Sherlock Holmes and What Is Real

girl with fairy

Of course, everyone knows that in real life, fairies are horrible, evil creatures.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of the detective Sherlock Holmes, was often asked by readers to solve their own real-life mysteries. He couldn’t respond to their cries for help, though, because unlike Holmes, Conan Doyle was famously gullible. His most embarrassing gaffe was the Cottingley Fairies, a hoax perpetrated by two girls who took photographs of themselves next to cardboard likenesses of fairies and gnomes and represented the results as real meetings with fanciful beings. Conan Doyle embraced the photos as proof of other beings and was roundly denounced for it, but I find myself entirely sympathetic to him.

As authors, we’re always asking ourselves “what if?” What if there were a man with a mind like a computer who could solve even the most bizarre crimes? What if there were life on other worlds? What if I were another person with another life, thrown into difficulty and danger? Our ability to sympathize, to imagine, to create the reality we wish to see is at the heart of our gift, and I think that Conan Doyle wasn’t necessarily being gullible, but was opening his mind to the possibility that fairies could exist in the same world that he did.

Weird Tales magazine cover from 1934

Bringing you fabulous tales of “what if” since 1923!

I find myself opening up to possibility all the time. Back when I lived in San Jose, I would drive down Quito Drive, which had long stretches of orchards, and for months I saw a sign that read “Mary Ferguson Offered” outside a house situated in the middle of a grove of fruit trees. For months, I wondered who Mary Ferguson might be, and what she might have offered to the maker of the sign. Whatever it was, it was remarkable enough for the sign maker to want to publicize the event. It was only after I’d seen the sign for at least six months that someone pointed out that it actually read “Massey Ferguson Offered,” meaning that the owner of the house was getting rid of a tractor. It was a letdown.

I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House being carted down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck, I’ve seen a dead cat in the gutter that maintained bodily integrity for nearly a year, I’ve seen a skyshark. And none of those things is out of the realm of the possible in the world I live in. Just today, my neighbors were vivisecting a hippopotamus.

What is the truth of the things I’ve seen? It’s what it appears to be, because I accept what my mind tells me without question. If I see a foot-high man wearing a brilliant-blue vest and black trousers walking down the street toward me, I believe it. If I am looking at it, obviously, it’s possible, right? And, to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a let down to realize that it’s just one of the neighbor’s peacocks walking along the road toward me. The truth is usually less interesting than what my mind invents.

cover of Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi"

I like the Cheshire catness of this tiger

If you’ve ever read the book The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, you know that it’s about a boy who drifts in a lifeboat on the Pacific for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion (once the tiger has eaten the orangutan and the zebra that started the journey with them). At one point in the story, a pair of Japanese insurance agents question him. He tells them his story, but he also tells them a different story where, instead of a tiger, he’s in the boat with the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg and Pi’s mother. The strictly human story is horrifying and grisly, lacking any of the wonder and hope of the story of the boy who survived more than half a year in the company of a tiger. In the end, Pi asks the insurance men which story they like better – the one with or without the tiger.

In my world, there is room for tigers, for Sherlock Holmes, for the Cottingley fairies, and tiny men wearing brilliant blue vests and black trousers. And there’s room for you, too.

4 responses

  1. I like your interpretation of Doyle better than the idea of his being gullible. He clearly had a rational, investigative mind to have invented Holmes; at the same time, that mind allowed for the fantastical possibilities of our world, especially since at that time there was even more to know about it than there is now. Nothing wrong with having an open mind, especially in cases where what our minds conjure are clearly superior to reality.

    And what is “reality” except the interpretation of stimuli as agreed upon by the majority of people?

    I miss having as big an imagination as I did when I was 10, and I envy you for managing to hold onto it.

    • I will tell you that it’s an ability that can be exercised. Just because you don’t have it now doesn’t mean that you can’t. The next time you see something you don’t understand immediately, look away. If you have to, consciously put a fun spin on something you see (like my imagining an awkwardly walking giraffe as two men on stilts in a tent). Observe things out loud, without regard to good sense, physics or logic. These are things for the faint of heart, and that is not you. You’ll be dodging skysharks in no time.

  2. Pingback: Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind « What Monkeys Think

  3. I don’t think mystery is a genre I would ever relaly throw myself into, but it’s fine for an occasional diversion.Much as I enjoy dipping into the world of Sherlock Holmes now and then, I’ve never favored Doyle’s writing or approach to mystery – a lot of times it seems to be made up more of mechanical details put together than a relaly human plot. That can be enjoyable, especially if you’re looking at it maybe as a puzzle only (though with Holmes stories I don’t know if you always get all the relevant details to work with… sometimes Holmes just points them out and then you learn of them after he’s already deduced something).The mystery stories that are good for just a diversion aren’t the relaly great ones though. The best ones have made me consider human nature and psychology in new ways, and introduced me to memorable characters and great writing (one example is the G.K. Chesterton collection – Father Brown: The Essential Tales). I read this past year a volume, The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, and there was a lot of variety from one author to another.

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