phenomena,” Lycett said. “But like his main creation — Sherlock Holmes — Conan Doyle remains a fascinating enigma; that’s why we find him such a fascinating character [and] so eminently worthy of discussion 150 years after his birth.”

While it’s clear that Doyle and Holmes have had a rich history, many symposium participants were also eager to learn what the future may hold — a new Sherlock Holmes film, starring Robert Downey Jr., is slated for release later this year, and shades of Holmes can be found throughout modern popular culture.

“I think it will be a great reawakening of public interest; I think it will be the beginning of another wave of interest, just as we saw in the ’70s with “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” said Leslie Klinger, editor of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes.” “I think this will bring the books back into focus.”