Arthur Conan Doyle Discusses Sherlock Holmes and Psychics in a Rare Filmed Interview (1927)

While Scot­tish physi­cian and author Arthur Conan Doyle died in 1930, he seems almost whol­ly of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry: a trained sci­en­tist who fer­vent­ly believed in “spir­i­tu­al­ism” and fairies, and an accom­plished and pro­lif­ic writer whose most famous character—that most log­i­cal of detectives—had a cocaine addic­tion and more per­son­al quirks than the aver­age neu­rot­ic. Like Joseph Con­rad, Doyle sailed–as a ship’s doctor–to Euro­pean colonies in West Africa and found him­self deeply affect­ed by the bru­tal exploita­tion he encoun­tered. And like Con­rad, he seems to embody a turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry British­ness poised between old and new worlds, when Vic­to­ria gave way to Edward and moder­ni­ty limned the Empire. Although the age of film and of tele­vi­sion have always embraced Sher­lock Holmes, his cre­ator belongs to the age of the nov­el. Nev­er­the­less, he agreed to the 1927 inter­view above, pos­si­bly his only appear­ance on film. In the brief mono­logue, he dis­cuss­es the two ques­tions that he most received from curi­ous fans and jour­nal­ists: how he came to write the Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries and how he came to believe in “psy­chic mat­ters.”

Doyle attrib­ut­es the cre­ation of Holmes to his sci­en­tif­ic train­ing, and to a keen irri­ta­tion when read­ing detec­tive sto­ries whose pro­tag­o­nists stum­bled on solu­tions by chance or nar­ra­tive non sequitur. He also describes his admi­ra­tion for a colleague’s impres­sive “deduc­tive” abil­i­ties. What if, Conan Doyle rea­soned, the detec­tives had the pow­ers of a doc­tor? Oh, had he lived to see his premise flipped in House (and sue for roy­al­ties). Doyle also express­es his amuse­ment at the creduli­ty of his read­ing pub­lic, many of whom believed in the real­i­ty of Sher­lock Holmes and Dr. Wat­son and who sent them regards and advice. At this point in the inter­view, Doyle turns to a sub­ject upon which many thought him cred­u­lous: psy­chic and super­nat­ur­al expe­ri­ence. He goes to some lengths to estab­lish his bona fides, say­ing that he stud­ied spir­i­tu­al­ism for forty-one years and did not arrive at his ideas in haste. But Doyle was eas­i­ly tak­en in by sev­er­al hoax­es and insist­ed through­out his life that Har­ry Hou­di­ni pos­sessed psy­chic pow­ers, despite Houdini’s protests to the con­trary. It seems this was one area in which Doyle’s rea­son failed him—in which he resem­bles the mys­ti­cal Yeats more than the skep­ti­cal Wat­son and Holmes.

You can down­load free copies of The Adven­tures of Sher­lock Holmes from our col­lec­tions of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks. You can also find four adap­ta­tions of Sher­lock Holmes in our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.

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