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July 8, 2015

The Great Mystery of Sherlock Holmes’s Death --- And Resurrection: Post 2

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Teen Board member Alison S. has been tackling the classics for a while now, blogging about the literary merits, nuances and modern relevance of SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, FRANKENSTEIN, THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and THE PORTRAIT OF DORIAN GRAY.

In this "sub-blog series," though, she's going to dig into one of the great controversies of modern literature --- the fact that Sir Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes only to bring him back seven years later "for no ostensible reason." In her first post, she looked at the the first novel in which Holmes mystically reappears --- THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES . This post tackles BASKERVILLE, a novel in which author John O'Connell delves into Doyle's possible motivation.


John O’Connell’s BASKERVILLE isn’t your run-of-the-mill literary spin-off. Unlike, say, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY AND SEA MONSTERS, O’Connell’s fictional exposé into the origins of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic novel succeeds not only as a less-than-flattering peek into Doyle’s personal life, but also as a grim, almost tragic account of its protagonist’s iffy mental state and ultimate fall from grace. In other words, don’t mistake BASKERVILLE for 200 pages of literary gossip. Sure, the novel’s blunt depiction of Arthur’s vanity, arrogance and fanatical belief in the supernatural might sensationalize the author’s already-sensational later years, but brooding, deeply-human protagonist Bertram Robinson outshines even Doyle’s theatrics.

For starters, O’Connell pulls off first-person narration in a way few novelists can. Though Bertram’s narration conveys the novel’s plot points clearly enough (even if he does have a flair for melodrama), the protagonist’s subtle, idiosyncratic fluctuations in word choice reveal more about Bertram than his actions or spoken dialogue ever could. Take, for instance, the way he says his fianceé “even embraced [him]” after receiving her engagement ring, or how he remarks that he “took hold of [his fianceé’s] arm...and she did not withdraw it” --- as though Bertram feels so isolated from his dying, reclusive father and condescending, puritanical mother that he no longer expects affection or companionship, not even from the alleged love of his life.

Or what about Bertram’s compulsive need to explain away his every action, like a preschooler proffering excuse after excuse as to why, exactly, he went headfirst down the sliding board. After Bertram picks a fight with Doyle, for example, he tells himself that “in a rational frame of mind [he is] sure [he] would’ve reacted differently”. By blaming his outburst on a lapse in sanity, Bertram can ignore the real cause of his aggression --- his deep-seated jealousy of Doyle.

As much as I admired Bertram’s narration, however, his particular inner-voice didn’t always translate from his brain to the page. I’m not saying lifelike first-person narration doesn’t justify the occasional choppy descriptive passage or awkward recounting of a plot point. I am saying, however, that my oh-so-beloved narrative voice came at the expense of narrative rhythm; if you deem this a worthy trade-off, give BASKERVILLE a try. But if prose’s beauty enchants you more than its realism, look elsewhere for your long, blonde, flowing sentences (or is that hair?) and harmonious rhythms.

One last complaint: Though O’Connell flirts (flirt? get it?) with a romantic story arc, Bertram’s love life never develops into a satisfying subplot, yet his long-distance engagement claims more pages than a sub-subplot has any right to. Granted, Bertram's forays into the lipstick jungle deepen his character, but I would’ve preferred O’Connell minimize the novel’s romantic undercurrents, or else expand them into a full-fledged, satisfying plot element.

So what’s O’Connell’s theory for Sherlock Holmes’ literary resurrection? Quite simply, the supernatural. No, O’Connell doesn’t suggest that Holmes’ “miraculous” return from the dead sprang from a vampire bite or Victorian zombie epidemic (though that would make an intriguing explanation for the tuberculosis outbreak). Instead, Doyle supposedly collaborated with Bertram Robinson, managing editor of the Daily Mail, in a failed attempt to win the journalist’s trust. Once he’d gained Robinson’s friendship, Doyle hoped to manipulate the journalist into publishing articles in favor of Spiritualism, or the religion rooted in séances, mediums and post-mortem spirit communication. After his dad died and his wife contracted consumption, Doyle turned increasingly to Spiritualism. Perhaps, by vehemently insisting on the certainty of an afterlife, he hoped to personally guarantee life-after-death for his late father and dying wife.

O’Connell’s portrait of Conan Doyle is about as flattering as the portrait of Dorian Gray (gold star if you got that reference). While next week’s novel, Graham Moore’s THE SHERLOCKIAN, may characterize Doyle as skittish, meek and self-sacrificing --- he gets beat up by an old lady! he’s mostly faithful to his sick wife! he gives some poor chick a handkerchief! --- O’Connell paints a wildly different, wildly unflattering picture of the iconic author. (Fun fact, I tend to confuse the spellings of the word “author” and the name “Arthur”, but in that sentence both “author” and “Arthur” make sense, so I can misspell with impunity.)

Unlike the awkward, idealistic, oversized-14-year-old Arthur of Moore’s novel, O’Connell’s depiction of Doyle evokes more irritation than affection. From flirting with Robinson’s mom to yanking the heart from a dead man’s chest, to literally resurrecting Bertram’s childhood trauma, the BASKERVILLE Doyle will stop at nothing to get what he wants. But what does the most adored writer in the English language want, exactly?

In a word, control. Beneath his self-exultant bravado, histrionics and downright deceitfulness, Doyle --- or O’Connell’s depiction of him, anyway --- hopes to manipulate the behavior and opinions of everyone around him. Yes, Doyle’s a charismatic showman at best and a flat-out fraud at worst, but his disingenuous public persona masks a humanizing, almost sympathetic fear of unpredictability. For Doyle, people are like speeding Porsches on the Audubon: terrifying, but a whole lot less so if you know where they’re headed.

Come to think of it, O’Connell and next week’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyles share more than a prolific literary career and a fancy knightship. The former Doyle seeks predictability in the manipulation of the world around him, while the latter retreats to the idealized realm of his imagination; both Doyles, however, struggle for a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.


Alison Stewart is a Teen Board member.