1 November, 2017

Sherlock Holmes in Disguise by Hugh Ashton

We all know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was hardly enamoured of his most famous creation, actually throwing him off a cliff in an attempt to rid himself of the incubus that he had created, much to the dismay of the followers of the great detective.

But as well as creating the most famous sleuth and sidekick in literary history, Sir Arthur produced a number of other famous, and not-so-famous characters. Professor Challenger’s adventures served as the prototypes for Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, and as a study of a self-absorbed vain delusional man, the adventures of Brigadier Etienne Gerard are hard to beat.

Many Doyleians may know of The White Company and Sir Nigel, attempts to rival the historical romances of Sir Walter Scott, and the collaboration with Houdini in an Egyptian spine-chiller. But there are many other characters, genres and tales from the pen of ACD, and I only fully realised the breadth of the man’s scope, not to mention his powers of imagination, and his incredible energy when a neighbour kindly lent me his copy of the other short stories of Conan Doyle – all 76 stories over 1200 pages of them.

The collection is divided by subject, so we have Tales of the Ring (boxing), Tales of the Camp (military), Tales of Pirates (where ACD invents a despicable rogue – no Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow here), Tales of Blue Water (sea stories), Tales of Terror, Tales of Mystery (aha!), Tales of Twilight and the Unseen, Tales of Adventure, Tales of Medical Life, and Tales of Long Ago.

Add to this the Sherlock Holmes canon and the other stories I have mentioned, plus a few others which I have read, but are not included in this list, and you will conclude that Sir Arthur deserved a knighthood for industry, if not for quality. Some of these stories are, to be frank, weaker than other, but none is anything less than workmanlike, and all continue to entertain. They are quite definitely of their time. The language is not ours, the settings have aged, but the characters still speak to us. As a writer, if I produce as many stories of this quality in the course of my career, I shall be well content.

But where is Sherlock Holmes? There are two stories in this collection which made me first catch my breath and then chuckle, as I saw how slyly Sir Arthur played his trick on us.

First, The Lost Special, a tale where a specially chartered express train vanishes along a main line from Liverpool to London. The solution involves an almost omnipotent Moriarty-like figure, and the story breaks most of Dorothy L. Sayers’ rules of detection. But Sherlock? Here we go…

Amongst the many suggestions put forward by various newspapers or private individuals, there were one or two which were feasible enough to attract the attention of the public. One which appeared in The Times, over the signature of an amateur reasoner of some celebrity at that date, attempted to deal with the matter in a critical and semi-scientific manner…

It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning,” he remarked, ‘that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, however improbable [italics in original], must contain the truth…

It is an elementary matter, is it not, my dear reader, to identify this “amateur reasoner”, who is elsewhere described as “a recognised authority on such matters”?

And now we turn to The Man with the Watches, which likewise features a train, where a man, who has many watches upon him, is discovered dead, shot through the heart, in an otherwise empty compartment. Once again:

There was a letter in the Daily Gazette, over the signature of a well-known criminal investigator, which gave rise to considerable discussion at the time. He had formed a hypothesis which had at least ingenuity to recommend it, and I cannot do better than append it in his own words.

Whatever may be the truth," said he, "it must depend on some bizarre and rare combination of events, so we need have no hesitation in postulating such events in our explanation. In the absence of data we must abandon the analytic or scientific method of investigation, and must approach it in the synthetic fashion. In a word, instead of taking known events and deducing from them what has occurred, we must build up a fanciful explanation if it will only be consistent with known events. We can then test this explanation by any fresh facts which may arise. If they all fit into their places, the probability is that we are upon the right track, and with each fresh fact this probability increases in a geometrical progression until the evidence becomes final and convincing.

I think we can all recognise our friend here. And of course, Sherlock Holmes, unnamed as he is, solves these mysteries where the police cannot? Actually, no. He is wrong in both his explanations of what might have occurred, and the solutions to both mysteries are uncovered through confession much later, rather than deduction (or even induction).

So, was ACD laughing at us, in the way that Gatiss and Moffatt have done at times in the BBC SHERLOCK series, leading us up the garden path? Or was he laughing at himself, and his attempts to rationalise spiritualist mediums and their doings? Or (dare one whisper it) at Sherlock Holmes himself?


 Hugh Ashton is the author many Sherlock Holmes pastiches, in the Deed Box and Dispatch-Box series, as well as of other novels of past and present ages, published by Inknbeans Press of California.