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Why Is Holmes Still Popular? It’s Elementary… Essay, Research Paper

Why is Holmes still popular? It’s elementary…The day WH Smith announced the shortlist for its Thumping Good Read Award, whose previous winners include Robert Harris for Fatherland and David Baldacci for Absolute Power, the results of a poll by Booksdirect.co.uk revealed that, despite the industry’s massive investment in psychological thrillers, the punters still prefer the classic detective story, the genre Graham Greene once described as ‘the modern fairytale’.So, if we believe the poll, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes turns out to be the nation’s favourite detective, followed by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot (and also Miss Marple) and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Other also-rans include Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta and Ruth Rendell’s Wexford.Holmes’s popularity is a tribute to Conan Doyle’s genius for narrative and character and is another indication of the vogue for things Edwardian, but it also reminds us that exactly a hundred years ago British popular fiction was enjoying a mini golden age.Consider the bibliographical facts. 1901 saw the publication of Kipling’s Kim; 1902 was the annus mirabilis of Conrad’s Youth, Conan Doyle’s best book The Hound of the Baskervilles, Kipling’s Just So stories, AEW Mason’s The Four Feathers and PG Wodehouse’s first novel, The Pothunters. The following year, 1903, saw the appearance of Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands and Jack London’s Call of the Wild. Other writers active at this time include HG Wells and JM Barrie, both of whom had a massive popular readership.Empire played its part in this golden age. The adventure story, now rather despised, was a genre that attracted serious novelists. Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) is an imperial adventure story with a high moral purpose and although such dramas lost their shine with the Boer War, the threat of war with Germany soon mesmerised the public and found its way into books like The Riddle of the Sands.Ultimately, there is no accounting for such surges in literary excellence, but part of the explanation lies with the marketplace. The first decade of the new century was a good time to be a popular novelist with a mass appeal. The Education Act of 1870 had created a literate adult population eager for self-improvement and entertainment. As John Carey has described in The Intellectuals and the Masses, it was a new audience characterised by GB Shaw as ‘readers who had never before bought books, nor could have read them if they had’.It was this market that the great Edwardian media proprietors like Northcliffe, Newnes and Armstrong exploited so successfully in magazines like Tit Bits, and newspapers like the Daily Mirror (launched in 1903). Characteristically, it was Cambridge-educated EM Forster who gently satirised the quintessential Edwardian self-improver in his portrait of Leonard Bast, the hapless clerk in Howard’s End whose tragicomic end is to be fatally crushed by a falling bookcase.The parallels between Edwardian England and our own time are not hard to identify. There is the same global capitalism, the same dizzying technological innovation (particularly in mass communications) and the same clamour from emerging literary markets.There is, however, one significant difference. A hundred years ago, successful novelists like Kipling and Conan Doyle were colossal celebrities with huge popular followings. True to the traditions of their immediate Victorian predecessors, they saw it as part of their responsibility to participate in the political and social debates of the day. In short, to be public figures expressing their views on contemporary issues.Successful novelists today are much more remote figures. They may appear at literary festivals, but will probably shrink from getting involved in social or political controversy. Arundhati Roy is the exception that proves the rule. Most writers cultivate an aloof detachment from the real world that is reflected in their output.They would no more expect to address a mass meeting than they would want to write a Thumping Good Read. In that respect, the WH Smith Award, like the Books.direct.co poll, is an expression of the same cultural nostalgia that has inspired the Edwardian Country House.The appeal of Sherlock Holmes is more complex. He is, on the face of it, a cold fish. ‘Detection’, he says in The Sign of Four , ‘is an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner.’ Part of his charm resides in the amiable, doltish character of Dr Watson. A lot of his fascination rests with the devilish cunning of Conan Doyle’s stories. His popularity is a tribute to the insatiable public appetite for the well-told tale.Contemporary novelists please note.


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