Thursday, July 11, 2019

CwHD 87

The Dogs At The Gate

photo by Molly Simoni

For most of us, life is a continuum. We divide this continuum arbitrarily with age and occupation and other divisions; and these divisions, these nooks and crannies in which we fit our selves, may be considered and selected either objectively or subjectively or, more often, randomly. Infant, toddler, youth, teen, adult. Student, worker, retiree. Bold. Meek. We are shaped by our environment: physical, mental, and spiritual. If we were born and raised in Calcutta, we would likely be beggars. If we were born on the Diomede Islands, we would feast on whale blubber. The nature-nurture discussion continues thousands of years after its inception with no clear resolution in sight. No matter. None needed.

For most of us who are immersed in the immense cultural flow known as western civilization, possessions come to take precedent. We are what we own. In many instances, our possessions come to possess us. Fences, locks and electronic surveillance are sure to follow. This insistence on owning land, houses, cars, gadgets, dogs, cats and what-not, includes, unfortunately, owning people. An economic argument suggests all this possessiveness, including slavery, is necessary. This premise, like all based on economics, is both tedious and specious.

Distinctions between owner and owned can be cut rather fine. A hair's breadth. The lead photograph, 'The Dogs At The Gate', is not about possession; but rather about protection. These dogs are not 'owned'. Their 'owners' abandoned them. For two of them, neglect and abuse was their lot. Old dogs often suffer the same fate as old people, they are discarded. This is an interesting corollary to possession: If it breaks, don't fix it. Throw it away. Get a new one. A better one. A bigger one. Such is western civilization.

Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think that much too broad a generality. Consider: Two pillars of this civilized culture are religion and politics. The Ancients created gods to explain what they could not understand. Arguably, the Greeks of Socrates and Plato established democracy. Science and the recalcitrant leaders of organized religion, have put paid to many belief systems. Americans have ended democracy. Western religions cultivate ownership. We are all god's children, they tell us, and batter us with the alms basket. They take the vow of poverty, but it is the people, historically, who have suffered the grind of poverty. And both archbishops and industrialists, popes and kings, know that needy people are more manageable.

Just for good measure, it might be noted that Eastern religions, in general, have no such inherent need for possessing souls, for erecting monuments to the glory of ephemeral beings, their innumerable gods and goddesses. But Buddhists and Hindus and what-have-yous become possessed by possessions as easily as those of us in the West. And the politics and and religions of the East are inextricably intertwined. For every Gandhi or Nehru there are a multitude of Maos and Lon Nols and moguls and maharajahs, Taj Mahals and Summer Palaces.

The ruling cliques, both lay and cleric, drive the legislation that erects ephemeral boundaries and quotas, restrictions and tariffs that guard the 'national interest' and which profits only the members of the cliques and those who empower them. The military gets fat on weapons. Industry gets fat on the military. Insurance companies get fat on premiums to protect are possessions. Pharmaceuticals get fat on drugs to enhance and preserve our bodies and what remains of our minds.

No matter. These are not revelations. The preceding little diatribe is just a snippet of a discussion that fills book after book, if one cares to pursue the argument. Or read history. The gist of course is that power emanates from possession. And wealth is the outward guise of power. Economic arguments abound, rationalizing all this business. As a species, we are rather adept at rationalizing.

Roger Payne has spent a lifetime studying and defending whales. In his 1998 book, Among Whales, he wrote:

Using an economic argument as if it were the soundest basis for judgment is, of course, at the root of the tragedy of our times. One could hardly find a clearer example of what such reasoning leads to than the present state of whales. Simply stated, putting economics first is the myopia of this the most shortsighted of all civilizations; it is the view for which our era will be remembered the longest, the addiction for which we will someday be judged more harshly than the most prejudiced medieval society. The ultimate expression of our madness is that we revere as wise those who put economic considerations above all else and sneer at those who see the madness of such a system of values, labeling them as unrealistic. Meanwhile, we spend all of our children's inheritance to maintain ourselves in the myth that what we are doing is viable. I would offer that this is the most deeply flawed, most expensive belief ever adopted in the history of our species.

