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What is the Meaning of it, Watson?

IN AUGUST 1889, Joseph Stoddard, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, invited Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle to lunch in London. The two authors left with two contracts: Wilde for The Picture of Dorian Gray and Doyle for The Sign of the Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel. The stalwart, bluff Doyle, the Scottish physician who invented Sherlock Holmes, and the high-mannered Wilde have more in common than you might have thought.

Like Wilde, Doyle’s Holmes is an aesthete, a superior man with a touch of witty cruelty. (“Watson! You scintillate today.”) His bohemian habits include cocaine injections, revolver practice at home, violin playing in the wee hours, and all-night bouts of pipe-smoking. Like Monk, Lieutenant Columbo, Lisbeth Salander, and various other Doylean progeny, Holmes is an oddball, an alien. (Mr. Spock and Commander Data, with their robotic efficiency and their otherworldly taste for logic, are also among Holmes’ spawn.) He is an asexual bachelor prone to melancholia, helpless without the “brain work” of an active case. And he shares a sensibility with another great detective, Sigmund Freud. Just as Freud sought out hysterical patients whose symptoms displayed an elaborate, even outlandish cleverness, so Holmes prefers crimes that are as artfully designed as his own beautifully airtight deductions. Doyle’s criminals often have a whimsical flair, like the bank robbers in The Red-Headed League who crowd Fleet Street with red-haired men, all in order to ensnare one of them. In Doyle’s stories, the culprit is not a demon but a rather ordinary man (or, rarely, woman), who turns to crime out of ingenuity—the same reason Holmes turns to detection.

Sherlock Holmes may be the most famous fictional character who ever existed and Doyle was the most popular writer since Dickens. Doyle was most proud of his pulpy, breathless medievalizing novels, imitations of Sir Walter Scott populated by caitiffs, varlets, and stout knights, in which “wot”s and “nay”s pepper the page freely, but his public demanded Holmes: Doyle killed off his detective at the end of his fourth Holmes volume, in 1891, three years later he was forced by popular demand to resurrect him. All told, there are sixty stories and novels by Doyle featuring Holmes, and devoted Sherlockians have produced a slew of pastiches and homages, some of them genuinely inventive, such as Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, others merely bizarre (as in the one in which Holmes is revealed as a woman whose bouts of depression are caused by her menstrual cycle). All of this fanatical attention has done nothing to blunt Holmes’s allure. Nabokov wrote that “Holmes endows logic with the glamour of a daydream”: he gives us the adventure of mind at its most sleek and exhilarating. The Holmes stories, even the disappointing ones, have a purity and economy that should be the envy of every storyteller. Above all, they cannot be put down. Doyle created a new addiction, the detective story, and he remains the genre’s foremost author.

For Doyle’s Holmes tales, crime is an eccentric and even charming source of interest. There is no hint of the arch-criminal of a later day, the brilliantly masterful serial killer. Jack the Ripper burst on the scene a few months after A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story, but the methodical ruthlessness of such a murderer makes no appearance in Doyle. In our day Holmes’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty, would be a gruesome prostitute-butchering sadist; but in Doyle, Moriarty (who is hardly ever mentioned) is a shadowy puller of strings, and nearly featureless—a rather wan “Napoleon of crime.” The 1890s, when the Holmes franchise took off, was the Golden Age of English crime, replete with Sweeney Todd-style perversities (severed heads in hatboxes, bodies boiled down to make tallow)—but the Holmes stories lack such picturesque gore, with a few notable exceptions (in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box the heroine receives two freshly lopped-off ears). Instead, Doyle’s tales are populated by bewildered heirs, distraught noble ladies, and high-ranking personages panicked by the theft of a diplomatic document.

A Holmes story characteristically begins with Holmes and Watson snugly ensconced in their Baker Street flat, often with Watson calmly reading and Holmes pipe-smoking and inspecting his files, as bad weather rages outside. As Gavin Lambert has remarked, clients “turn up at Holmes’ apartment at all hours of the day and night, blown in by the wind, tramping through snow, umbrella’d against the rain. Veiled, breathless, cagey, indignant, all are in some kind of danger…” This is the atmosphere of “cozy peril” that the noted Sherlockian Christopher Morley describes: sinister elements emerge only to be vanquished by the force of sheer scientific reason, embodied in the lonely romantic figure of Holmes. Nothing is too formidable, too traumatic: crime is neither a social problem nor a glimpse of ineradicable evil, but a source of flavor, an exotic excitement. The police are dullards, but ready to yield to Holmes’s guidance. Holmes is not an armchair sleuth like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe or a tediously smug snob like Dorothy Sayers’s Peter Wimsey; but neither is he the hard-boiled, down-at-heel shamus of Chandler and Hammett, audaciously imperfect and ready to flirt with the powers of darkness. Holmes, good Victorian gentleman that he is, sees in brutality a moral affront. In this he remains decidedly old-fashioned. For American (and now Swedish) noir, brutality is the condition of our lives, if only we dare to recognize it.

