'We are lucky that he failed," says Leslie Klinger of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "He had a practice as an ophthalmologist in Portsmouth. Then he moved to London where he didn't get any business. With a lot of time on his hands, he turned to writing stories and eventually realized he could make money that way."
Doyle and his friend Rudyard Kipling each made more money than any other writer of their day. The Sherlock Holmes stories were the most profitable, but Doyle didn't think much of them. They even became a burden to him. "And that's why he killed Holmes off in the falls of Reichenbach," says Klinger.
Doyle wrote other works that he considered more serious literature. But they are little known in comparison with the famous detective stories, which have spawned over 200 films and have turned Sherlock Holmes into a character regularly appearing on Sesame Street.
On Saturday, December 11, Leslie S. Klinger, who practices law full-time in Los Angeles, will appear at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla to discuss and autograph the first two volumes of his work The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. The books contain 56 short stories in which Holmes is the main character. Each book has 1000 literary, biographical, or cultural annotations and, together, 700 photographs from the magazines in which the stories first appeared. The third volume in the work is to cover the longer Holmes stories and will come out a year from now.
According to Klinger, Doyle credited his focus on crime scene details to medical school professor Joseph Bell, who taught students to search the bodies of their patients for clues to their maladies. "Today," he says, "students of forensics read the Sherlock Holmes stories, not as textbooks, but for the fundamental approach of their science, which Doyle greatly influenced. For instance, he invented the plaster casts they use to gather evidence."
Klinger calls the Holmes stories "deep psychological tales" of good and evil that derive popularity especially from the traits of their heroes. "Holmes is this strong, independent character who knows everything," says Klinger, "and Watson the loyal friend we'd all like to have. Beyond that, the stories give a vivid picture of Victorian England."
True to his cultural roots, Doyle tells his stories with no hint of sex. "The attitude was that sex is dirty and does not belong in books," says Klinger. "Sherlock Holmes is the perfect gentleman. But Doyle also wrote a few horror novels such as The Parasite, which hints at the dark side with focus on a kind of vampiric psychic power.
"The Holmes stories occasionally do have a sexual tension involving twisted love affairs," adds Klinger. Late in his life, Doyle became interested in the plights of women in marriages to abusive husbands. He became active in the National Divorce Reform Union in England. The Adventure of the Abbey Grange is a story Doyle wrote about a man who loves a woman married to "an alcoholic beast. The lover kills the husband," says Klinger, "and then Doyle lets him off by having Watson, whom Holmes calls representative of a good English jury, declare the killer to be a fine person."
The one extant interview with Doyle on film (he died in 1930) shows him talking for most of the time about spiritualism, which was popular in England and America in the 1920s. "So many people had lost loved ones in World War I and wanted to contact them again," explains Klinger. "Doyle became a spokesman for that movement, though he always did have an interest in psychic phenomena. And he lost his own wife and son."
Critics complained that Doyle was much too credulous and that his spiritualist convictions grew only out of grief over losing his son in the war. When two girls turned up with photos they purported showed fairies, Doyle declared them legitimate. "But he was greatly embarrassed," says Klinger, "after the girls later confessed it was a hoax."
"At one point," according to Klinger, "Harry Houdini and Doyle became close friends. It was an odd relationship; Houdini was always trying to show evidence that spiritualism was false. Doyle argued his own case, and the friendship eventually broke down."
Doyle has his character Professor Challenger of The Lost World convert to spiritualism. Yet in The Land of Mist, Challenger says, "There seems to me to be absolutely no limit to the inanity and credulity of the human race. Homo sapiens! Homo idioticus! Who do they pray to -- the ghosts?" And Sherlock Holmes says in The Adventures of the Sussex Vampire, "This world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply." When pressed about these sentiments, according to Klinger, Doyle replied, "Don't confuse the puppet with the master."-- Joe Deegan
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
by Leslie Klinger
D. G. Wills Books
Saturday, December 11
7461 Girard Avenue