We are driven by our desires, and all too often neglect that which we need most. Payne suggests that it is our 'wild' selves we need most, and one cannot but agree. That word 'wild', however, has too many connotations and fails to convey precisely the point he tries to make. Humans are animals; that is the reality. We are born from the wilderness as all animate creatures are. Only humans deny their origins; only humans feel a need to civilize the wild. Yet, the attraction remains. Payne wrote:

Remote and imperturbable, the lives of whales are somehow enough to match any fantasy humanity can create. They are what we have lost, what we yearn for. They are in some ways the last wild voice calling to the consciousness of terminally civilized humanity, our last contact before we submerge forever in our own manufacture and irretrievably lose the last fragment of our wild selves.
---Roger Payne, Among Whales

Terminally civilized.

But perhaps Mr Payne has understated the case. As wildness is lost on the planet we lose not just a last fragment, we become in fact fragmented, not whole, become some unwholesome creation who knows nothing but power and greed and corruption. Certainly, we are not who we think we are; we are not unique; we are not singular. We are not superior to the rest of creation. At various times our costumes change. We adorn ourselves with different masks; but there is little real change. And whether Catholic or Muslim or Protestant or Hindu, Irish, Burmese, Chukchi, or Australian, we all suffer the same faults and fates.

But since we are not puppets dancing on strings, we can gather up the shards of our fragmented existence and become, simply, one again (or mostly so: see footnote on Charles Scammon). And just how might that be done? From Aldo Leopold:

Samuel Whittemore Boggs, the geographer, once spoke of "the wholesomeness of wholeness." The wisest man is insufficiently conscious of the remedial quality of mere presence in the wilderness when he first comes from the marketplace of nerve-wracking half-truths and no-truths into a genial haven of a whole ... and he feels himself becoming whole again.

Wholesome and wholeness are often listed as synonyms. They might be, at times. They are not always. Wholesome refers to that which promotes spiritual or mental health or well being, an adjective. Wholeness is a noun, and generally means 'not broken.' When one is mentally fragmented, broken, it is necessary to find something wholesome to help repair the damage.

And so we return to the dogs at the gate. The companionship of dogs is usually wholesome. Swimming with dolphins is often used as part of a healing process for battered women. And whales, at least the grays of San Ignacio Lagoon, have a miraculous (I have selected this word carefully) power to transform the most nerve-wracked, embittered human into one who is at peace with the world.

Photo Merrily Simoni

The dog in the photograph is Cowboy. So badly abused and neglected he could not be groomed, but only shaved. The end of his tail was amputated due to a gangrenous injury that had never been treated. When Cowboy first arrived at our house, he made for the back bedroom and lay down beside my wife's mother's bed. Laura patted the dog and smiled. Largely bedridden, there were few pleasure's remaining in Laura's life. Responding to the petting, Cowboy sat up and lay his head on the side of the bed. Then, slowly, the old collie hoisted himself up beside the old woman and lay down. And so they remained, a comfort to each other, healing one and another, fast friends for the time left to them.

Has the case been overstated? Is this merely some modern day bit of psycho-babble? Are humans guilty of reeking havoc on the planet and its creations? From The Eye Of The Whale, a quote from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick offers some insight:

eye of gray whale, drawing by Charles Melville Scammon,
The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America, 1874

What is it, that nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time, recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare. Is Ahab, Ahab?

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Among Whales (1998), Roger Payne at your favorite local book store.

I am a heretic, using the internet to debase the internet. From whatever perspective, the Internet is a cultural wasteland. The immense quantity of data collected is beyond manageable. This data poses no threat to the individual until someone decides to seek you out. WWW is the new plague, and should be avoided. Support human businesses, local venders. Visits to the web should be as infrequent as television viewing. Stay off the phone. Look people in the eye. Those who communicate by text message or similar inanities have the least to say.

Eye Of The Whale (2002), Dick Russell. p633. The book focuses on the migration of gray wells from Baja California to the Bering Sea. Charles Melville Scammon, who drew the eye of the whale, was a whaler who discovered the breeding lagoons of the gray whale and was responsible for their wholesale slaughter. He was also an excellent amateur naturalist, and his book on marine mammals is still relevant. Scammon apparently had a change of heart, and quit whaling to join the Revenue Service, a forerunner of the Coast Guard, whose main function, ironically, was to apprehend poachers.

