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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Celebrities in Undress: XXXIII. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Celebrities in Undress: XXXIII. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is an article written by Beverley Nichols in her series "Woad!" published in The Sketch on 10 november 1926.

Celebrities in Undress: XXXIII. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sketch (10 november 1926, p. 288)

THIS WEEK'S SUBJECT OF "WOAD": SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, CREATOR OF "SHERLOCK HOLMES," MASTER OF THE SHORT STORY, AND ARDENT SPIRITUALIST. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859, and is a man of wide experience. He has practised as a doctor, been on an Arctic Expedition, and fought elections. He is one of the modern masters of that difficult art, the writing of the short story, and will be remembered by the majority as the creator of that most famous of all detectives, Sherlock Holmes. His other books include "The White Company," "Rodney Stone," "The Sign of Four," and many others, and he also wrote "History of the British Campaign in France and Flanders, 1915-20." Of recent years he has been deeply interested in Spiritualism. Photograph by Swaine.

We were sitting in front of a blazing fire, talking about Sherlock Holmes. It was just the sort of day on which one should talk about Holmes, for there was a thick mist in the streets outside, and it was Sunday — the day on which, one imagines, all the best criminals feel most creative.

Now, when Conan Doyle talks about Sherlock Holmes, he is obviously talking about a real person. So obviously, in fact, that I had an almost uncomfortable feeling, as though at any moment a voice would be heard in the corridors outside, shouting "Watson!", or a thin hand be laid on my shoulder, and the rustle of a familiar dressing-gown echo behind my chair. Even now, I am convinced that Sherlock Holmes was somewhere near, and I was a little anxious lest he should overhear some of the not entirely laudatory things which Sir Arthur had to say about him.

"Of course, I'm grateful to Holmes," said Sir Arthur, much as he would say that he was grateful to a bright stock-broker or a competent physician — but certainly not as though he were speaking of a creature of his own. "I'm grateful to him," he repeated. "He's been a very good friend to me, in a pecuniary way. But, quite frankly, I get very tired of him." (I wished he would speak more softly, because the door was open, and I could have sworn that I heard the rattling of a hypodermic syringe).

"I fancy it may be that I know him too well," he went on. "I know exactly how he would behave in any circumstance, in any emergency, and that's always a bad thing to know about any of one's friends, isn't it?" (You notice the word "friends.") "I've always felt," he said, "that he's hardly human. He's got so few angles from which one can approach him. At first, he used to interest me much more. But I soon realised that he was really nothing more than a calculating machine. I feel he, and all his doings, probably appeal to a lower level of intelligence than the things which absorb me now." (Meaning, of course, the study of spiritualism.)

Now, I thought, if Holmes is outside the door, the fat is in the fire. To be told that one is nothing more nor less than a calculating machine, and that one is really apt to be a little tiresome, and that one's activities appeal to a comparatively low level of intelligence — to be told all this in the face of the fact that one has brought fame and glory to one's accuser, and has invariably provided him with an exclusive account of one's most sensational activities — surely that is a little hard? If I were Holmes, I should treat Sir Arthur very coldly the next time I met him.

"Don't you think," I said, by way of apologising for this maligned creature, "that you might try to find out a little more about his human side? His, er" — I wanted to say "love affairs," but it was a little difficult with that ghostly presence so near—" his affections?"

But Sir Arthur was relentless. "You can't bring love affairs into detective stories," he said. "As soon as you begin to make your detective too human, the story flops. It falls to the ground. You have to be ruthlessly analytical about the whole thing. If I had made Holmes human..."

I could not bear it any longer. I therefore decided to draw a red herring across the trail. I had seen in an American newspaper an extraordinary theory that Conan Doyle composed his detective stories simply "by imagining any sort of muddle and then clearing it up." For instance, he would describe a room in appalling confusion, with a dead man on the carpet. He would fill the room with bathing clues, and then sit down to work the whole thing out, inventing the story to fit the clues, which, when he first laid them, were as meaningless to him as to anybody else. I asked him if there was any truth in this theory, and, not greatly to my surprise, he answered, "None."

"This is how I write a detective story," he said. "First of all, I get my central idea. When I say I 'get' it, I mean that it comes of its own accord. I can no more sit down and command ideas than I can sit down and command rain. Take 'The Speckled Band' as an example. The first stage of that story was when suddenly, and for no particular reason, the idea came to me of a man killing somebody with a snake. I thought the idea a good one, and thinking of it made it gradually grow. The man, I decided, should be an Anglo-Indian, and the person he should kill would be, naturally, somebody whose death would be to his advantage — preferably a woman. To heighten the gruesome effect of the story, I decided that it should be laid in remote surroundings, which would make the pathos of the victim the more acute.

"Already, therefore, we had arrived, after a very little thought, at the conception of an unscrupulous man who has lived in India planning to murder his step-daughter by means of a snake, in order that he may reap the benefits of a will which should rightly be hers. Well — there 's the basis of your story. The rest consists in two task—the concoction of false scents to put the reader off the track and to keep him guessing until the last minute, and the provision of clues, as ingenious as one can make them, for the detective to follow up. Obviously, in the basis of ' The Speckled Band,' there are dozens of chies which one can lay in front of the detective. The Anglo-Indian might have books on snakes in his library, he might—oh, really, there are so many ways in which he might give himself assay that the difficulty is not in imagining them but in selecting them."

"I see," I said, not seeing in the least.

"In fact, it is really too easy," said Sir Arthur. "The other day I wrote a whole Sherlock Holmes story, and finished it, and played two rounds of golf on the some day. You see — Holmes isn't big enough. Now, if you take Professor Challengor[1], that's a different story."

I knew that he would say that. Spiritualism has given him, in these later years of his life, so absorbing and so passionate an interest that one can well understand his aversion from such comparatively childish pursuits as the writing of detective stories. One can see the ardour in his pale, distant eyes, hear it in the very tone of his soft and even voice. I need not here concern myself with that belief. But I cannot forget one thing which he told me. "There are now between five and six hundred little Spiritualist churches in the kingdom," he said. "Most of them are very humble places, with tin roofs and wooden benches. Many of the preachers in these churches are uneducated men, with no gift of speech, with nothing in them but the truth as they see it. You may not think much of the movement in this stage. But don't forget that it was in exactly this way that Christianity began to sweep the world."

I think that the man, whatever his convictions, who scoffs at a spirit like that is something worse than a fool.

  1. Note : typo from the newspaper it's "Professor Challenger".