Doyle’s main source was Poe’s detective stories, but he transformed the genre. Poe makes his Dupin deliver arch, leisurely monologues that try the reader’s patience, but Doyle’s Holmes is rapier-swift. He sizes up his clients with instant panache. In The Norwood Builder, on first meeting a new visitor to Baker Street, he comments, “I assure you that, beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you.” Holmes devotes close attention to objects: in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” he discerns from a hat that its owner’s wife no longer loves him. Sometimes Holmes, to the frustration of everyone around him, becomes obsessed with something that seems merely random or trivial: a missing dumbbell in The Valley of Fear, a stolen boot in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In both these cases, the detail in question holds the key to the whole affair. Holmes lovingly investigates the most apparently insignificant items, which as a result appear almost magical. For him, deduction is a way of cherishing the world in its strangeness, as well as a path to the satisfactions of truth.

Michael Dirda’s book is at once a capsule overview of Doyle’s character and writing career and an affectionate tribute to boyhood reading—along with Doyle’s works, Dirda discusses Sax Rohmer, Lord Dunsany, H. Rider Haggard, and others. It is a treat to come across Dirda’s citation of Jacques Futrelle’s Thinking Machine stories, including The Problem of Cell 13, the ultimate locked-door mystery (which I hadn’t thought about since I was eleven years old). Dirda provides a fond, glancing survey of the books he treasures. Disappointingly, he ties his hands by refusing to divulge the plot of any Holmes tale; he touches on the stories rather than diving into them. But he compensates by devoting attention to the whole range of Doyle’s work.

Dirda champions Doyle’s neglected series of supernatural tales, and he praises Doyle’s popular Brigadier Gerard stories. (The Brigadier is a dashing man of action from the Napoleonic era, equally adept at swordplay and at looking spectacularly good in uniform.) Dirda also makes a case for Doyle’s Professor Challenger novels, The Lost World and The Poison Belt. In The Lost World, the irascible and at times insufferably pompous Professor, accompanied by a motley band of adventurers, finds a primitive cul-de-sac in South America full of prehistoric dinosaurs. The novel, the obvious inspiration for Jurassic Park, is good clean fun, and its theme of buoyant male camaraderie among eccentric, combative individualists had a vast influence on later adventure stories (including one of my own youthful favorites, the Doc Savage series).

But the Challenger novels, like the Brigadier Gerard tales, serve an adolescent imagination. Doyle’s reputation finally rests on the Holmes stories, which give a glimpse of a more adult world. Though Holmes’s deductions render this world simpler and more lucid, he does not deny its shadows. Dirda, who loves all of Doyle’s work, slights the distinction between the more mature and the more childlike side of Doyle. But his book is irresistible in its eager appetite for the delights of Doyle’s hearty, perfectly handled storytelling. Dirda reminds us that a part of every reader is always twelve years old, and that at least some of the books we devoured at twelve will still nourish us splendidly half a century later.

Dirda also provides an affecting brief account of Doyle’s life. Doyle was a loyal, genial, and generous man, and he had many talents. In his youth he was the physician on an Arctic expedition, where he clubbed seals and boxed sailors bare-knuckled on the ship’s deck. (The captain of the Shetland whaler that Doyle sailed on offered to make him a harpooner, but he decided to return to medical school.) He was a highly accomplished cricketer and golfer. On trips to Switzerland he tried Alpine skiing, and pioneered the sport among Britons. A fervent polemicist, he was knighted for writing a pamphlet that defended the behavior of the British troops during the Boer War. Later, King Leopold’s devastation of the Congo, which Doyle called “the greatest crime which has ever been committed in the history of the world,” motivated him to write The Crime of the Congo, a book that galvanized public opinion against the Belgian genocide. He campaigned on behalf of George Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor falsely convicted for mutilating cattle, as well as Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish immigrant accused of murder, and succeeded in freeing both of them from prison. In 1914 in a story called Danger!, he presciently warned against German submarine attacks.

But Doyle’s last crusade is the one that marred his reputation. From 1916 on, he became an ardent spiritualist, a champion of the numerous table-rapping, ghost-raising, and ectoplasm-exuding mediums of his day. He believed in spirit photography, especially pictures of fairies. In the ’20s Doyle wrote more than a dozen books on spiritualism, and he travelled the world in support of the cause. In an era inundated with faddish claims about existence beyond the grave, even scientists like Alfred Wallace and Thomas Huxley were susceptible to spiritualist claims. But Doyle went whole hog. He travelled the world giving fervent speeches about the “new revelation,” and acted as de facto publicity agent for a long list of fraudulent psychics.

