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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

G.K. Chesterton's Sherlock Holmes

Someone with a bent for genealogy should chart all the relationships anong Arthur Conan Doyle's literary descendants and admirers.So many writers who adored ACD also liked each other.

For example, Dorothy L. Sayers, who is well known in Sherlockian and Holmesian circles as a scholar of Sherlock Holmes and player of The Game, also greatly admired the Christian writings of G.K. Chesterton. Delighted to hear him lecture when she was at Oxford, she later became his fellow member of the Detection Club of London and succeeded him as president.

Chesterton, creator of the immortal Father Brown, isn't quite so closely linked to Holmes and Doyle to most of us, but perhaps he should be. Pick up a copy of G.K. Chesterton's Sherlock Holmes and see what I mean.

This isn't a new book, but it deserves new attention. Edited by Steven Doyle a decade ago, it's a part of the invaluable Baker Street Irregulars Manuscript Series. In it, Doyle collected 19 Chesterton drawings illustrating Sherlock Holmes stories for a book that was never produced. They don't look like any drawings of Holmes I've ever seen, but they do look like the man Watson described. I find them fascinating. 

To these sketches Doyle added a wonderful introduction, three essays about Chesterton, and four essays by Chesterton -- not all about Holmes, but in the same ballpark (mystery fiction).

"And have no doubt," Doyle writes, "G.K. Chesterton was a fan of the Great Detective. Virtually every genre of his writing -- literary criticism, theology and philosophy, social commentary -- is littered with references to Sherlock Holmes."

In the final essay in the book, "Sherlock the God," Chesterton notes the emergence of the Higher Criticism in books by then (1935) already beginning to appear.  
The real inference is that Sherlock Holmes really existed and that Conan Doyle never existed. If posterity only reads these latter books, it will certainly suppose them to be serious. It will imagine that Sherlock Holmes as a man. But he was not; he was only a god.
How brilliant that observation is -- and how Chestertonian in its paradox!

Unfortunately, G.K. Chesterton's Sherlock Holmes is out of print. Perhaps a new edition is in order?

1 comment:

  1. I would like to clarify one minor point, as I have made this mistake myself and would like to help others avoid it. While Dorothy L. Sayers did indeed succeed GKC as the President of the Detection Club, she did not immediately do so after his death. His best friend, E.C. Bentley, the author of "Trent's Last Case" and the inventor of the Clerihew, intervened. Anything written by any of the three is a delight, but I find that Bentley is something of a neglected delight, so I thought I would put a word in for him.