Lucy and Todd

Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes–Michael Sims

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on March 14, 2017 at 9:36 am

You can get too much Sherlock Holmes. I once met the editor of a magazine called The Holmesian Observer. I read the Complete Sherlock Holmes while growing up, so I took an interest. Holmesian Observer? Looks good, I remarked innocently. The guy said, Actually it’s pronounced Holmeeesian. What are you, kidding me? I said. But that’s what it’s like among the Irregulars.

I’m sitting in the Conan Doyle, a pub with a view of the statue of Mr Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place. According to a Nicholson’s pub group leaflet, Holmes ‘stands in permanent contemplation of the death of his creator’. Pretty meta. It could be that it’s just a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes … that’s a possibility, isn’t it? The figure is more Basil Rathbone than Jeremy Brett. Our man’s in a nice little piazza of smashed-up concrete, backed by a broken fence and some bushes with a lot of trash in them, so he’s not being treated any worse than most people in Edinburgh.

The pub features some models of scenes from the Holmes stories, an old medical bag with Doyle’s name painted on it, and some bound copies of the Lancet. There is a colour reproduction of a portrait of James Boswell – ‘born in Edinburgh in 1940’. Beyond that, nothing much mysterious going on at the moment. I decide to try Holmes’s methods on those here.

MY DEDUCTIONS.

  1. This is the closest bar to the bus station. Everyone’s so depressed, it has to be.
  1. Some meticulous character went to a lot of trouble to Sherlock this place up, probably for a sinister reason. Tourism?
  1. These eight women work at John Lewis. This is easy—they’re talking dress prices and all have those little cords attached to their spectacles.
  1. A bunch of extremely old people are going to eat a lot of chips today. I cannot answer for the consequences.
  1. A lady interrupts my cogitations by collapsing outside on the pavement, the devil take her. I then espy an elderly man with a curiously luxuriant moustache at the bar. He’s standing here in a strangely challenging way, as if he’s the only person in the Conan Doyle who is belligerently, self-consciously aware of its ‘heritage’. Could it have been he who dashed the poor woman to the ground?
  1. The beef and bone marrow pie is off. (It says so on the blackboard.)

::

In Arthur and Sherlock, the prolix American writer Michael Sims discusses the events leading up to the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It is not a biography, and ends just after the first Holmes stories appeared. There are titbits for those who have stamina. Not a lot of marrow.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Picardy Place in 1859. His father had a minor job in the Works office as a draughtsman. An alcoholic, he was unable to support the family; later he became completely demented. The Doyle children all went to work in one way or another and their mother took in lodgers. Arthur loved books and from an early age thought about writing.

He used to tell stories to other children, for which he received apples.

But as a young man he needed a more reliable way to make a living, and went into the doctoring line. Studying at Edinburgh, Doyle came under the influence of Dr Joseph Bell, a pioneer of diagnostics considered something of a ‘magician’. It’s said that Bell could tell the trade of any man merely by looking at his hands. It was Bell Doyle was thinking of later when he created Sherlock Holmes; he said that Holmes was a ‘bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted).’

Doyle sounds a timid fellow who liked frightening himself by experimenting with drugs and poisons. He’s a recognisable type: a writer who lacks imagination but thinks it can be stimulated by stunts and adventures.

Doctors all want to write. What is it with them? But Doyle was no Rabelais or Chekhov or Céline. He was closer to Michael Crichton. When he began to send out articles, he had achieved a style that passed for factual: an American magazine took his short story on the mystery surrounding the ship Mary Celeste as straight reportage. After attempting one thing and another, he decided to slot himself into the growing field of detective fiction. The Doyle that emerges from Sims’s book is like Nigel Bruce’s Dr Watson: an indifferently-educated, bumbly fantasist.

Doyle could create a sense of adventure and place and sometimes slightly kinky mystery—‘as her beautiful head fell upon her chest, I saw the clear red weal of a whiplash across her neck.’ But he was never really a good writer. Take ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Please. The denouement (demonic hound revealed to be actual hound, starved, face painted with phosphorous) is clearly an afterthought. Who would actually bother to do that? And all the faffing around about Sir Charles’s missing boot pretty much gives the game away. Dr Mortimer is a total blabbermouth who almost ruins everything. He should have his arse kicked with a new tan boot.

