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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

P.D. James on Sherlock Holmes

The late British mystery writer P.D. James made some interesting comments about Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes in her memoir Time to be in Earnest: A Fragment of Autobiography.

The book, which I picked up recently at a library sale, is a diary of her 77th year, interspersed with commentary and looks backward. On Wednesday, Aug. 13, 1997, she had dinner with Valerie Eliot, widow of T.S., at the Grill Room of the CafĂ© Royal. “Valerie talked about T.S. Eliot and there life together and I listened, ate and felt relaxed and cool. Valerie dropped me home at about eleven.”

That’s the end of the entry. That afternoon, she records, Baroness James had finished and sent to The Independent newspaper a review of Martin Booth’s The Doctor, The Detective and Arthur Conan Doyle. After a brief outline of ACD’s complex character, she notes:

But neither virtue nor eccentricity would have justified this or his previous biographies if he hadn’t created Sherlock Holmes, the best known of all fictional detectives. The world appeal of the stories is extraordinary. I remember some years ago being in Tokyo to open an exhibition of crime writing. I was visited in my hotel room by members of the Tokyo chapter of the Sherlock Holmes Society. They came in beaming, all wearing deerstalker hats and shooting jackets and smoking meerschaum pipes. What, I wondered, could they possibly have in common with this fictional Victorian archetypal hero. Martin Booth points out that the plots of the stories may be ingenious, but they are hardly credible. Conan Doyle didn’t care very much about details. The dog that didn’t bark in the night is less mysterious than Dr. Watson’s dog, which disappeared completely. The chronology is sometimes confused, parts of London are inaccurately described and the writing is occasionally slapdash. None of this worried either Conan Doyle or his readers. A modern crime writer could wish that readers today were as accommodating. As the author himself wrote, “Accuracy of detail matters little. I have never striven for it and have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matters is that I hold my readers.” He certainly did hold them, and he does so still.

Some years before, in 1984, P.D. James had been the Guest of Honour at the Sherlock Holmes Society of London’s annual dinner. In her talk that night, as related by Roger Johnson in a contemporary account, she was more effusive in her praise of the Great Detective. She proclaimed herself an enthusiast and great admirer of Holmes. To quote Roger, “She was here to pay homage, for there is no writer of detective stories, in England at least, who does not owe a great debt to Sherlock Holmes and to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whether or not that debt is acknowledged. It’s all there: the scientific method, the omniscient detective, the slight mistrust of
officialdom, the character of the narrator to point the difference between normality and genius, the evocation of horror and above all the wonderful sense of place – the real street and the real apartment, the real people. We accept the fantastic in these stories because it is rooted in reality.”

She certainly did not go too far in acknowledging the debt that detective story writers owe to Holmes and his creator. Valier Eliot’s husband went even further years earlier. “Every writer owes something to Holmes,” the great poet wrote in 1929.

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