A Sand Country Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold

Moby-Dick, 1851, Herman Melville, is a classic everyone should read. The quote is from the chapter 132 entitled 'The Symphony'.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

CwHD 86

Trees and Trilliums

Over the last two years, Google data recorded 7536 views of CwHD. Most of those views lasted less than a minute which makes for a poor bounce rate. A bounce rate is the percentage of visits in which a person leaves a website from the landing page without browsing any further. No matter. Words and language are, like the complicated business of driving a vehicle, taken for granted by most people. Boring, in fact. Unless reckless. Or intoxicated. Or both.

I find this odd.

Odd, too, is the way many people go through life. Just browsing is what many seem to be doing, living without intention or direction. Or living impetuously. No doubt Google could put numbers on this generalization. For example, currently the population of the planet is 7.7 billion. The World Population Clock web page keeps ticking over with births and deaths. To the minute, 50,287 people have died today. 121, 276 have been born. 30% of the people on the planet are just trying to survive. They are not bored. Or impulsive. Dire straits focuses one's attention rather acutely.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote that "...the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation..." And that desperation might well be humdrum or horrific. For example, according to the Center For Disease Control website, over a billion people worldwide are without clean water or proper sanitation which leads directly or otherwise to the deaths of a million children each year. Bored with your job, are you? Having a midlife crisis? Credit cards maxed out, are they. Alas.

Webb Chiles is an intrepid fellow who has circumnavigated the globe six times. He has made these voyages, for the most part, alone. The greater part of one voyage was done in a small, open boat. Mr Chiles has insisted on living an epic life, as he puts it, traveling to the extremities of experience and then reporting back. He is rarely ever feckless or foolhardy. He is, in a word, a seaman. He is, as well, a wordsmith, a fellow who takes language seriously. He has written several books and maintains his own web log. Generally, he has little tolerance for the dreary, humdrum, often intolerable life ashore. He prefers the open sea and solitude.

Mr Chiles no doubt concurs with Thoreau, and so chooses to live his life with a fierce intention to be heroic. Though I, too, vote with Thoreau and Chiles, my point of view is slightly different. The distinction between us is but a hair's breadth, yet it is significant.

When Henry David went to Walden Pond, the small lake and its surrounding forest were wilderness. Now it is just a short drive from Boston; but in 1845 it was something of an epic trek. During the two years, two months, that he lived there, Thoreau began to write Walden, a classic of American literature. He wrote:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Living deep requires intention and focus. Consciousness is not spontaneous, not instinctive, not autonomic. We must put some effort into our consciousness for it to function as we think consciousness does. Philosopher Dan Dennett in his TED Talk (2009), 'The Illusion of Consciousness', likens it to a conjuring trick. He points out that at any given moment our attention is focused entirely on a point the size of our thumb nail at arm's length. The background and foreground are filled in by our brains. Think pixels. Or dots of paint from an impressionist's brush. Our brain (or some combination of the 37 trillion cells comprising the human body) creates the bulk of the image. We really do not see what we are seeing. Or smelling. Or hearing.

To be conscious, then, is not something to take for granted. Webb Chiles' desire to suck the marrow out of life led him to the sea. The impression given by the words he writes is that nothing less would do. So too with Thoreau. To put all that is not life to rout, it seems, requires a challenging environment. The high mountains might qualify, or the deserts of the world. Wildness. Little else. Certainly not Levittown.

My take is that Levittown would do just fine. Seclusion is a state of mind. If each moment of anyone's life is considered to be an epic occurrence, just where you are becomes irrelevant. And, as I have written before, we create those moments ourselves, that bit of reality. How is this done? I am fond of this quote from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: The world we see is the words we use. The world we create comes from the various and multitudinous synapses in the recesses of our brains, and the subsequent verbiage we use to describe what we create. Presto change-o: Reality. And Consciousness. Or Consciousness, then Reality. No matter.

As far as publishing one's experience to the world goes, that reporting back business, one can undertake the task or not. Certainly it seems to be true that the writer's job (or painter or musician or name your art) is to create work that reports back from wherever their fancy finds them. Warhol painted soup cans. Beethoven wrote symphonies. Wildness need not be part of the program.

