The new light being shown on Arthur Conan Doyle by the ACD Society, the Literary Agents, and the Doings of Doyle podcast is well deserved. ACD was not just a great “teller of tales,” although he was that, but a great writer as well.
This came up Sunday during a Zoom meeting of the Great Alkali Plainsman, based in Kansas.
The virtues of Conan Doyle’s writing, so evident in the Holmes tales, include a simple but effective style, great beginnings and great endings, crackling dialogue, memorable epigrams, showing rather than telling, and descriptions of weather that put you right there.
You can find examples of the above by opening the Canon at any page.
It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between n the lines of dun-coloured houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreathes.
That’s ACD six paragraphs into “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” setting the scene for a highly gothic tale.
And how’s this weather description from the second paragraph of “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”:
It was a bright, crisp February morning, and the snow of the day before still lay deep upon the ground, shimmering brightly in the wintry sun. Down the centre of Baker Street it had been ploughed into a brown crumbly band by the traffic, but at either side and on the heaped-up edges of the foot-paths it still lay as white as when it fell.
But my favorite opening in the entire Canon comes from my favorite story, “His Last Bow”:
It was nine o’clock at night upon the second of August – the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God’s curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west. Above, the stars were shining brightly, and below, the lights of the shipping glimmered in the bay. The two famous Germans stood beside the stone parapet of the garden walk, with the long, low, heavily gabled house behind them, and they looked down upon the broad sweep of the beach at the foot of the great chalk cliff on which Von Bork, like some wandering eagle, had perched himself four years before. They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.
Character, plot, and setting – the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle has all that. But don’t forget the good writing.