Before Sherlock

Before Sherlock

Before Sherlock

Arthur Conan Doyle
University of Chicago Press
2012, pp 368

A riddle: What does Captain Ahab have in common with Sherlock Holmes? Answer: Both characters were created by writers who sailed on whaling vessels, who knew firsthand the heft of a harpoon, the bite of raging gales and the blisters raised by oars.

Herman Melville’s years as a sailor and whaler dominate his work, while for most readers Arthur Conan Doyle’s time at sea is either entirely unknown or, at best, something of a mystery. But now that mystery is unveiled, and like the mysteries unravelled by Holmes himself, it is unveiled with elegance and style in Dangerous Work.

Doyle’s own sketch adorns the book’s cover, showing the three-masted vessel on which he served for six months. Inside, a map charts his passage north from Scotland to the ice-clogged waters between Greenland and Spitsbergen.

The editors Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower build a succinct introduction around the as yet unknown author’s “sudden impulse” in early 1880 to sign on to an Arctic whaler and join a commercial enterprise that was, fortunately, dying off even quicker than the whales upon which it preyed.

The crux of the book is given over to a reproduction of Doyle’s handwritten journal, his words occasionally complemented by simple but charming drawings. It is here that the book holds the ghost of the writer.

At the age of 20, in the third year of his medical training, Doyle took a berth on the Arctic whaler Hope as the ship’s surgeon, in search of a break from his studies as well as money to supplement his family’s diminishing means.

During the voyage, he wrote of the books he read, the cold waters into which he fell, the animals he saw and often killed and the food and wine he consumed upon the sea. He wrote of polar bears: “They are cowardly brutes unless in a corner.” He wrote of the tedium that sometimes characterised the voyage: “The less said about Saturday the better. Let Saturday sink into oblivion.” He wrote of his occasional medical duties: “The engineer of the Windward got his two forefingers crushed in machinery yesterday and I had to go over before breakfast and dress them.”

He did not write to be read. When he discovered a shipmate reading his journal, he wrote, “Now I would as soon that he read my private letters as my journal, in fact a good deal sooner, and it is just one of those things which I won’t stand from any man.”

He may not have seen himself as a writer during these early years, yet his words, often written with cold hands on a heaving ship, displayed the art of the nascent story-teller. He was beginning to understand what to include and what to leave out in a manner that paints several pictures at once, each important on its own but together adding to a sum far greater than its parts.

The handwritten journal gives a sense of the author’s presence, but the following typeset transcription spares the reader’s eyes, offering informative footnotes on whaling, the Arctic and the life of Doyle. And recognising that readers would want more, the editors present a post-whaling summary biography of Doyle, portraying his struggles to develop a medical practice and to establish himself as an author, before ending with a collection of Doyle’s published Arctic writings.

A second riddle: What does Dangerous Work have in common with Moby-Dick?
A few of a hundred possible answers: Both books disguise great depth beneath the cloak of an adventure story. Both offer accounts of what was once a major industry, comparable in relative terms to today’s oil industry.

Both should be read from cover to cover, shared with friends and revisited in front of a warm fire. And both, for different reasons, are books to treasure, the kind that kindle and rekindle a love of words and a feeling of irredeemable debt to the men behind them.