“I See Imaginary People”
Posted On June 14, 2016
I have an office, which is an abandoned bedroom leftover when my middle daughter moved out to attend MIZZOU. Sometime ago, I was overheard muttering as I deleted several thousand words I had written a few days earlier.
“Who are you talking to,” my wife asked as she stuck her head in the room.
Focused on the screen of my computer, and without looking up I replied, “Teri, she doesn’t like the way I’ve written this part.”
Teri was and is a make-believe character in the story of “The Ghost in the Mini Skirt.”
Realizing what I had said, I looked up to receive the expression my wife saves for people with “special challenges.” She slowly shook her head, leaned back out of the room, and closed the door. It was then I also realized instead of highlighting the section and pressing the “delete” key one time, I was pushing it repeatedly, deleting one word at a time, because I was sulking and wanted to irritate Teri.
Yeah, I know, Teri was, at the time, only some chemical-electric process in my brain, but she was real.
Since that time, I have read books with a curiosity toward the relationship between the writer and the character. Many people don’t know this, but Sir Arthur Conon Doyle grew to despise his greatest character, Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle was, as Watson was, a doctor. Holmes was created to help pay the medical school debt Doyle was incurring. Initially, the novels Doyle wrote were mildly successful, but when he switched to writing short stories for the pulp magazines of London, the readers couldn’t get enough of the overbearing detective. Over time, Holmes and Doctor Watson demanded more of Doyle than being an actual doctor did. Deadlines got shorter as the editors of the magazines ordered more Holmes, more often.
The London address 221-B Baker Street received several letters requesting the attention of the detective every week.
Behind all this, was Doyle, and he was a man in misery. First, he wanted to be a doctor but simply did not have the time to build a medical practice. He also wanted to write non-fiction. He wanted to write selected histories of the British Empire. He felt his stories about Holmes were “low-brow” literature at best and absolute trash at worst.
Finally, Doyle, in May 1891, could take no more. In a story, “The Final Solution,” Holmes died while fighting his mortal enemy, Professor Moriarty when the two of them fell from a cliff, and into the river at Reichenbach Falls. The falls is an actual place located in Switzerland just outside the village of Meiringen.
Doyle defended himself by saying:
“I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”
The people of London mourned and a good lot outraged. Many wore black armbands to indicate their sorrow. Black bunting was hung from doorknockers and dressed around windows. Images of the murdered detective were placed in doorways and obituaries written in the various papers. Some of the more hysterical mourners sent Doyle death threats.
Almost immediately, the editors of the pulp magazines demanded Doyle bring the detective back. “You’re a doctor, man, resuscitate the victim,” I can almost hear them crying.
Doyle refused and confided to a friend, “I wouldn’t revive him if I could, at least not for years, for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” Holmes lay in state for almost nine years.
Finally, Doyle gave in and wrote another collection of short stories and two more novels documenting the adventures of Holmes and Watson. The last work was published three years before the death of Doyle himself.
Even though Doyle left us, in 1930, Holmes remains. The BBC has the remake of the Holmes and Watson in the series “Sherlock,” with Benedict Cumberbatch as the great detective. Robert Downey Jr. has made two movies about the man, and there is (or was) a series on American television staring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson. In addition to what is currently being produced, over the years the following actors have starred in the role of Holmes:
Jeremy Brett, Ian McKellen, Vasily Livanon, Douglas Wilmar, Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Roger Moore, Nicholas Rowe, Rupert Everett, Elle Norwood, Michael Caine, James D’Arcy, Matt Frewer, Ian Richardson, John Cleese, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Higgins, John Barrymore, Tom Baker, Robert Granger, Nicol Williamson, Joaquim de Almeita, Clive Brook, Gary Piquer, Raymond Massey, Michael Pennington, Harry Arthur Saintsbury, Alwin Neuss, and Yoshimitsu Takasugi.
Lowbrow indeed, Mister Doyle.
The film industry has pumped millions of dollars into the Sherlock Holmes concept and that in itself is statement that the man still lives. I’m sure they have received a good return on their investment. Perhaps, though, the most powerful statement regarding our affection for imaginary people is in the village of Meiringen.
There, next to the cliff where Holmes and Moriarty fell a plaque is mounted onto a rock. It reads:
“At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty on 4 May 1891.”
The message is printed in English, German, and French.
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