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One Whale Too Many

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Arctic adventure.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

“Why are seals the most holy of animals? Because it is mentioned in the Apocalypse that at the last day an angel shall open six of them in heaven.” Arthur Conan Doyle recorded this joke in his private log on May 9, 1880, about two months into his voyage on the Hope, a whaling ship bound for Arctic waters. During the trip, he learned to hunt the seals and make tobacco pouches from their flippers. This was much more exciting than what he should have been doing: sitting exams in medicine at Edinburgh University. But one week before the Hope set sail, on the strength of a third-year student’s knowledge, he was offered the job of ship’s surgeon. He accepted, and left the exams for another year.

His log of the expedition is now published for the first time, with a full facsimile (worthwhile not least for Conan Doyle’s whimsical illustrations), a collection of his later writings about the Arctic, including the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Black Peter,” and wide-ranging notes by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower, who also edited Conan Doyle’s letters. As they argue in their introduction, the five-month trip was a formative experience for the twenty-year-old Conan Doyle, on the threshold of manhood, a medical career, and literary acclaim. (His first short story had been published the previous year.) “I went on board the whaler a big, straggling youth,” he later wrote, but “I came off it a powerful, well-grown man.”

In books by and about Arthur Conan Doyle, all roads lead to Holmes, and this book is, not at all regrettably, no exception. The question it poses is: did this voyage help to make Conan Doyle the writer who produced the Sherlock Holmes stories? The editors’ answer is yes. In their introduction, they remind us that, by the time of the expedition, Conan Doyle had attended the Edinburgh University lectures of Dr. Joseph Bell, widely considered the inspiration for the character of Holmes. His use of his Arctic experience in 1883 in the story “The Captain of the Pole-star,” they suggest, shows how the trip “fired his imagination.”

Yet it is difficult to agree with their more ambitious assertion that “from there, Sherlock Holmes was but a matter of time.” The first reason is that, although the log is full of keen observations and biographical gold-dust, its writer is a long way from maturity. He had no pretensions that it was anything more than a record of his time on the ship, and his entries rarely look beyond that day’s events. The few times that he tried to write something self-consciously literary, he struggled to see it through. “I began a poem on tobacco which I think is not bad,” he wrote in his log—but then: “I never can finish them. Ce n’est que la dernière qui comte.” (It is only the final result that counts.) Thankfully those verses do not survive. Among the few poems he completed were “villainous parodies” of the then-popular, now-forgotten ballads of Jean Ingelow, and this quatrain, rhyming the Latin name for a whale:

Balaena mystractus!
Balaena mysticetus!
If we were animalculae
You wouldn’t take long to eat us.

Conan Doyle was sensitive, perhaps, about these works, and the log itself. He was mortified when he found that the chief engineer had been reading it every morning and making “satirical comments upon it at table.” That day he used his log entry to notify unwanted readers that “a man who will talk about my prejudices against boiled beef &c. in the engine room must be suppressed.” This sounds more like The Diary of a Nobody than The Case-book of Sherlock Holmes.

Then there’s this: “The Captain of the Pole-star,” the work that seems most directly influenced by the trip, is a very disappointing story. It suggests that the line of progression from the Arctic voyage to Holmes is anything but direct. Told as a series of entries in the log of the ship’s surgeon, John M’Alister Ray, it sets a predictable plot in motion when the surgeon reports ghostly rumors he has heard from the crew. The denouement is staggeringly inept, with the fictional Doctor admitting, “The long-impending catastrophe has come at last. I hardly know what to write.” Swollen with supernatural clichés, the “Pole-star” does not include any of the descriptions of whaling that make Conan Doyle’s real log so fascinating.

If his genius for plot had yet to develop, Conan Doyle’s reliance on earlier Romantic writers was a more deeply rooted problem. Even though the ship in “The Captain of the Pole-star” sails through the same seas that the Hope did in 1880, Doyle does not describe the Arctic that he saw first-hand, but the one that he read about, at the beginning of Frankenstein and in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” M’Alister Ray’s description of the “numerous small Medusæ and sea-lemons” that gather around the doomed ship sounds like a prosaic rendering of the “thousand thousand slimy things” that live on when the Mariner’s shipmates have perished. Toward the end of his log, Conan Doyle complained about leaving the calm and solitude of the Arctic, by quoting from Byron’s Childe Harold: “There is society where none intrudes/ Upon the sea, and music in its roar!” The adventure had given Conan Doyle stores of material to work with, but his imagination was so dominated by the Romantics that he could not write a convincing supernatural story about it.

