Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the prolific 18th century writer, will always be best known for his creation of the iconic character Sherlock Holmes. This acclaimed character has been reimagined in literary works outside of Conan Doyle’s original canon as well through television and full feature films. There is no shortage of fame associated with the character of Sherlock Holmes and his indispensible sidekick Dr. John Watson. Despite this fame, most individuals that know the characters in the stories very seldom know the author or his unique style of story presentation. Conan Doyle may never be considered the best author with the most flawless literary elegance complete with the superfluous trimmings that one might see within a Dickens, Twain or Emerson saga. Despite this, his distinctive method will seek to stand as style unique to its own, as will the originality of the stories and characters. The original canon consists of only four full-length novels, however over fifty short stories provide a wide girth of background to the life and times of Holmes, as well as the literary edifice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The first three Holmes novels clearly designate Conan Doyle’s style of writing across all of his other works, demonstrating his use of literary devices and styles. Although the substance, locale and villains may change, the technique remains consistent.
The first Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four and The Hound of the Baskervilles are three completely different novels from a plot viewpoint although clearly exhibit very distinctive stylistic similarities. One of Conan Doyle’s most apparent styles is the extensive use of adjectives to provide great detail for the reader. Within each of the novels, as different as they are, the reader can similarly expose themselves to the surroundings as they are portrayed, placing themselves in the milieu. Each of the novels is told in a linear style, from the first-person point of view of Holmes’ partner Dr. John Watson. Watson spares no detail as he recounts the tale, typically in a mysterious manner extracting every bit of foreshadowing that can be transferred to the reader. Each of the novels are told in the first person past tense of Watson, however it is told as if the intention of the message is to create suspense and anticipation. Watson divulges only those details that he is ready to, waiting for the “big reveal” later in the tale. Watson controls the story firmly by amassing great detail for the reader, seemingly placing them directly in the scene. For example, a descriptor from The Hound of the Baskervilles reads:
“The journey was a swift and pleasant one, and I spent it making the more intimate acquaintance of my two companions, and in playing with Dr. Mortimer’s spaniel. In a very few hours the brown earth had become ruddy, the brick had changed to granite, and red cows gazed in well-hedged fields where the lush grasses and more luxuriant vegetation spoke of a richer, if a damper, climate.” (Conan Doyle p53)
Conan Doyle’s use of metaphor, imagery and analogy frequently appear throughout all of his stories, thereby turning detail from a device that supports the story to one that the story solely relies upon.
The Sherlock Holmes novels, while each very different in content and story, do follow virtually the same patterns. Watson in his re-telling of a Holmes adventure describes the historical detail of the period by incorporating it into the story. Late 19th century London had experienced a massive population increase, a fact that contributed significantly to the culture. Poverty and overpopulation spawned slums and pockets of degenerate people and places. Conan Doyle included these facets into his writing, particularly in A Study in Scarlet where the main antagonist was a villainous lower class citizen. Victorian culture, for better or worse, was portrayed within the Holmes stories making it very appealing to the reading classes. Conan Doyle undoubtedly included this detail purposely to increase the popularity of the books. Other authors of the time, such as Dickens, used the same method to subtlety describe the horrible conditions most people endured.
The use of mysterious settings and characterization is a key element in the Holmes stories. Characters are typically introduced in stages, as Watson peals back the layers of the story the characters are also portrayed in more depth. Conan Doyle also single handedly created a new genre of writing by developing the formula for the true detective story. With the basis of logic and extreme detail, Conan Doyle changed the mold for storytelling of the genre. Holmes’ famous attention to logic and observation, as described by Watson, brings a significant validity to the story. As example from The Sign of Four, Holmes demonstrates his science of deduction by describing to Watson that logic tells him he had visited the Post-Office that morning, but deduction told him that while there he sent a telegram. He describes his process:
“It is simplicity itself, so absurdly simple that an explanation is superfluous; and yet it may serve to define the limits of observation and of deduction. Observation tells me that you have a little reddish mould adhering to your instep. Just opposite the Wigmore Street Office they have taken up the pavement and thrown up some earth, which lies in such a way that it is difficult to avoid treading in it in entering. The earth is of this peculiar reddish tint, which is found as far as I know, nowhere else in the neighborhood. So much is the observation. The rest is deduction. I know you had not written a letter, since I sat opposite to you all morning. I see also in your open desk there that you have a sheet of stamps and a thick bundle of postcards. What could you go into the post-office for, then, but to send a wire? Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.”
One of the most common themes across all of Conan Doyle’s writings is his extreme attention to the detail of the story and the characters, particularly to the logic exhibited by Holmes.
The general schema that Conan Doyle arms his stories with, no matter how different in locale or content, remains very typical. In that sprit Watson as the storyteller, conveys the tale and problem that Holmes must solve through his deductive arts. Other small problems are also introduced, seemingly to prove Holmes’ abilities on the small scale, ultimately making the big reveal that much bigger. Conan Doyle allows the reader to know enough to stay connected to the story, but the major details are always saved for the end when Holmes is allowed his epilogue. Watson retells the story for the reader as though he understands the reader will require as much information as possible, another writing style that Conan Doyle uses throughout the books. Watson is the explainer for the reader, informing them of the vital information they will need to stay close to the plot. This position is necessary to these fast paced, highly verbose and almost bloated blocks of text. Watson’s role as Holmes’ assistant also creates the role as the assistant to the reader with responsibilities of explanation and detail by both placating and engaging Holmes in further dialogue. Within A Study in Scarlet, Holmes states he has already made up his mind on the case and knows all of the particulars. After a long explanation itemizing his reasons and observations Watson further probes Holmes. “That seems simple enough, but how about the other man’s height?” Holmes retorts describing the ‘simple’ calculations of heights and strides. Watson asks further clarification on his age, and his facial features, which Holmes naturally details in a manner as complete that it could only be a Holmes dialogue. Watson asks the questions that the reader is wondering, a tactic Conan Doyle employs throughout all of his Sherlock Holmes stories. His unique and thorough method of working his stories backwards, exposing all details and responding to the questions he might assume would be asked by the reader, contributes to his incredible writing prowess. At times, the reader might be left wondering if the character of Watson is actually the subconscious of Holmes, seemingly always bantering with himself about the logic behind his thoughts and eternally questioning his reasoning.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a trendsetting author that exhibited a myriad of literary styles and modes, far too many to list within a simple report of his ability across three works. The tales of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson will be remembered by the individual plotlines, but moreover by the relationship between the characters and their individual abilities. The Sherlock Holmes universe is wrought with endless metaphors, descriptors, conflicts and foreshadowing; the perfect equation to maintain reader interest and redefine the detective novel genre. These facts have helped contribute to the continued success of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, even to the present day. One must assume this has occurred because of the writing style and pleasurable yet curious nature of the characters across all of the Holmes adventures. As Holmes would say, “there is nothing like first-hand evidence,” something that clearly exists from the success of the Holmes mysteries throughout the past century in writing style, literary device and the development of the crime/detective fiction genre.