A sleuth’s tale

Book review: Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes

It was 130 years ago that the world was introduced to a lanky, sharp-eyed sleuth by the name of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, John Watson. He certainly was not the first of his kind to appear in literature. So what makes him — with his distinctive pipe and deerstalker cap — the default image of the very word ‘detective’? (Even today,  when you punch in the word on Google, it is Holmes’ silhouette that pops up first).


Michael Sims’ Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury, 2017) narrates the fascinating tale behind the conception of the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV. Vigorously researched, the book contains a good deal about Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood and upbringing in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, his natural affinity for storytelling and most importantly, how his time period coincided with the growth of scientific reasoning and the shift from poetry to fiction as a respectable form of literature — all of which were essential to his work’s success.

Sims divides his book into three parts: Conan Doyle’s early years and entry into medicine, his literary influences and eventual rise to fame with Sherlock Holmes. A good amount of information comes from Conan Doyle’s memoirs and Sims has carefully pointed out tributes the former has paid to authors, especially Edgar Allen Poe, in his writings. Some similarities in sentences (of Doyle’s) border on plagiarism and would not be taken so kindly today. But then, even the concept of copyright was unheard of in Georgian and Victorian times.

Conan Doyle’s portrayal, his rise from abject poverty to a not-so-successful physician to infamous author, is most empathetic. He lives on a shoestring budget in Portsmouth, subsists on canned beef and bread, stocks up basic furniture on credit and struggles to find patients. Yet, he refuses financial help from his mother. One can almost relate, even today, to the plight of a bachelor, fresh out of college, trying to find his own feet in another city. But what a leap of faith it must have been, in the 1870s, to pause studies and take up an unpaid internship as a doctor onboard a ship sailing in the Arctic or along the western African coastline. He slowly realises he can make more money through these experiences than slogging it out to become a surgeon of repute. That too turns out to be easier said than done; his first attempts at short stories face rejection or return a pittance.

The storyteller in Sims seems to be a trivia aficionado, embedding gems of information that some might find inconsequential: how the surname Doyle derived from the Anglo Norman D’Oil, a short history of Edinburgh’s slums, the etymology of ‘diphtheria’, the story of Beeton behind the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in which Sherlock Holmes debuted (this man also famously published the controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But the tales, especially of Conan Doyle’s mentor, the legendary Dr Joseph Bell whom he acknowledges as the primary inspiration for Holmes, and of the genre’s precursors (Poe’s Auguste C Dupin, Voltaire’s Zadig and an unlikely biblical protagonist) are unputdownable.

Despite all the heavy stuffing, Sims’ writing is most accessible and perhaps, at times, lacks the exciting punch it should ideally have had. William Dalrymple once compared his style of writing after arduous research to Chinese cooking, “where three-quarters of the time is spent on chopping things up and the actual cooking takes very little time.” Sims seems to have overdone his cooking with Arthur & Sherlock in certain chapters, with redundant statements (“Thomas Babington Macaulay was Arthur’s favourite writer” appears many times), rambling into inconsequential tangents that force us to exclaim like Sherlock Holmes himself: “What the deuce would it be of any use to me?” He has also left us turning pages in vain, in search of why Conan Doyle ‘killed’ his detective at Reichenbach and how public pressure forced his revival. We see paragraphs dedicated to origins of Gregson, Lestrade and Irene Adler but not Moriarty!

In all fairness, Sims’ work is nothing less than a labour of love and an extraordinary resource for fans of crime fiction. It is a must-have for all Sherlockians and possibly, for history buffs impinged with some love for literature.

An edited version of this piece can be found here in The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.


Review of Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen

Why do some people fascinate us beyond reason? In a bare-all age, is it foolish to retain an air of enigma around you? Or does it add to the myth-making that draws people to you?

Vaasanthi’s biography of Tamil Nadu’s current Chief Minister (Amma: Jayalalithaa’s journey from movie star to political queen) seems to ask this exact question towards the end of the book:

“Amma doesn’t quite realise how Tamil Nadu has changed since she first entered politics. There is a huge social churning going on among the youth, now exposed to the Internet and WhatsApp.”

Amma is completely absent from any such digital extensions. Her party, the AIADMK, arrived on Twitter only in February 2014 and was not even a verified account until early this year.

Of course, the publishers (Juggernaut Books) also seem to have pushed the ‘go’ button just before the results trickled in for the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly Election. The gamble seems to have paid off.

The author in her acknowledgments concedes that she has “only tried to decipher Jayalalithaa’s many-layered personality. She is too complex and reserved to reveal herself fully.”

Amma is, without a doubt, a fascinating read for anyone with a remote interest in politics or in just the person that is Jayalalithaa. The book is meticulously researched and the author mixes a good amount of histrionics with the linear narrative. The introductory chapter especially is tailor-made for an opening scene if Jayalalithaa’s biopic is ever made in the foreseeable future.

The book delights the trivia aficionado with bits such as this: “On 24 March 1984, MGR announced that Jayalalithaa had been nominated  for the Rajya Sabha. The seat given to her … was Number 185, the same that C.N. Annadurai had occupied when he was an MP in 1963.” Another tidbit traces the origins of the practice of prostration — which her party cadre exhibit with full gusto — to one Mr. K.A. Sengottaiyan, an old party hand from MGR’s time (he’s just won his seventh Assembly Election from Gobichettipalayam). After she was sworn in as Chief Minister for the first time in 1991, “Sengottaiyan, a newcomer to the cabinet, fell at her feet. Other junior ministers went further and prostrated themselves full length on the floor before their deity. A new cult of leader worship had been initiated. And the male world that had tried to put her down was now at her feet!”

