Mark Billingham is one of the UK's most acclaimed and popular crime writers. His series of London-based novels featuring D.I. Tom Thorne has won him the Sherlock Award and the Theakston's Crime Novel Of The Year Award, and has been nominated for five Crime Writer's Association Daggers. Each book, from his debut Sleepyhead, to the most recent, Death Message, has been a Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller. The next Tom Thorne novel - Bloodline - will be published in August. Mark has also worked successfully as a stand-up comedian for more than 15 years, writes for The Sunday Times and The Independent and is a frequent contributor to BBC TV and radio. Under the pseudonym Will Peterson, he also writes children's books. Triskellion was the first in a trilogy of paranormal thrillers for older children. His latest novel is the standalone thriller In The Dark. In this post Mark tells of his enthusiasm for Conan Doyle's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Mark Billingham on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It was all the fault of a man called Len Bowles...
Many people, especially those working in the creative arts, have a teacher to thank for that all-important encouragement early on: for providing a spark and helping it catch; for a nudge in the right direction or for the simple affirmation that an over-active imagination might, just might, be put to some good use. My passion for detective fiction, and in particular for those stories featuring the greatest detective of them all, was fired many years ago in a Birmingham classroom; the spark ignited and the flames fanned by a most unusual mathematics teacher.
With a shock of custard-coloured hair and a jacket coated with chalk-dust, Len Bowles was in many ways as eccentric and contradictory as the character to whom he would introduce me. He was a mercurial figure and fearsome when crossed: a man who clearly relished the cold, hard logic of his subject, but who was equally at home balancing a heavy wooden chair on his chin or juggling with oranges, bizarre activities into which he would suddenly throw himself with great gusto whenever the fancy took him. Crucially however, he was also a man with a low boredom threshold. Often, when he could no longer bear staring at the blank expressions of 30 twelve-year-olds who did not share his enthusiasm for quadratic equations, he would simply give up. He would reach into his battered leather briefcase, produce a dog-eared copy of his favourite book and read to us.
The book was The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes and from the first moment Len Bowles began to read 'A Scandal In Bohemia' aloud, I was spellbound.
The game, as Holmes might have said, was afoot.
I have almost certainly read better books since, but none has had such a profound influence on me. Conan Doyle's collection of stories is the reason I write detective fiction. It's also the reason I can't add up.
I was transported far from Pythagoras and Pi's endless decimal points by 'The Speckled Band' or 'The Red-Headed League'; it was the character of the Great Detective that was so compelling. Of course, I enjoyed the stories, outlandish and exciting, but it was Holmes himself, his mind like a 'racing engine tearing itself to pieces', that grabbed my interest and held it. As E.W. Hornung - the creator of Raffles and Conan Doyle's brother in law – put it so wonderfully:
Though he might be more humble, there's no police like Holmes.
Conan Doyle had ambitions to create detective fiction that was a cut above the work of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allen Poe, whose creations, Sergeant Cuff and C. Auguste Dupin, both preceded Holmes. He wanted to broaden the stories out with music and poetry, developing philosophical themes alongside the murder investigation, and, above all, he wanted his detective to be part of the scientific revolution which was shaping the modern world all around him.
Of course, there were subtleties that I, as a twelve-year-old boy, failed to appreciate, but as time went on I grew to relish Conan Doyle's creation even more. Egotistical and infuriating, Holmes was a man with more idiosyncrasies than most modern sleuths put together. The drug habit, the obsessive love of music and the tendency to fire guns into walls are enough to put even the edgiest of today's detectives to shame.
What makes Sherlock Holmes doubly fascinating, is that the contradictory elements that render him so interesting seem to reflect those in the character of Conan Doyle himself. The author was a man whose achievements made the average polymath seem lazy by comparison. Aside from the careers in medicine and literature, he was an historian, an old-fashioned adventurer and a sportsman who played football for Portsmouth FC and cricket for the MCC. On the one hand, Conan Doyle was a man of science - an ophthalmologist - and a firm believer in justice, whose work went some way toward establishing the Court of Criminal Appeal. On the other hand, he believed in the supernatural and was a staunch advocate of spiritualism.
It's hard to take anyone who believes in fairies seriously, but I'll make an exception for the man who wrote The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle's creation was a character who revolutionized crime-writing, setting the template for generations of fictional sleuths, and to whom thousands of letters a year are still written, each answered by his own personal secretary at the Sherlock Holmes museum. The character whose 'death' caused grief-stricken readers on the streets of London to wear black arm-bands.
The character who - thanks to an eccentric schoolteacher - remains the central figure in this crime-writer's lifelong obsession with detective fiction.