Singer songwriter John Prine, an old geezer like Mr Chiles and myself, wrote a lyric that went: ... strangers had forced him to live in his head ...(from the song 'Donald and Lydia', album John Prine, 1971). We all live in our heads. Each of us does so uniquely. What one usually finds is that strangers have forced us out of our heads; and we become lost in a gray and threatening world, a place of confusion and dread.

Open ocean is a fine arena to regain one's perspective. Mountains and deserts, too. But a walk in the park might be all one needs. Or simply a quiet corner of the house. Solitude and simplicity are often necessary for introspection, but not requisite. Trees and trilliums would do. Cats and dogs. The one proviso I would add is this: Always remember what the Dormouse said. (Read the book, listen to the song: you decide.)

photo by gv simoni

*     *     *


Find "Donald and Lydia", John Prine (1971) here:

Find the Dormouse in : ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Lewis Carroll [Random House, 1946]. p.134, and elsewhere.

Find 'White Rabbit' (Grace Slick, 1966) sung by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings at

Find quote from Walden in essay by Elizabeth Witherall (and Elizabeth Dubrulle) in their essay on Walden (web page: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau). Depending on your edition of the book, the quote is on p90.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):

Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post concludes the biographies of those writers.

Raymond Chandler
(1888 - 1959)

"Chandler wrote like a slumming angel ..."
The New Yorker

Raymond Thornton Chandler was born in Chicago on July 23, 1888. At seven, his divorced mother took him to live in England. He attended prep schools early on, then went to university in France and Germany. Like Rex Stout before him, Chandler cobbled together a career in business before failure there pushed him into a writing career. He developed a distinctive prose voice and a knack for pungent metaphor. Often quoted is this: It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

On his return to England after his European studies, he set out on a writing career with mixed results. By 1912, frustration moved him to the United States. A variety of jobs followed: tennis racket stringer, creamery book keeper and others of that sort. In 1917, he joined the Canadian army and fought in France. After his discharge, Chandler returned to Los Angeles.

At 36 he married Pearl "Cissy" Pascal who was 18 years senior to Chandler, and already twice divorced. He worked as a bookkeeper for an Southern California oil syndicate despite what he believed to be a corrupt industry with disreputable executives. With the depression, the oil business, too, slumped. Cissy's health began to fail and Chandler began drinking and carousing with company secretaries. He was fired in 1932.

Unlike Stout, necessity pushed Chandler to writing. A growing market for detective fiction seemed the path to take. His first story was published in 1933, sold to Black Mask Magazine. The demands of the pulp fiction market---tight plots, word length, subject matter---gave him a template to work within and he soon mastered the medium. He excelled at creating an emotional climate through apt description and original dialogue.

His first novel was published in 1939. The Big Sleep introduced a tough, cynical, sharp tongued Los Angeles gumshoe named Philip Marlowe. Chandler's prose was an artful combination of English prep school grammar and the rough street talk of 1930s. More lucrative work followed. As a scriptwriter, he earned Oscar nominations for Double Indemnity and The Blue Dahlia.

Amidst this success, his wife Cissy struggled with fibrosis of the lungs. She died in 1956. Her death devastated Chandler. His self-described 'long mourning' produced bouts of destructive drinking and at least one suicide attempt. His biographer, Frank McShane, remarked that " ... the emotional sensitivity that made [Chandler's] literary achievement possible also made him miserable as a human being."

Despite his 'long mourning' Chandler managed to write six more Marlowe novels as well as a number of short stories. Two of the books, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, are regarded as classics of the genre.

His legacy as an artist contributed to the careers of many writers. Those that followed --- Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Timothy Harris, Arthur Lyons, Max Allan Collins, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky and many others --- all built the edifice of their work on Chandler's foundation.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.

Dashiell Hammett
(1894 - 1961)

Samuel Dashiell Hammett was born near Baltimore, Maryland, on May 27,1894. His family was plagued with poverty. At 14 he left school and began working to help support the household. At 18 he wrangled a job with Pinkerton's Detective Agency. Eventually, he was sent to Montana to help mine owners suppress striking workers. He found his sympathies were with the miners. He had served briefly in the ambulance corps during the first world war, but was discharged due to tuberculosis. This disease and his childhood poverty would haunt the remainder of his life.

