The Conan Doyle Stories, Arthur Conan Doyle (Blitz Editions, 1990)
Mary Shelley wrote about a monster that broke free of its creator. It then broke free of its creatrix too: Frankenstein’s monster became far more famous than Mary Shelley ever was. Dracula and James Bond outgrew Bram Stoker and Ian Fleming in the same way, but Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle are a little different. It isn’t just Doyle who stands in his character’s shadow now but a host of Doyle’s other characters too. That’s what made it so galling for Doyle, because he didn’t think the Sherlock Holmes stories were his best work.
If you read this marvellous collection, a modern facsimile of a book published before the Second World War, you might begin to agree with him. Doyle wasn’t so much an author as an industry, and the range of his invention and subjects is startling. There’s everything from realism to the supernatural by way of science fiction, from “The Croxley Master”, the story of a prize-fight in a tough Yorkshire mining district, to “Lot No. 249”, the story of a murderous Egyptian relic, by way of “The Horror of the Heights”, a proto-Lovecraftian story of early aviation. But perhaps my favourites are the pirate stories about the wicked Captain Sharkey, whose sail, believe me, you would not have liked to see appear on your horizon all those years ago. There’s a Brigadier Gerard story too, as light and playful as the Sharkey stories are dark and sadistic, and reminding me that I ought to re-read the full set of Gerard stories again.
Everything else has its interesting points, but some stories were re-printed because Doyle became famous, not because they’re any good, and two are throw-aways turning on what were, when they were written, the startling inventions of recorded sound and moving pictures (Holmes aficionados will recall that Doyle used the idea elsewhere). Like those two, many stories have political or social preoccupations that make them interesting in ways never intended. In other ways, however, Doyle’s writing may be becoming less rather than more dated as the years pass: his shameless racial and sexual stereotyping — opposing the phlegmatic Saxon to the highly-strung Celt, for example — was once taken for granted, then dismissed, but is now being vindicated by genetics. Doyle trained and practised as a doctor, after all, and brought a trained eye and wide experience of human variety to his writing. There are medical stories here too, but Doyle says in his introduction that his “Tales of Long Ago” are the ones he would choose to preserve if he could save only one section.
I don’t think they’re the best in the book myself, but they are among the most powerful and they have a breadth of knowledge and minuteness of observation worthy of the great Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who specialized in classical scenes. Like Alma-Tadema, Doyle was knighted for bringing so much pleasure to the general public, but his reputation and fame have survived much better than the painter’s, thanks to Sherlock Holmes. Read this collection to discover why there is much more to Doyle than his detective.