A Case of Identity, Owen Marshall

My father loved to share his enjoyment of books, and would often emerge from his study with some gem, declaim it to one of the family, and then disappear again – slightly crestfallen if its reception didn’t quite match his own. He filled the mundane parts of life with literary allusion. Wild flowers seen on a walk would bring forth a burst of Wordsworth, or Goldsmith; an auction notice might prompt a polysyllabic witticism from Dr Johnson; the final bright orange pumpkin from his garden was borne inside as “The Last of the Mohicans”.

I was an active, outdoor boy, fond of sport, but also aware of a world of literature which existed in the books that stood in floor-to-ceiling ranks in my father’s quiet study.

Recently I went through some of his papers and found annotated pages from John O’London’s Weekly, June 10th, 1938, with photographs of famous writers – several in most peculiar clothes – who had died in the decade before: Thomas Hardy (1928), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1930), Arnold Bennett (1931), Rudyard Kipling (1936). My father was in his mid-twenties when Kipling died, and felt, I suppose, rather as I did at a slightly younger age when Hemingway died. My father made a special study of Kipling, and that’s odd in a way because my father was a convinced pacifist, anti-imperialist, and egalitarian. But he loved the colour, exoticism and mystery of the Indian stories and Kim; he loved the history and variety, and the foregrounding of ordinary people.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t his favourite author, but he liked him well enough, and knew what would appeal to me. I remember as a ten- and eleven-year-old scampering home from school at lunchtime to hear my father read from the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes. More often it would be evening, and he would read to those of his children who wished to listen. His reading of the text was interspersed with comments about the setting, the author, the style. To me it all became seamlessly bound up in the tales themselves. I recall him telling us about Conan Doyle “finishing off” Holmes and the arch-villain Professor Moriarty in the struggle at the Reichenbach Falls, and then being forced by public outcry to resurrect him, and that a critic said Sherlock Holmes may not have died at Reichenbach, but he was never quite the same man again.

As adults we realise that the influence certain books had on us early in life may well have originated as much from the context in which they existed as from intrinsic literary value. My enjoyment of the Sherlock Holmes stories was a response to the enthusiasm with which my father presented them, as much as an appreciation of the character and his exploits. And at different stages of our lives we have a need for different books: we draw the sustenance we seek, and then move on.

So when from time to time I have returned to Baker Street, to Dr Watson and the great detective, I have been made aware of limitations and deficiencies. There is a good deal of repetition and predictability. There is diction that at times seems quaint, even ludicrous today:

“Not the Countess of Morcar’s blue carbuncle!” I ejaculated.
“Precisely so.”

There is Conan Doyle’s prejudice concerning race and class, with “Lascar scoundrels” and an almost sycophantic regard for titles and status: “Your Majesty had not spoken before I was aware that I was addressing Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, and hereditary King of Bohemia.”

But even when such hits have been made, for me so many good things remain. Above all, I suppose, the powerful and contradictory nature of Sherlock Holmes himself: intellectually immaculate, yet a puzzle in terms of personality. A spare, aesthetic man capable of self-indulgence; a man who played the violin and disliked exercise for the sake of it, but who could untwist an iron poker and box with professional skill; an egotist capable of recognising his own flaws; a man untidy in his personal habits, yet absolutely systematic in his view of life; a man who “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a jibe and a sneer”, who was capable of tenderness and care; a man rigorous and severe in logic who had a sense of humour; a man of utmost self-control, who was a heavy smoker and used cocaine as a protest against the monotony of existence. Yes, in Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle created a character worthy of literary fame.

And Dr Watson, his endearing, long-suffering companion, faithfully following with his service revolver: the relationship between Watson and Holmes is at the heart of the stories. Also, the stooped arch-criminal Professor Moriarty, and Brother Mycroft, whose intelligence surpassed even that of Sherlock, but who was usually too indolent to employ it. Mycroft was a founder of the Diogenes club, which contained the most unsociable and unclubbable men in London.

Even to read the titles is a pleasure to me, for they are warm with my father’s voice: “The Red-headed League”, “The Speckled Band”, “The Five Orange Pips”, “The Norwood Builder”. The furniture of the Blenheim parsonage, my brothers’ faces, some glimpse of boyhood itself, form around me if I read the stories and glance at the rather mediocre Sidney Paget illustrations.

At the beginning of “The Copper Beeches”, Holmes rebukes Watson for his way of recording their cases: “Crime is common. Logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic rather than upon the crime that you should dwell. You have degraded what should have been a course of lectures into a series of tales.” How Conan Doyle must have enjoyed writing that, tongue in cheek, knowing that his tales would outlive any lectures.

Owen Marshall’s second novel, Harlequin Rex, is shortlisted in the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. It was reviewed in our August 1999 issue.

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