A Tale of Two Detectives
Sherlock Holmes versus Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke
EVERYONE IS quite familiar with Sherlock Holmes and his faithful friend and biographer, Dr . John H. Watson . To many of us they conjure up visions of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce tracking down numerous villains, ranging from the diabolical Professor Moriarty to German spies with accents thicker than Henry Kissinger’s. Holmes, some of us may remember, was the protagonist in several World War II propaganda movies in which he pursued Nazi secret agents, when in the rough chronology of the original stories he would have been about eighty-five and would have more logically been chasing the agents of the Kaiser. (ILLUSTRATION: authors Conan Doyle and Austin Freeman)
Many people have tried their hands at writing Sherlock Holmes stories, including some outlined by Conan Doyle himself, but never completed. The most recent and probably the most publicized have been the tales of New York-born Nicholas Meyer, whose Seven-per-cent-5olution has been made into a movie. The plot has Sigmund Freud treating Holmes for his cocaine addiction and for his paranoid persecution of an innocent Professor Moriarty. I n the process detective, doctor and psychiatrist stage a slapstick train chase of an ant!i-Semitic Austrian nobleman who is trying to payoff his gambling debts by selling his mistress to a Turkish official with an understaffed harem.
Much less known than Holmes is Dr. John Evelyn Thorndyke, another scientifically oriented detective who was created by R. Austin Freeman and appeared during Conan Doyle’s declining years. Unlike Holmes, Thorndyke was decidedly uneccentric and something of an academic grind, being qualified both as a doctor and a lawyer. The Thorndyke stories are well researched and meticulously written. Whereas Holmes has fits of inspiration and is the darling of Lady Luck, Thorndyke is extremely methodical, lugging around a microscope and a portable chemical laboratory instead of a mere magnifying glass. By paying it so much literary lip service author Freeman probably advanced the technique of scientific detection as much, if not more, than Doyle.
Conan Doyle, a lapsed Catholic of Irish, French and Scotch extraction, had many of the objectionable traits of today’s liberals and occasionally used Sherlock Holmes as a forum for his ideology. Once Holmes favored the idea of an Atlantic Union. In The Naval Treaty he tells us that education for the lower classes is going to make England a much better place to live. In The Yellow Face there is so much crass misinformation about miscegenation that even a minority anthropologist would have to smirk.
On the other hand, Conan Doyle seems to have given due weight to hereditary factors and never prostituted his stories to paint wheedling portraits of Jews. In fact, Sherlock Holmes once outwitted a Jew peddler by Jewing him out of a Stradivarius for only 55 shillings. In real life, however, Doyle went out of his way to defend a German Jew, who was convicted of murder, and he did his part in opening the doors to the flood of colored immigration which threatens to end England’s long history by establishing the innocence of an Indian Parsee convicted of animal torture.
By contrast, Dr. Freeman — like Doyle he was a physician — was an activist in eugenics, being a frequent contributor to the Eugenics Review. His hero, Dr. Thorndyke, on at least one occasion gave a lecture on the persistence of ancient racial types in the modern world. Freeman was not sympathetic with most of the political refugees in Britain and this healthy prejudice often comes through in his writings. One novel The Stoneware Monkey is very much a satire on modern art.
The period after World War I was one of social and cultural decay in the Western world, despite (or abetted by) technological progress and economic growth. R. Austin Freeman and some others diagnosed the problems and prescribed the cure, but it was too bitter a pill to swallow after such a great military victory for democracy. The nostalgia and charm of Doyle’s gaslight era still clouds our thinking today. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson seem very much more real than the plastic world we live in. The White Man’s Burden, updated by HEW and Andrew Young, is a wonderful experience in sanctimonious self righteousness, far removed from the ugly realities of a thousand black ghettos, the tidal waves of illegal (and legal) immigrants and the atomic weapons of China, India and Israel. The conservative wants to go back to 1895 and the Iiberal still thinks he’s there.
Conan Doyle displayed many other typically contemporary traits. He actually believed he was making a serious literary contribution with historical novels like The White Company, dull writings that would never have merited any consideration if they had not been written by the author of Sherlock Holmes. Three of the four novel-length Holmes stories grind their way through long, boring historical narratives. A Study in Scarlet is an analog of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for the benefit of the Mormons. In contrast The Hound of the Baskervilles, free of such tedious drivel, is probably the finest thing Doyle ever wrote. In some ways Doyle reminds us of Charlie Chaplin, a great comedian who was a self-appointed social critic. After Doyle’s son died prematurely, his father spent much of the rest of his life in the pursuit of spiritualism.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a literary success because he captured the essence of an era, some of its realities and most of its self-images and self-delusions. Sherlock Holmes was the knight-errant of the metropolis. There was good and evil, and evil could be safely contained by the bumbling Inspector Lestrade. Doyle created symbols that appeal to the fantasies and ideals of many whites. Like most of our political policies and promises, Doyle’s stories deal more with appearance than reality.
Freeman’s stories were put together with care, and crises were solved by legwork rather than insight. Dr. Thorndyke is a bit too awesome for the average reader, whereas Holmes’ intelligence and arrogance were balanced by his eccentric behavior, his charm and his childish enthusiasm.
From today’s perspective we may view Conan Doyle as a magnificently successful bleeding heart and Austin Freeman as another unappreciated talent who vainly tried to develop a more mature world view. Doyle was the creation of a civilization whose visions has been fulfilled and were ready to be shared with all men, whether they wanted them or not. He was smart, hardworking and idealistic. His art form was one of mass appeal rather than sophistication. Freeman could never match Doyle’s popularity, though he was not by any means a literary or financial failure. Too preoccupied with realities, the Freemans of our people have not yet created the images that will inspire our instauration.
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Source: Instauration magazine, January 1978