Still, there’s a kind of raw excitement about setting off on an adventure—in the late Victorian England of perfectly coordinated railway timetables and a lightning-fast, fully functioning post office. Think of it! There is, too, a stuffy comedy to the Holmes stories as narrated by Watson, the way all these men look each other over and sum each other up. It’s all about class, of course, but they accept each other as human. More or less. When there comes an interloper, he is readily identified as an urchin, a cabman, or a woman, and you don’t need to be a detective to do that.

You rarely fall over in admiration of one of Doyle’s paragraphs, but there is atmosphere:

Every minute that white woolly plain which covered one-half of the moor was drifting closer and closer to the house. Already the first thin wisps of it were curling across the golden square of the lighted window.

Watson says that Holmes likes to ‘dominate’ people by keeping everything to himself until the last moment. But what that really means is that Doyle has to keep us hanging around until he’s invented some ending, the opposite of what Holmes’s methods are supposed to be. There’s a lot of sham logic, induction and deduction. Doyle liked to give the illusion of high-flown thinking. He once said of the Holmes stories that ‘people think them more ingenious than they are.’

::

But now let us muster our facts over a pipeful of Baker Street shag and talk about what a bad book this is. It has the tedious qualities of a kind of American non-fiction which is not much known here, at least not yet. It is not scholarship and it is not solid journalism, but just splashing about in the shallows of some subject.

Each little chapter has its winsome title and epigram. Despite such gestures toward organisation, Sims hops around within a paragraph like a Mexican jumping bean. He’s incapable of forming a straightforward narrative. There is some suggestion hanging around the publicity for this book that this is intellectually adroit. It isn’t.

On page seven already, Sims portrays a patient at the Royal Infirmary describing his symptoms to Dr Bell ‘in a Scottish accent’. Well, what would you expect? Sims informs us that scholarship was revered in Edinburgh, but a little later he refers to ‘navel-gazing Scottish theologians’, a rather raspy remark on the capital’s intellectual history. He offers yet another American conception of what the ‘Scottish Enlightenment’ was, and then, amazingly, tells us what ‘bohemians’ were:

Arthur liked to think of himself as bohemian. The term derived not from inhabitants of the actual Kingdom of Bohemia – which, in 1867, had become part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – but from bohémien, originally the French term for Romany people, often described in English with the word Gypsy.

Sims explains at length what a deerstalker cap is. Then he explains what deer stalking is. It’s not hunting, he will have you know, but later he returns to the goddam hat to tell us where it could and couldn’t be worn. He seems to trust us to know what deer are.

But if you don’t know what a deerstalker is, why the hell would you be reading this book?

When Doyle goes to Portsmouth to set up a medical practice, Sims says he arrived on a hot day carrying ‘only his ulster, probably a tin box for the top hat that was de rigueur for a young professional man, and a bulky leather portmanteau. The bag was heavy with photographic equipment and brass plates, clothing, books and a large brass sign that he had had made in Plymouth—dr. conan doyle, surgeon.’ “Only?”

Sims’s descriptive writing is awful. What are ‘marble relief columns’? He says the Water of Leith ‘bisects’ Edinburgh. I think we would be very surprised if we awoke tomorrow and found that to be the case. And how many times would you like to be told who Burke and Hare were?

Sims thinks everyone in the 19th century had three names. Thomas Babington Macaulay, among dozens of others, is always called that, just so you won’t confuse him with the other historian Thomas Macaulay. Or Macaulay. These names treble into an almost unbearable cacophony.

You would be more entertained and edified just to sit down and read Doyle. Michael Sims’s intimations about Sherlock Holmes are nothing less than the footprints of a gigantic bore.

 

TMcE

 

This article appeared in the Scottish Review of Books, March 4, 2017

PRAISE FROM WRITERS WE HAVE HELPED

In accolades, Our Clients Vouch for Us on May 30, 2014 at 11:40 am

LEILA ABOULELA (novelist, playwright and short-story writer; Caine Prize winner; author of four novels: Lyrics Alley, which was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Award, Minaret, The Translator and, more recently, The Kindness of Enemies; Leila’s plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio and her stories published in Granta and the Virginia Quarterly Review; her work has been translated into 14 languages):  [from published interviews]  “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” (Mslexia)  “Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” (The Big Interview  –  New Books Magazine)

NANCY GAFFIELD (poet; Tokaido Road, 2011, CB Editions, won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry, and is now an opera; Owhere, 2012, Templar; Continental Drift, 2014, Shearsman):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.

