Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A New Look at an Old Hound

Our live-in grandson, who registered today for seventh grade, had to read two books during the summer and answer several pages of questions. He was forever saying, "I can't find the answer." His grandmother bore most of the brunt of the exercise, which usually came down to "it's right there on page so-and-so." If she wasn't sure of the answer or if there was an argument, I had to mediate. As a result, I read most of the books also.

The second book was The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic mystery. I was familiar with the story from many years ago, but it seemed almost like reading it for the first time. I was reminded of how Doyle's handling of the subject laid the groundwork for most of what us mystery writers do today. The Victorian prose sounds a bit stilted by current standards, but his plot and characters and settings showed the way to the future.

Looking at my own Greg McKenzie mysteries (Doyle was a fellow Scot), I can see where I unconsciously followed his pattern. Greg moves about questioning potential suspects and witnesses, making deductions based on what he hears and sees. Holmes, of course, is the quintessential deductive reasoner. As with the classic detective, my protagonist frequently sets up situations to trap the killer.

One stylistic feature that works quite well for Conan Doyle but wouldn't be permitted for us is the use of  page after page of quoted dialogue. Current usage requires us to develop such passages as narration, or to split up the dialogue into short takes interrupted by questions or actions.

One interesting element of Doyle's style is using the sidekick as the first person narrator. Most whodunits today give the point of view to the main character. This allows us to see the secretive, egotistic investigator through Dr. Watson's admiring eyes. Holmes' own comments leave no doubt as to his personality. It's interesting that Watson's background has a modern correlation. He was an injured veteran of the Afghan War.

Another point I had missed was that The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the first "prequel" mystery. Doyle had tired of writing Sherlock Holmes stories and killed off the detective in what was to be the last story. So when he ressurected Holmes for this book, he moved the date back a few years so it happened prior to Holmes' death. However, the success of the series was so great that Doyle eventually explained that Holmes didn't really die in the earlier book. And more Holmes' mysteries  followed.

Doyle created the "sidekick," which has become a feature of modern mysteries. I use Greg McKenzie's wife, Jill, as his foil in that series, and created Jaz LeMieux for a similar purpose in the Sid Chance series.

Reading this book brought me back to the roots of the mystery genre. Hopefully it will rejuvenate my efforts in future writing. Have you read any good Holmes books lately?

4 comments:

Mary said...

This summer I purchased a two book set of Holmes and I am reading through them now.
Love those stories and rereading them is always enjoyable.
Mary

Ben Small said...

Good article, Chester. I too love the Doyle series and read it over and over, and like Mary bought new sets this year, both hard-back and Kindle-versions. That probably makes six sets I've got buried in my library.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I've been a Sherlock fan since childhood but haven't read any of Doyle's stories lately. My first mystery novel featured Shirl Lock and Holmes (two senior women sleuths), later renamed Logan & Cafferty when the series resold to another publisher. I've always wondered whether Agatha Christie patterned Hercule Poirot after Sherlock Holmes.

Chester Campbell said...

The foreword to the book told a lot about Conan Doyle, and he sounded like a fascinating fellow. It was interesting that Sherlock Holmes had no use for suggestions of supernatural events, but in later life Doyle became a believer in spiritualism.