22nd MAY is a date I have never forgotten since my 9th birthday. Because six months before at the age of eight and a half (remember how kids never forget to mention the ‘half’ in their ages?) I had got bitten by the sleuth the man born on 22nd May had breathed life into through his pen. There was no Wikipedia when I was 9. You had to make do with libraries, encyclopaedia and book stores to find the biography of any person you found interesting. Or ask your parents and older uncles, cousins or siblings. Except for an uncle, no one was as crazy as I was about the man born on 22nd May 1859. From what I would read of him in the one-page biography in the cover of each of his books – he sounded incredibly versatile. A medical doctor, an avid sportsman of cricket, golf and football, the introducer of skiing in Switzerland as a sport, inventor of the army helmet and the naval life-jacket, an activist against miscarriages of justice if innocent men had been wrongly imprisoned, and a pretty darn good writer of books on historic romances (Brigadier Gerald), an adventurous science fiction Professor (Prof.Challenger) and of course, my first platonic infatuation/ muse (before the first real crush on the logical Mr. Spock) – the eternal, eccentric, brilliant, one and only and possibly the most famous fictional detective of all, Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
By the time I was 13, I had read and re-read every single one of the short stories and the full-length novels of Holmes, memorised ‘facts’ about his life, been depressed over the fact that I was too young to join the ‘Sherlock Holmes secret society’ and read every other book his creator had ever written. I was in love with Holmes, but more so I was in awe of the man who created him: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I didn’t believe in astrology, more in astronomy, but in this case I was suddenly fiercely proud that I shared the same sun-sign as Doyle. (A Geminian – as I’d later find out that Steffi Graf, Bob Dylan, Clint Eastwood, Blaise Pascal, M.C. Escher, Herge (the creator of Tintin – in fact same day as Doyle b. 22 May), Ian Fleming (James Bond’s creator, b. 28 May), J.F.K., Frank Lloyd Wright, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman and of course quite a few other people also are/were.) But Doyle was so far removed from my present time that a sun-sign seemed like a good though weird ‘common point.’ Of course years later I’d find that Conan Doyle had his weaknesses – he was mildly sexist, did not support the women’s suffrage movement, despite being very close to his mother, and most unfathomable of all actually believed in fairies! But darn – could he write!! (though I wonder how confused I’d have become had I known these other facts about him.) I not only loved the stories of Holmes, I had faithfully soaked in everything from dates, to addresses to character names. Even the featured names of the dogs that helped him. I even had a Sherlock Holmes quiz book. I wished I could travel back in time to the period when he lived and meet Sherlock and ask him to make me his apprentice. I wrote an essay on Conan Doyle for a school report. (You can see why there was a reason I was called the Victorian geek.)
Many years later in my 20s when my French boyfriend would write in one of his opening love letters that he wished he and I would have ‘adventures like Conan Doyle’ (true story – he was an avid fan too and instead of writing some mushy moon-and-roses-wish, he wrote a ‘you-and-I-can-have-adventures-like-Conan-Doyle’ line,) he melted my reserve to move to the east coast to join him – in retrospect that was the degree of faith I had in the power of Doyle. (It’s quite another story that the closest we did get later to any ‘Conan-Doyle-adventures’ was just that many people including sitarist Ravi Shankar would nickname that boyfriend ‘Conan’ due to his partial physical resemblance to the ‘Conan’ of Schwarzenegger. Albeit, in reality, he looked closer to Dolph Lundgren.)
But what can I say? Anyone who has been sucked into the stories of Doyle knows that power of plot lines and mysteries, knows his tremendous skill and most of all the fantastic clarity and style through which he pioneered the ‘science of deduction’ through Holmes’ character. The logic, the methods, the reliance on evidence and facts, on groundwork – the brilliance of Holmes had won me mind and heart and soul. He was even more eccentric, weird, bohemian than the stoic Mr. Spock who would appear in the Star Trek re-runs. While my classmates would dote over rock stars and sportsmen, I held my torch for Holmes and Spock. My best friend at that time in my adolescence got jealous as hell when I announced that some day I would grow up and marry Holmes and not him. “How can you like both the futuristic Spock and the Victorian Holmes at the same time? That’s too paradoxical,” he pouted. In 2009 I almost squealed in delight when Zachary Quinto as the new Spock spouted the line: “An ancestor of mine maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” I felt like jumping up and down and wishing I could go back in time and tell Steffen – See Holmes is Spock’s ancestor – so it did make perfect sense why I loved them both!! That same logic, the scientific mind, eccentricity, deep emotion underneath calm rationality, insanely brilliant, versatile, an oddball….I knew my ‘type’ even back then!
Anyway, this is a post I wanted to write as an ode to the fascinating Conan Doyle. There is a ton of information about him out there. A good book that I had read of him long back was The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes by John Dickson Carr. And this is a good detailed site about him :
And for some of the best quotes of Holmes, Wikiquote has done a good job here:
I still have the book that Steffen gave me the Christmas before he returned back to Germany. He would die 6 years later. Ours was a story filled with a deep childhood friendship and innocent love, and tragedy – unfortunately due to the deliberate malice of a person who hid his letters. It is a long story and one that will never be placed on the screen of a computer. That was the last Christmas we would spend together. He had scouted the stores to find a book of the quotations of Sherlock Holmes. After considerable mulling and deliberation we, – he age 14 , I at 12 decided that our favourite was this rather objective one: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” We each wrote it down on a piece of paper and carried it around in our pockets at all times, feeling very wise and solemn. Though as life goes by, I think this one contains much wisdom: “Everything in this world is relative, my dear Watson.” And many years later I had the immense pleasure of working on a few projects with a brilliant Swiss structural engineer who was arguably one of the best in the world. When I asked my architectural mentor why he’d always pick the same engineer even though he was so busy and reclusive, his reply brought back the old chills of the clear cut words of my fictional hero: “When you want the best, you pick the best. And if you don’t do it right the first time, it’ll have problems sooner or later. As Holmes would say: “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself. But talent instantly recognizes genius.” I may not be a genius, but at least I have talent. And the talent to know that that man I want is a genius.”
And last year when I visited the newly opened Sherlock Holmes museum at 221B Baker Street, which had not been established during my years in London, I soaked in every nook and corner of the apartment, every artifact and iconic item and got lost once more in my pre-teen years when the thrill of the stories of possibly still the world’s greatest detective had enthralled and bewitched me, and transported me into a time of horse carriages and cobble stoned alleyways, sinister murderers and corseted ladies, Watson and Hudson, Mycroft and Moriarty, and a period of Victorian London and other lands that were immortalised forever in the pages of a physician whose imagination and quest for the logical science of deduction had given the world one of the most intriguing and analytical characters of all time. Happy 151st birthday, Dr. Doyle.
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