Abandoned Books

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

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Doyle -- the books


IN WHICH I SPEAK OF DOYLE AS A WRITER

Let's be brief, because as is often the case the time lag between the last post on him and this one is a bit much, and the inspiration is a little flagging.

Sherlock Holmes: I don't hate these stories, but I do think they're flawed and grossly overpraised. As my last two posts have pointed out (let's recap!) I think their reputation really rests on two fallacies: (a) their historical importance (too often conflated with quality), and my sense that what people really like about the Sherlock Holmes stories are not the stories themselves, but rather the consensus universe of “late Victorian England” that surrounds them.

Doyle is always acting against himself in these stories. They're presumptively mysteries but they're not, in essence. In essence they're romances, and have much more in common with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA than they do THE MOONSTONE, say. This is the secret why half of A STUDY IN SCARLET and THE SIGN OF THE FOUR are adventures that have only the most tenuous connection to the main plot; this is why Doyle gets rid of Holmes for about half of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, because he flat out could care less; this is why so many of the stories are structured with Holmes as the framing device around an actual story-story, the flashback (see, oh, “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”). This is why so many of the other “mysteries” are not really mysteries at all, but rather adventure tales, see say “A Scandal in Bohemia” or “The Final Problem”.

Again, that doesn't mean they're awful or the reader will find no pleasure in them I just think that this internal tension is detrimental to the work's effect as a whole. Stories should be what they are. When they are actually two completely disjointed things at the same time, that's a problem. Aesthetically.

There's “Complete” collections all over the place, most quite cheap – pick 'em up and decide for yourselves. For what it's worth, my absolute favorite Holmes stories are the first part of “A Study in Scarlet” (introduces the character, who seems quite fresh here) and “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” (more for the setting, Victorian Xmas). And maybe “The Naval Treaty”, just because I like the joke at the heart of that one. The rest I can more or less take or leave; he's not a necessary author for me the way Chesterton is.

THE LOST WORLD and THE POISON BELT: I actually think, along with Doyle himself, that his real reputation rests here. Easily my favorite Doyle work – by far – is THE LOST WORLD.

For one thing it's more clearly what it's supposed to be, if that makes any sense: it's not a romance cut by mystery, or (as we'll see in a second) history, it's just a straight Haggard-like adventure to a, um, “Lost World”. Challenger is far more believable than Holmes, I think: a more straightforward Thoughtful Man of Action. Albeit comically portrayed – the point is he seems like a real person. (Holmes never has to me, sorry. Holmes is a slapdash collection of tics. Holmes is so much over the place that the definitive portrayal of him, Jeremy Brett in the BBC series, turns him into something like a quivering neurotic.) The ability to step away from the mystery plots that evidently bored him to tears allowed Doyle to do the stuff that he obviously really liked, which is adventure writing (some very nice setpieces in WORLD) and some really nice descriptions (there's a final sequence in LOST WORLD which is absolutely classic in this regard, and in fact in my humble opinion is the single best stretch of writing Doyle ever did.) POISON BELT is less known and less interesting, as it's an early “it's all coming to an end, man” armageddon tale, but is still worth a look for some truly evocative descriptions of London after the “apocalypse” (which isn't quite that, Doyle wussed out although there are problems with writing about the end of the world with a viewpoint character, I would suppose. They're usually bound togeter.

THE EXPLOITS OF BRIGADIER GERARD – This is fairly obscure historical fiction, short stories written from the French point of view during the Napoleonic Wars. Of course, as a loyal Brit Doyle couldn't ever really have a character be a completely believable Frenchman, which would in this context necessitate a hatred of the British. So it's kind of compromised from the outset. The other big thing about it is that it's obviously the major inspiration for Flashman, all well and good except Flashman is better because (horrors of horrors) Fraser was just a better writer than Doyle, and knew how to handle this kind of device much better. Plus, to be fair, the debut novel FLASHMAN appeared at a more fortuitous time, the anti-establishment Sixties.

THE WHITE COMPANY and SIR NIGEL – These were the novels that Doyle actually thought were his best. They are “young hero comes of age” kind of things, very long, and set in the Middle Ages. They have their moments, particularly Doyle's knack for description, although I think both books suffer from the same thing that Schoonover's BURNISHED BLADE suffered from, which is the “string of pearls” kind of plot, where the story is really just a succession of incidents in the narrative. These kind of books really lack internal narrative drive, you spend half your time looking up and around wondering exactly why you're reading the damn thing. Something of a minor classic, although I bet it's just the Doyle authorship more than anything being particularly good about the novels themselves. Well described, I guess, and you might actually learn a little history if you read these, but I know of another place you can learn about history. It's called “history books”. Don't tell nobody, no, it's a big secret.

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