That conspiring male world was present in both the DMK and the AIADMK, right from the time Jayalalithaa stepped into the big, bad world of politics, as the book would tell you. Chapter-after-chapter, Vaasanthi constructs a storyline that gives the reader a picture of a tender woman who is repeatedly punctured by acts of betrayal and humiliation — be it a 13-year-old ‘Ammu’ (Jayalalithaa’s childhood nickname) being done in by an eavesdropping milk vendor for playing host to the flirtatious activities of a neighbour or the pretty face of the party who was snubbed by her leader when she needed his support the most. And not to forget, the pathetic levels of patriarchal discourse from her opponents that she endured.

Amma, nonetheless, is a required read for those who want the most complete and balanced telling of Jayalalithaa’s story. That it equips you with a firmer grip on Tamil Nadu’s (and India’s) politics is an added bonus.

For the most part, the biography seems to be constructed from bits of jigsaw puzzles gathered from a handful of sources: the late ‘Film News’ Anandan, her classmates from Church Park Convent and R.M. Veerappan, who made it his life’s mission to rid MGR of Jayalalithaa’s influence. The rest is almost common knowledge, pieces that belong to an already complete picture of the hardened woman we are familiar with today. But a few answers remain elusive. Was she really wedded to the Telugu actor Shoban Babu — an already married man with a teenaged son? Does she wear a bulletproof vest underneath that caped sari? Why did she adopt a son from the Thevar community — genuine maternal sentiment or political convenience? This is where your guess is as good as Vaasanthi’s. No one really knows. And the bigger puzzle might never be completed.

The edited version of this article can be found here.

Shelf Help – For Information or pleasure? That is the question

A column for The Hindu on … quizzing. Thanks to Radhika for pressing me to write after long. 

“We always read for one of two things — information or pleasure”.

My college English professor often spouted this fountain of obvious wisdom every now and then. But I don’t think I used to think, back then at least, that the two could go hand-in-hand. What was important for an 18-year-old me was to read facts for what they were and recollect it in my head during quizzes to score points. These points were very important, especially when there were cash prizes at stake — a difference of 5 points could mean a potential loss of Rs. 2,500 or in the case of business quizzes with plump sponsors, multiple times of that.

So the natural thing thing to do (at least what some of us thought back then) would be to keep your daily dose of Wikipedia completely disconnected from your reading of say, Paulo Coelho or Jhumpa Lahiri (“What question could possibly arise out of the boring Interpreter of Maladies?”). The dry Wikipedia-and-old-trivia-books-mugging method persisted for most of the time. And that’s how most college quizzes used to function. You see a keyword in the midst of all the text on the projector slides and hit the buzzer.

“This started as Galvin Manufacturing Corporation in Illinois, …”



“The blue agave found in Mexico …”

“TEQUILA!” (The liquor is made from that plant)

And then when you seek to unlock new levels of awesomeness on the bigger stages (the open quizzes), you hit a roadblock. There are some questions so beautifully framed and possibly, so complex that there would be no way you could have answered it without having read the piece of associated literature. These were nothing like your college quizzes — most of which were set in the twelfth hour and scraped from older powerpoint presentations. There was considerable amount of research that had gone into setting them. A major portion of that effort required reading books (fiction, non-fiction, pulp thrillers, comics … the whole lot). And after several occasions, the goal was no longer about brownie points. It was about whether you remembered the story behind why you actually knew the answer. This is slightly relatable to that feeling Dev Patel’s character has when he keeps giving right answer after right answer on the quiz show in Slumdog Millionaire. He hasn’t scoured through Wikipedia articles and infused trivia in his brain; there’s actually a story behind every answer. An emotional connect, be it joy, sadness or even anger. And nowhere is this more relatable than reading a good book that narrates facts in the most recollective style of prose. Sample this:

“In France, a chemist named Pilatre de Rozier tested the flammability of hydrogen by gulping a mouthful and blowing across an open flame, proving at a stroke that hydrogen is indeed explosively combustible and that eyebrows are not necessarily a permanent feature of one’s face.”

― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything

Chances are you’ll never forget Rozier’s name from now. I can’t say the same if you encountered him on Encyclopaedia Brittanica though.

I had a fractional Slumdog Millionaire moment once in high school: “Who was the first man to set foot on the Hipparchus Crater on the Moon?” read the question. When I noticed teams before us were listing out possible names of astronauts from the Apollo Missions and were not getting any affirmative reaction from the quizmaster, I picked up the mike and said: “Tintin”.

That was possibly the greatest moment of ecstasy I felt back then. You needed to have read Destination Moon in-and-out to crack that one.

Another memorable one (although this was on an online forum) was when someone asked: “What reason do travel guides usually give to unwary tourists when they want to know why temples like Khajuraho have erotic sculptures?”

The answer: ‘So that the people, in the aftermath of the bloody Kalinga War, would be aroused to reproduce and get back the population on track.’

How much ever apocryphal this story seems, this is exactly what a character named Mr. Kapasi says to an NRI family who come heritage-hunting in that boring book — Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri.

An edited version of this article can be found here.

The last time I saw Landmark

Very nice take on Landmark bookstore (Apex Plaza) closing down.

The Lowly Laureate

Whenever something shuts shop, the memories associated with that something swell out, that is only natural. Because memories need not be rational, this is some loss however.
One thing I realised that, we can continue to have the memories even if the source of those memories has shut down or changed course, because basically these are our memories and we can construct them however and whenever we wish to, immaterial of conditions. So basically this is not a nostalgia piece, but masquerading as one.
I do not know how my generation spent their birthdays; mine was always at Landmark Nungambakkam. Weekdays or weekend whenever it came, didn’t matter; it was the unspoken norm, lunch and dinner also didn’t matter. It wasn’t that we returned with a kart load of books, maybe just one or two.
Landmark Nungambakkam was my first idea of what a bookstore should be, a major introduction…

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