B. J. Rahn spends a good deal of her life reading detective fiction. And writing about it. And talking about it. The professor of English Literature at New York’s Hunter College has authored Ngaio Marsh: The Woman and Her Work (2007) and has led walking tours of turf once trod by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Dashiell Hammett.
Her latest effort, The Real World of Sherlock (Amberley), goes over familiar material but adds a depth missing from earlier studies. Her explication of the influence of Dr. Joseph Bell—the “ur-Holmes,” if you will—reveals surprising details about Bell’s collaboration with Conan Doyle And Doyle’s efforts at applying Holmesian methods to true-crime cases have rarely been studied so intently.
Is there anything left to be said about Sherlock Holmes? My brief conversation with Rahn suggests that, yes, there is.
It’s been suggested that Holmes is the best-known literary figure ever, never mind Hamlet, Oedipus, or Quixote. And the flow of movies and TV shows has reached flood proportions and is not about to stop. What is it with this bloodhound?
His message is that there’s a place in the world for the achievements of human reason. Logical deductions can solve enormous problems. That’s comforting. At the end of the story, the reader feels a sense of security based on the righting of wrongs.
Why is Conan Doyle still not taken seriously by academics, except in a pop-culture way? The Hound of The Baskervilles should be on a syllabus for a course in Great Victorian Novels, but it never is.
It is amazing, because Conan Doyle did some fine writing and some of the scenes in Baskervilles are universal: man’s inhumanity to man. But Doyle published in the popular journals, which were—and still are—seen as ephemera. Formula fiction. He was classified that way from the beginning. This is changing, as studies of Edgar Allan Poe, who invented the modern detective story and was taken seriously as a literary figure, are beginning to include Doyle.
Can you characterize his fans?
He appeals to a cross-section. The largest Holmes society is not in the U.S. or the UK—it’s in Japan. When Japan was opened to Western trade in the late-nineteenth century, the Holmes stories quickly became the most popular English literature. The Japanese fell in love with gaslit London, and have never gotten over it.