He wrote only four novels, the last in 1936. The Glass Key was considered his best work, though The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man were more successful commercially. Hollywood purchased the rights to both of the latter novels, and Hammett moved to Los Angeles to work on the scripts.

The remainder of his life until his death in 1961 was a matter of drunkenness, bouts of tuberculosis, irresponsibility, some serious efforts to effect political change, and a spell in prison for his support of left wing and communist organizations. He contributed to the plays of his partner Lillian Hellman, did some movie and radio work, but no more books were forthcoming despite a consistent nagging from his publishers.

Sam Spade, the main character in The Maltese Falcon, would serve as the model for the hard boiled detective for decades to come. Hammett's journalistic style also became de rigueur. The protagonist in The Thin Man became associated autobiographically with Hammett himself. Ironically, the title referred to the murdered victim in the novel, not Nick Charles, the detective; but a series of films based on the novel fixed the notion that the thin man was the detective. The lifestyle of Nick and Nora Charles was taken wholesale from the lifestyle of Hammett and playwright Lillian Hellman.

In the end, Hammett came to regret his creation of Sam Spade. Writers of various abilities were churning out copy after copy. Few were as compelling as the original.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.

Rex Stout
(1886 - 1975)

Rex Todhunter Stout, born in 1886 and a published writer by 1920, was best known for creating what are generally considered the most refined and sophisticated detective fiction of his time. Nero Wolfe, his reclusive sleuth, worked as hard on cultivating orchids and his palate as he did at solving murders. His foil, Archie Goodwin, served as Wolfe's factotum and more. No longer the somewhat obtuse friend as Conan Doyle and Christie had portrayed Watson and Hastings, Goodwin became an equal with the fat man.

And it is with Archie Goodwin that some first steps are taken towards the creation of the hard boiled detective to come. When Wolfe needs to circumvent the law, it is Goodwin who beaks and enters. It is Goodwin who carries the gun. It is Goodwin who throws the punch. He may be suave and witty, but the veneer is thin and beneath lurks the tough guy who doesn't hesitate to do what needs to be done.

Like Doyle and Collins, Stout worked a variety of jobs in order to support himself while he wrote. He stopped writing for several years as he found earning a living and writing too daunting. His decision was to work and save until he could support himself as a writer. Fortunately, he sold a banking system designed primarily for schools to various institutions, and the income from the sale freed him to resume his writing.

Stouts first four novels, not mysteries, found publishers and moderate sales. He had written several short detective stories, and in the early 1930s made the decision to concentrate on that genre. Fer-de-Lance, published in 1934, brought Nero Wolfe to the reading public. Stout, though not exactly a model for Wolfe---always rather thin and outgoing himself --- did imbue the detective with his passion for fine food and gardening. The top floor of Wolfe's fictional brownstone in New York City had been converted to a potting room, work room, and green house. Besides Goodman, the household consisted of Theodore, who looked after the 10,000 orchids, and Fritz Brenner, the master chef, who catered to Wolfe's appetite.

Fer-de-Lance sold well and Stout began churning out a new Wolfe story every year. He also found time for political activism, supporting various democratic organizations. He was a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and won numerous awards including a nomination by an international panel as the foremost writer of the genre.

He died at his home in Danbury, Connecticut.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.

Agatha Christie
(1890 - 1976)

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller is arguably the best selling author of all time. Estimates of the sales of her 83 books stands at about 2 billion books. She created two detectives who are as recognized as most top film stars: Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. Poirot is a Belgian dandy whose methods were taken from Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Poirot relies on 'his little grey cells' and deductions follow. Marple is an observant elderly lady who is most often underestimated. She, too, relies on deduction.

Christie was the daughter of an American father and a British mother. Born in England in September of 1890, she was taught at home, learned to read at five, and grew up surrounded by a family that thoroughly enjoyed telling stories. At 24, she married a Colonel Archibald Christie.

Unfortunately, the marriage failed badly. The Colonel was a philanderer. Christie drove off one day in December of 1926 and disappeared. Stress induced amnesia of one sort or another was the diagnosis. She had checked herself into a resort hotel under her husband's mistress' name, and claimed to remember nothing of the intervening days.