Christopher Sandford’s Masters of Mystery focuses on the unlikely friendship, and then bitter rivalry, between Doyle and another famous figure of his day: Harry Houdini. Houdini was born Erik Weisz (later Weiss) in Budapest in 1874, and transported to Appleton, Wisconsin, by his father, a ne’er-do-well rabbi who left the family with many debts. (Inexplicably, Sandford depicts Rabbi Weiss in “a four-cornered miter and black, floor-length cassock.”) When Houdini’s father died in 1892, the eighteen-year-old Houdini sold his watch to pay for a “professional psychic reunion” with him. Houdini was skeptical of the results even then, but he remained an avid attender of séances. For years Houdini, with the aid of his wife Bess, incorporated mediumistic tricks into his stage act, levitating tables and transmitting messages from the dead, but he pitied the poor suckers who took these gimmicks for reality. Eventually he dropped the pretensions to supernatural power.

Houdini got his start as a conjurer at carnivals, nestled amid the trained monkeys, tattooed babies, and contortionists. But he ended by transforming magic, making it a modern discipline: strenuous, acrobatic, and risky. The public wanted drama and danger, and the drama began in November 1906, when Houdini, in two pairs of handcuffs, jumped into the Detroit River from the Belle Isle Bridge—the first of many such death-defying escapes.

Houdini occasionally did a Sherlock Holmes impersonation on stage, during which he astonished the audience with his deductive powers, revealing details about their private lives. He loved Doyle’s detective and collected over a thousand items of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. By the time that Houdini met Doyle, in 1920, the two men were both rich and world-famous. (Houdini was the wealthiest entertainer of his day, and Doyle commanded astonishingly high fees for a Holmes story.) The two men became close friends, and Doyle set about trying to convince Houdini of the truth of spiritualism. But the great illusionist remained skeptical. Houdini idolized his dead mother Cecilia and was particularly taken aback when, at a séance arranged by Doyle, she delivered several pages of testimony from beyond the grave in English, a language she had never spoken in life.

In 1924 Houdini told the Boston Herald that “it is a pity” that Doyle should, “in his old age, do such really stupid things.” Doyle’s spirit guide Pheneas retaliated by announcing (through Mrs. Doyle, his medium) that “Houdini is going rapidly to his Waterloo. He is exposed.” Doyle had been “hoodwinked from New York to San Francisco and back again,” Houdini remarked. The quarrel between Doyle and Houdini ran rapidly downhill, with Houdini accusing Doyle on one occasion of being a plagiarist who had “pinched Edgar Allan Poe’s plumes.”

Houdini, who like Doyle had the zeal of a propagandist, called spiritualism “the greatest self-imposed calamity in human history.” Testifying before Congress in 1926 during hearings for an anti-fortune-telling bill, Houdini “turned to the public gallery, waving $10,000 in cash, and challenged any medium present to tell him what his childhood nickname had been.” He outed a number of mediums on stage and in the press, and was sued by more than a few. Meanwhile Doyle insisted that Houdini himself possessed magical powers of which he was unaware: he could dematerialize his body, ooze through space, and reconstruct himself.

Houdini died suddenly in 1926, at the age of fity-two. Backstage before a show in Montreal he was punched repeatedly below the belt by a talented amateur boxer. Houdini—who had probably already been suffering from appendicitis—failed to brace himself, underwent agonizing internal damage, and died seven days later. Doyle’s verdict on his ex-friend was that “his death was most certainly decreed from the other side”: the spirit world was “incensed against him.” But Doyle also remembered Houdini as “a loving husband, a good friend, a man full of sweet impulses.”

Arthur Conan Doyle was a medical man, a strenuous devotee of empirical reasoning who had rejected Catholicism ever since his miserable boyhood days at the Jesuit school Stonyhurst. How could he have come out as a believer in spooks and fairies? Part of the answer is the shock brought about by the carnage of World War I, in which Doyle’s son Kingsley was seriously wounded. (Weakened by his injuries at the Somme, he died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.) Doyle patriotically applauded the war, and even volunteered to serve. (“I am fifty-five,” he wrote to the War Office, “but I am very strong and hardy, and can make my voice audible at great distances, which is useful at drill.”) But he could not have escaped the feeling that the modern world was going off the rails, that the mass death of the Great War had shown up our civilized illusions. In The Wanderings of a Spiritualist, Doyle wrote, “I feel that there is something deeply, deeply wrong which nothing but some great strong new force can set right.” Spiritualism was that force, and it gave Doyle utter confidence that death was no mystery after all. The puzzle had been solved.

At the end of The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, Holmes asked, “What is the meaning of it, Watson? What object is served by this circle of misery and violence and fear? It must tend to some end, or else our universe is ruled by chance, which is unthinkable.” Holmes’s creator died perfectly assured of the order of the universe; for him it was a place where dead souls were happily reunited with their loved ones. Death, too, can be cheated, tamed by human inquiry: this was Doyle’s dream of competence. The irony is that whereas Sherlock Holmes reached his answers through cold logic, Doyle reached his through an astonishing credulity—the very antithesis of the matchless deductive mind that he invented.

David Mikics is the editor of The Annotated Emerson (Harvard/Belknap) and the author of A New Handbook of Literary Terms (Yale). His Lost in a Book: How to Escape the Internet and Recover the Pleasures of Reading is forthcoming from Harvard/Belknap.