Over the past few months I’ve been working my way through a collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories published in The Strand Magazine. The collection contains facsimile copies of the original Strand pages, including original illustrations (in which we see Holmes in his characteristic deerstalker hat, never mentioned in Conan Doyle’s text).
As I’ve been reading the stories, I’ve noticed more parallels between Holmes and my favorite TV character, Dr. Gregory House, than between the Holmes of Conan Doyle and that of the recent action flick staring Robert Downey, Jr. Both Holmes and House use substantial deductive powers to solve mysteries, criminal and medical. Both suffer from addictions, to cocaine in Holmes’ case and Vicodin in House’s, addictions witnessed with dismay by their respective sidekicks, Dr. Watson and Dr. Wilson. And both bachelors have somewhat off-putting and eccentric personal habits.
In fact, the Sherlock Holmes short stories from The Strand bear a striking resemblance to a television series. They are formulaic, to be sure, but it’s an entertaining formula, and the recurring characters, Holmes and Watson are extraordinarily memorable. Part of the fun of the stories is that even though each adventure is self-contained, loyal fans will find out new bits about the principal characters if they stay tuned. (Did you know, for example, that Holmes has an even more brilliant but lazy brother named Mycroft? Or that Dr. Watson is a veteran of the British Afghan wars? Or that Holmes’ clients include the Pope?)
Sherlock Holmes is such an iconic character that I’m sure Gregory House owes something to Conan Doyle, whether his creators were conscious of it or not. In fact, just about every fictional detective since the previous turn of the century owes something to the inhabitant of 221B Baker Street.
Conan Doyle wrote four novels featuring Holmes, but the great detective is more the product of the short story than any other form. As someone who enjoys (and occasionally dabbles in) short stories myself, I can’t help but lament a little that the shifts in reading habits over the past century seem to have hit the short story harder than any other form.
There are still lots of great short stories being written, and a bunch of tiny literary magazines that publish them. (If you’re interested, here’s an interesting site that reviews some of these journals: www.newpages.com.) But the reading public for short stories has diminished, and there are only three or so venues that pay more than a pittance for short fiction—a dramatic reversal from the days of Scott Fitzgerald, who supported himself on short stories published in the Saturday Evening Post and experimented with novels on the side.
I certainly hope, despite the tough times, that the short story doesn’t disappear. American Catholic fiction wouldn’t be complete without the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, nor would the oeuvres so many of the greats—think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to name just two of my favorites. Hopefully this form still has a few more great characters—a few more Sherlocks—to offer literary culture.