Regaining her health --- divorcing the Colonel no doubt helped --- she resumed writing. She had already published five novels with some success. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, earlier in 1926, became a best seller, and launched the public acclaim for both Christie and her Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. In her autobiography, Christie acknowledges that she was " ... still writing in the Sherlock Holmes tradition --- eccentric detective, stooge assistant, and a stolid police man ..."

By 1934, Christie had found a new niche. Her novels began to feature unlikely scenarios in which her characters acted in the most likely manner. Miss Jane Marple, one of the author's favorites, first appears in Murder In The Vicarage. Marple, no doubt speaking Christie's mind as well, often remarks in the calm manner of your favorite grandmother, that all human beings are prey to their weaknesses and that some few are completely immoral. And it is the books of this period that Christie espouses the philosophy that to kill a killer is only justice.

For her exemplary career as a writer, Agatha Christie, age 81, was named a Dame of the British Empire, a woman's equivalent of knighthood.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

CONVERSATIONS (CwHD) is a weblog about words and language and other nonsense. CwHD began May 1, 2017. Besides thematic essays, the site provides a vehicle for sharing my own words and language. In July, 2017, I opened The Bookstore. This page provides an overview of my published work. Print and ebook copies are available through my publishing website (link in sidebar):


Previously, I listed the six most influential author's of detective stories. This week's post continues the biographies of those writers.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
(1859 - 1930)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh on May 22, 1859, just a year after Wilkie Collins published The Woman In White. His family was impoverished largely due to an profligate father who gambled and drank. Nevertheless, Conan Doyle managed to receive a good education at a Jesuit school despite the sometimes brutal physical punishment that was meted out to the school's students. With an absent, errant father, mother and son formed a strong bond. From her he learned to appreciate the art of story telling, and managed to publish his first story while still a student.

Though he studied to be doctor, his medical practice was never on solid footing. While in London, writing stories rather than prescriptions, he managed to sell 'An American Tale'. "It was in this year," he later wrote, "that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials."

Well educated, well read, and soon to be well traveled, Doyle became a man of many interests. At twenty, he made a voyage to the arctic as a ship's doctor. While repulsed by the slaughter of seals, he relished the shipboard camaraderie. That voyage " ... awakened the soul of a born wanderer ... "

In 1886, he began a novel which would make him famous. Originally entitled A Tangled Skein, his protagonist was named Sheridan Hope. His crony was named Ormand Sacker. The book would be renamed A Study In Scarlet, and the characters would become Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

With the immediate success and celebrity of Holmes, Doyle faced a dilemma. The detective stories, as a genre, even then were considered "commercial" works; and Doyle wished to be considered a 'serious' writer, a literary man. So in spite of the financial rewards of the Holmes' stories and a now flourishing medical practice, Conan Doyle was restless.

He moved to Vienna with his wife and daughter and set up a practice, which failed rather badly. The inactivity, however, gave him a good deal of idle time to think. He made the decision to write a series of stories with the same characters. The Strand magazine agreed to publish, and Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson became the obvious protagonists for the stories. The collaboration between Doyle and The Strand became an immediate success, lasting for many decades.

In May, 1891, he suffered a severe bout of influenza; and Conan Doyle came to the realization that attempting to combine a medical career with a literary career was too daunting a task. His choice was easy: he gave up medicine and concentrated on writing.

Despite the success of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle began to feel oppressed by his character. By 1893, the demands to write more stories were constant. His solution to the problem was to kill the golden goose. In what was entitled 'The Final Problem', Holmes and his arch enemy Moriarty fight and both fall to their deaths into the Reichenbach Falls. Subsequently, 20,000 subscribers to The Strand magazine cancelled their subscriptions.

Relieved to be rid of this burden, Conan Doyle traveled and concentrated on his 'serious' writing. The death of his wife and son led him to the occult. As he grew older, more and more of his time and energy were spent delving into the mysteries of the afterlife and going off on what he termed 'psychic crusades.' It was estimated that he spent a million pounds ($30 million in today's money) on his esoteric studies.

Curiously, Holmes, too, had his 'afterlife.' Whenever Conan Doyle ran short of funds he would trot out another Holmes' story and replenish the coffers. Four novels were published as well as six short story collections. His 'science of deduction' became the standard for all other detectives until the 1930s when detection and detectives took on a darker cast.

sketch of Holmes by Sydney Paget