There are a handful of characters who never, ever go away no matter how hard you sometimes pray they will – Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Batman, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tarzan and the Phantom of the Opera (all males, isn’t that strange?) On first thought it seems we hate change; on TV we recently had a vast wall of nostalgia; ‘Call The Midwife’, ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. But I think it’s less to do with familiarity than that memorable characters are fundamental archetypes, which makes it hard to produce anything but variants of them. Hercule Poirot is probably the least interesting detective of all time, but as an archetype he’s almost impossible to follow without evoking earlier memories.
We certainly remember Conan Doyle over R. Austin Freeman’s charming detective mysteries, set in the Edwardian era. His sleuth Dr Thorndyke was a barrister and man of medicine who, armed with his little green case of detection aids, set out to solve puzzles that wouldn’t interest today’s police; a collapsed man who later vanishes, an ingeniously forged fingerprint, a crime scene more interesting than the act that occurred there. Freeman was a doctor who understood the tangled workings of the courts and advances in science such as the forensic power of X-rays, and incorporated them.
In The Eye Of Osiris, an Egyptologist vanishes from a watched room and must be presumed dead in order for his will to reach probate – but the will in question has a bizarre clause which makes it impossible to honour. Like WS Gilbert before him, Freeman takes great delight in outlining the peculiar properties of paradox. ‘A man cannot deposit his own remains,’ cries Thorndyke in exasperation, as he deals with recalcitrant jurors, bovine policemen and potty witnesses. Freeman also invented the opposite of the Whodunnit, the ‘inverted mystery’, the How-Will-He-Be-Caught? puzzle.
If Dr. Thorndyke lacks Holmes’ sense of mystery he’s more thorough when it comes to technical detail – The Man With The Nailed Shoes hinges entirely on a study of footprints and The Eye Of Osiris has a lengthy examination of embalming processes. His dialogue exchanges are also more freewheeling and sarcastic. ‘I am a confounded fool!’ says a character, as the reason for a corpse’s finger being severed dawns on him. ‘Oh, don’t say that,’ says Jervis. ‘Give your friends a chance.’
There were more watered-down adventurers like Sexton Blake and Raffles, of course, but they were so chinless you had to wonder how they managed to put a pillow-case on by themselves. The early French masters were fun because they were more dashing than Holmes, and I’m still fond of Arsene Lupin, Vidocq and Fantomas. However, Sherlock remained the archetype, just as Harry Potter will always be king of the wizards (forgetting the fact that Susannah Clark’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell blow Potter out of the water in every possible way). There are other detectives better than Holmes. The stories of Chesterton’s Father Brown and Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell are more fantastical and ingenious, but the consulting detective remains centre-stage.
Conan Doyle gave Holmes simple but clever plots and just enough character to allow others to reposition him in endless variation. And he was the first attention-deficit hero – none of the four novels is really watertight, whereas the canonical short stories are often close to paradise – fast, easy reads that collectively reveal something about Edwardian England we may never have fully appreciated before. Still, the question remains – why did Sherlock end up in so many homes?
(To be continued)