EDDIE GIBBONS (poet;  author of A Twist of Lime Street, 2013, Red Squirrel Press, and Roughly Speaking, 2014; his What They Say About You, 2010, Leamington Books, was shortlisted for Poetry Section of the Scottish Book Awards):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.

NEIL BUTLER (short-story writer and novelist; author of The Roost, 2011, Thirsty Books):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.

PETER BERCZELLER (novelist and essayist; author of Doctors and Patients: What We Feel About You, 1994, Macmillan, and The Little White Coat, 2014, Metroverlag):  I was first attracted to Fiction Atelier by their clever ad in the London Review of Books. Indeed, as I quickly found out, individual therapy beats group therapy by a mile. Lucy does not provide tough love; her gentle nurturing made my novel “Max: The Anality of Evil” into a much more coherent work. What’s more, Lucy provides tender after-care. Her interest does not end with delivery of the edited product. She is always available for subsequent musing and shmoozing, a welcome antidote to the fluctuating self-esteem which is every writer’s lot. I am only sorry I did not meet her earlier. My previous books would have vastly benefited from her sure guidance.

GREG KLERKX (novelist and journalist; author of Lost in Space, 2004, Pantheon; his first novel, The Emissary, 2014, was shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award):  I was lost in the proverbial wilderness with a new novel when a writer friend recommended Fiction Atelier…oh lucky man me! With each comment and point of advice, Lucy showed that she cared about my novel the way I cared about it, and she was as exacting about improving it as ever I might be. Her insight and skill had a profound, positive impact on the book, and I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.

KYLIE GRANT (short-story writer, novelist and critic; winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011; winner of Wise Words Fiction Prize, 2014; reviewer for The List, Scotland):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.

EFFIE CURRELL (novelist and short-story writer; author of short story collections published by the Kreol Institute in the Seychelles, and a children’s book published by Macmillan Caribbean):  So many things keep pulling me away from writing, and sometimes it would be easy to abandon a story that no-one will miss if it’s not told. So, as I sit to write sans publisher, sans book deal, sans contract, sans any of the things that I – perhaps naively – imagine help writers to feel that they are not suffering from delusions of talent, I am glad that I am at least an apprentice at the Atelier.

KYRILL POTAPOV (novelist, playwright and short-story writer; winner of the first Bloomsbury Writing Prize, 2009, University of Kent): Lucy Ellmann is probably the reason I’m still writing, against all odds and temptations. She gave me the confidence and direction that I needed as a young writer and helped to provide the right literary contexts for me to be able to place my writing in a wider tradition and to broaden my pool of writing mentors. Six years later I have completed my first novel and Lucy has been there for me every step of the way. Her input has ranged from loving encouragement to comprehensive commentary on editing strategy. She has shown me a far more suitable direction for my first draft, and with Todd’s input has revealed dimensions and possibilities in my writing I certainly hadn’t considered. Several people have read my manuscript but only Lucy has provided me with a vantage point from which I can see the work as a whole and feel empowered to do what’s needed to make it good.

MARY HONG (short-story writer; teaching literature and creative writing at Webster University, Leiden):  Lucy and Todd are sympathetic and rigorous readers, exactly the kinds of qualities that make a good editor. After several years of writing and struggling to figure out how to take my short stories to the next level, Lucy and Todd’s detailed, insightful comments and patient responses to my many questions opened up new avenues for me to explore in my stories, making them richer and deeper. I found the process of working with them immensely satisfying and stimulating and look forward to sending them my next story.

RUPERT SMITH (short-story writer; winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize, 2010, and the T. S. Eliot Prize, University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.

AARON SIMON (short-story writer and novelist; author of short stories published in Danse Macabre, reviewer, and preliminary judge for the 2014 and 2015 Endeavour Awards):  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent, guiding me along the path of making my writing more engaging and less, well, amateurish. With their prodding and encouragement, I finished up a first draft of a novel, vastly improved my ability to get ideas down on paper, and figure out what makes a decent manuscript. They have the supremely rare skill of being able to give feedback with a human touch, connect with you on a personal level, and give you outstanding feedback without crushing your fragile little writer ego. (And don’t try to deny it. It’s the same for all of us.)

JAMES WRIGHT (short-story writer):  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.

EMMA GLASS (short-story writer):  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.

CHRIS BENNETT (short-story writer and novelist):  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.

NIK WILLIAMS (journalist and short-story writer, now writing for Index on Censorship and openDemocracy):  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.

KRISTEN LOWMAN (playwright, short-story writer and novelist):  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.