Although this selection of Conan Doyle’s writing does not show a completely straight path from the Arctic to Baker Street, Lellenberg and Stashower are on the right scent. The experience certainly left a strong impression on Conan Doyle’s imagination, in two different and apparently opposing ways. In 1897, when he was long-established as the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he remembered “the peculiar other-world feeling of the Arctic regions—a feeling so singular, that if you have once been there the thought of it haunts you all your life.” After the voyage, Conan Doyle often wrote about the romance and the mystery of the far north, yet his log at the time was most mostly factual, observed with a scientist’s eye for detail. “Sea Unicorns are very common, … but the curiosity of the place are the animaliculae, which the whale eats” is a typical sentence. Or: “Calm as a fishpond, water like quicksilver.”

In the writings collected in this volume, you can see Conan Doyle switching between these two sensibilities: one is concerned with Romantic atmosphere and the supernatural, while the other is that of an empirical- and practical-minded adventurer. It is the tension, which has so often intrigued his admirers, between the Conan Doyle who came to embrace Spiritualism and the Conan Doyle who invented the famous hyper-rationalist “consulting detective.” “The Captain of the Pole-star” is imbued with the first, Conan Doyle’s Romantic sensibility, as are “The Glamour of the Arctic” and “Life on a Greenland Whaler,” two autobiographical essays written later in his career. Meanwhile the second, more matter-of-fact mood prevails in “The Adventure of Black Peter”, in which Holmes’s knowledge of harpooning—hunting whales from small boats with javelins—directs him to the culprit.

There are also glimpses of the beginnings of Holmes stories and Holmesian thinking throughout the Arctic log book. One night, for instance, the brother of the Hope’s captain, also a sea captain and a fellow Scotsman, recalled how he pretended to be asleep once, when a murderous gang had trapped him in their den:

Soon the two villains came over and whispered together, and one passed the candle over my eyes and said, “He is off.” They whispered a little again, and one said, “Dead men tell no tales.” The other said, “Then we had better get the bed ready” and they both left the room.

The captain saw his chance to escape and leaped out of the window. Conan Doyle listened intently to this story, set, like many of Holmes’s, in London’s “lowest and vilest alleys.” He seemed also to admire the captain’s plain, simple way of telling his stories, in which things are not, however, as they first seem. In that day’s log, he tried to recount the whole adventure exactly as he had been told it.

Then there was the curious incident of the burly cook’s assistant and the decrepit first mate—a case of identity-swapping with Holmesian potential. Colin McLean, the real first mate on the ship, went aboard in the guise of a cook’s assistant, since, despite being an experienced sea-man, he was illiterate and did not have a board of trade certificate. Meanwhile the cook’s assistant, who was actually long “past sailoring” but did have a certificate, posed as the first mate. The two swapped berths as soon as the ship left the harbor. And here is an even more curious fact: Conan Doyle does not mention the swap in his log. We only read about it in his much later reminiscence, “Life on a Greenland Whaler.” Does that mean that the twenty-year-old was not yet interested in such ruses? Or that the older novelist embellished his reminiscences?

Sherlock Holmes would not have stood for such tampering with the facts, but his creator did, and more than once. Dangerous Work is the richer for showing not just Conan Doyle’s proto-Holmesian work, but also his tendencies to romanticize his experience and to enliven it with a well-chosen white lie. One of the most amusing things that emerges when all of his Arctic writings are brought together is just how often he revisited and revised his memories of the expedition. “I once had the best of an exchange of fishing stories,” he boasted in his autobiography. He bet a man he met at an inn that he had caught more fish than him, by weight. “Three Greenland whales,” he said, triumphantly. That, according to the log, is one whale too many.