Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pt. one

When you're talking about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle you're talking about Sherlock Holmes, first and foremost, which I think is a mistake right out of the gate because I think his best creation by far is Professor Challenger, not Holmes. But I'll get to that later. More importantly, the moment you say “Sherlock Holmes” a bunch of associations will, as if by magic, appear in your head – see, it happened just now, didn't it? – and I think we need to pick these apart right from the get-go before we get to the meat of things, as it were.

So let's start here, later I'll get to the books themselves.

Doyle carries with him two of the great fallacies of art appreciation. They're often not thought of as such, but they are, believe me boyo, and if you can get your head around these two you'll already be 50% ahead of everybody else. This post will deal with the first one. Ready?

  1. Some things that are historically important in art are not necessarily good. There's a different between understanding art and appreciating it.

This is a big one that some people never get past, especially those who paid too much attention to their teachers in high school English. But the actual concept ain't all that hard to grasp: some things can be historically important in art without being all that intrinsically interesting in themselves. Art develops, and it has a history behind it's development. The first color movie (I have no idea what that is, just an example) is historically important, and if you were in a class about the history of movies you should definitely watch it. That doesn't necessarily mean it's a good movie though, yo.

Holmes is historically important, you can't gainsay that. It was Holmes that really drove the idea of a private detective into popular consciousness, along with a lot of the tropes we now take for granted in traditional mysteries but at the time were rather new: the “Watson”, the intermediary for the reader (actually, Doyle's finest achievement in the Holmes series, I think); the private detective as odd, withdrawn, somewhat apart from society; the notion of people coming to see him looking for help “outside of normal channels”, with the implicit social commentary that brings (this would later be better developed by the hardboiled gang in America, but I think it pops up here first); the notion of a master criminal opposed to the detective that is, in some sense, a reflection; the notion that there's some kind of competition between the detective and the police. And probably fifty trillion other things, these just occurred to me right now.

But all that said, that doesn't tell you anything about whether you should read The Valley of Fear. (Short answer: no.) It just tells you Doyle was the first. It sort of implies that because he was the first he was obviously pretty friggin' good at all of this stuff, but I assure you that these are unexamined assumptions.

This is going to be a hard argument to make in some ways, because it's not really an argument, it's based on my knowledge of the genre during that time, which is hard-earned knowledge I got one used Dover pb at a time and is pretty much purely experiential. If you've never read Ernest Bramah's "Max Carrados" series of mystery short stories you won't immediately nod your head in agreement with me when I tell you that in many respects they're better than most of the Holmes tales.

But all that said, the truth is the truth and will out. There were mystery writers before Doyle: Poe of course but consider, I dunno Emile Gaboriau (Monsieur Lecoq, etc.) There were certainly a bunch of writers doing the same thing around the same time, too – no doubt inspired by Doyle's success, but arguably just as good if not better: I'm thinking particularly of Bramah's Max Carrados series, and maybe Jacques Futrelle's “the Thinking Machine” (“The Problem of Cell 13”) and maybe Gaston Leroux (The Mystery of the Yellow Room, The Perfume of the Lady in Black) . And others – I would have to look up the timelines to see who did what when, the point is there were predecessors, and contemporaries, and the fact that Doyle hit it big while these guys (and one girl, I'm fond of Baroness Orczy's "The Old Man in the Corner") only had modest success isn't a testament to Holmes's innate quality, it's just a testament to the troubling, yet nonetheless enduring (alas) fact that history is a motherfucker, and that monster artistic success in worldly terms is more akin to hitting the lottery than the rising of “innate quality”.

If Doyle had never existed some other figure would've taken his place, the threads in Western culture were too strong to be denied. Eugenie Sue and Dumas were playing with the concepts in mid-nineteenth century France, as was Dickens and Wilkie Collins in England. Read any good history of mystery fiction, you'll see what I mean.

Later, when I'm talking more specifically about the stories I'll talk more about where I think these guys shine and Doyle fails, but for now I'd urge anyone to poke their nose around and try some of the contemporaries for themselves -- they're all over used bookstores and a lot of this stuff is free online -- and see for themselves what the tradition Doyle was operating in really was. (Again, it's always useful to think of art in terms of traditions, of ways of expression that develop over time. Doyle didn't spring fully-formed out of the head of Zeus, he came out of and participated in a certain "folkway", if you like, a certain way of telling certain kinds of stories.)

(Actually my favorite of this era is probably Hornung's Raffles, the "inverse Holmes", although he really deserves to be considered by himself.)

Other things I've been reading:

Emilio Salgari – The Tiger of Momprasan: I think if I'd have hit this at, say, 12 or 13 I would've loved it. I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs around that time and loved it then. But, like with the Burroughs (and I don't say this really happily) I've gotten to the point where a straightforward kid's adventure tale really can't hold my interest by itself. I need something...really better writing, to be honest, although it's maybe unfair to say that of this stuff since it was translated from the Italian. Nonetheless, this is melodramatic as all get-out: I've always thought I had a high tolerance for such things but this was a bit too much even for me.

This is the start of a long-running series of adventures about a South Seas pirate fighting the English and Thugees and Lord knows who else. It is most memorable, to my mind, in that the guy seems like a functional psychopath, always running around one hair's breadth away from hacking everything to pieces with his scimitar. Like I said, at 12 or 13 I would've eaten this stuff up – now? Not so much. Suggested for bright shy preteens, though.

John D. MacDonald – Bright Orange for the Shroud: I think nowadays I need at least Travis McGee level of sophistication in my adventure tales before I can buy 'em. I'm not saying this is the peak by any means --if they can do better, great, but they gotta at least be able to do this.

The McGee series means a lot to me sentimentally, I read these books compulsively as a teenager and they really served the role that earlier generations probably filled with Tarzan or Doc Savage. Just one of those odd things.

This is an above-average entry in the series which revolves around con men and a crooked land deal in South Florida (many of MacDonald's books are about crooked land deals, the details of which he always lovingly describes and which I can never figure out). For fans, this episode is best remembered for one of MacDonald's best villains, the atavistic throwback Boone “Boo” Waxwell, who basically dominates the story the moment he opens the door of his house “holding a shotgun like a pistol”. MacDonald took innumerable cracks at this type throughout his career, it was a type he was obsessed with. They vary in quality, this isn't his best portrayal (who is? Maybe Dirty Bob in Free Fall in Crimson) but it's up there. The title is very sadly ironic.