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John Ellington
Lynda Haas
WR 39B
Structure and Familiarity:
A Sherlock Detective Story

Sir Conan Arthur Doyle was not the first to write detective stories; Poe, Gaboriau, and
many others before him wrote stories about mysteries and detectives. However, before Doyle,
detective stories were mostly intellectual, written for a highly educated audience. The general
public could not read the books, and few people could hope to understand them. Doyle changed
this forever when he wrote his Sherlock Holmes novels. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was responsible
for popularizing the detective story bringing it into the spotlight for anyone to be able to read. He
took ideas and themes from past writers and put them in stories that anyone could understand and
enjoy. When Doyle began writing short stories they became very popular, the magazine editors
that used Doyles stories kept asking for more because Sherlock caused people to buy their
magazines. People could not get enough of the character that Doyle created. The real reason for
the success, however, was not just the characters or even the plot of the stories, but had
everything to do with what Doyle did with all of the stories elements to familiarize the reader.
The reason for the success of Doyles novels was their rigid structure and the familiarity that
readers experienced with the story. Writers Leroy Panek and George Dove write about this topic
in their books. Panek writes about the origins of Doyle and the detective story, while Dove writes
about what makes the detective story different from other genres.
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Doyle chose to write most of his stories as short stories. He decided to have his characters
solve a different case each time each story with a beginning and an end. The late 20
author Leroy Panek talks about this idea of Doyles in his An Introduction to the Detective
Story. In this he writes about how the detective genre came in to being and talks a lot about Sir
Conan Doyle. Panek claims, the successful detective story is the short story.(10) There is
validity to this claim because the first two stories that Doyle wrote were complete novels but
they did not sell well. The Sign of Four one of the only full length Sherlock novels written by
Doyle sold very poorly. Just like all other Sherlock novels it followed Sherlock at Watson as
they solved a case. The only things that set this novel apart from the others was the length and
also that it was one of the first novels written by Sherlock. Despite writing the two full length
novels, it was not until after he started writing short stories did Doyles Sherlock Holmes series
become popular. There are many reasons why the short story worked out well in the Victorian
Era. The stories were written for the middle class. The middle class had to work for a living and
had very little free time to spend reading. Short stories allowed the workers to read a full story in
their free time without having to spend hours to read a whole novel. If a middle class reader was
to choose to read a novel or a short story they would almost always chose the short story.
Another benefit of short stories is that there could be more stories released in a smaller amount
of time. The stories were able to be released once a month opposed to once every few years.
Because stories were released often and on a regular basis it became much easier for a fan base
to grow. The audience were able to see the characters in many different situations and become
familiar with them. It was that feeling of familiarity that was responsible for the continued
popularity of the detective genre. Creating short stories was not the only thing that Doyle did to
make audiences familiar with his characters.
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The literary form of each short story further increases to the audiences feeling of comfort
with the stories. Each story follows the same outline. Panek summarizes this convention. 1) the
surprise ending, 2) the presentation within the body of the story of all or most of the facts which
explain the surpriseor give the illusion of having done so, and 3) the manipulation of narrative
elements plot, point of view, tone, as to obscure the facts and make the surprise
possible. This structure is in almost every Sherlock novel, as well as being the general structure
for almost every detective novel that has come since. Doyle and other detective writers started
using this form because it allowed for economy, compression, and consistency. (Panek 10) But
they continued using it because that is what readers came to expect. In The Different Story
Dove compares the set structure of the detective genre to a set of rules, similar to the rules of a
sport, that the author must follow A writer writes (and a reader reads) with an understanding of
what is acceptable within the limits of the literary form, of what inventions and experiments are
permissible, and what traditions must be observed. (4) Following expected conventions is a way
that many writers created used audience familiarity to their advantage. When a writer used
popular conventions the audience feels more comfort with the material. Writers that use
familiarity to their advantage will be more popular, but ones that dont wont be successful. This
offers another explanation to why The Sign of Four sold poorly. Doyle popularized the
conventions of structure that all his stories followed, but because The Sign of Four was written
before the genre became popular it was not as well received as his other novels that came out
after Doyle had solidified the structure in peoples minds.
In a story where the main character that is not relatable to anyone Doyle chose to have
the narrator be a character that exemplified the main audience. Watson is a middle class male
with average wealth and intelligence, he is described as a gentleman and is constantly surprised
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at Sherlocks knowledge. Doyle sets up Watson so that many readers could relate to him. As
Panek writes Doyle, of course, realized the uses for plot and characterization of the detectives
assistant as the narrator.(80) The result of having such a relatable narrator is that the readers can
put themselves in Watsons shoes. Dove also speaks of the involvement of the reader in his
work. The reader is directly involved, and which can not be adequately described without taking
the reader into consideration. (1) Dove writes that the detective story can be seen as a play or a
game where the reader is directly involved. (18) By projecting Watson onto the reader, Doyle
causes the reader to take part in the story. The reader is challenges to, like Watson, analyze
Sherlock, attempt to gain as much knowledge as him, and to even solve cases before Sherlock. A
sense of familiarity naturally stems from this involvement. When the audience associate
themselves and Watson they would tend to want to read the stories more, leading to even more
familiarity with the novels and their characters.
People want what is familiar. In the Youtube video Game Theory: Are Gamers Killing
Video Games? Mathew Patrick uses statistics about videogames to prove just this. In his video
Patrick concludes that it is not innovation that sells, but instead falling into popular conventions.
Consumers are more likely to spend their money on something that they know they will like,
than taking a risk on something new and unfamiliar to them. This was even truer back in the
Victorian Era. In another chapter of his book Doyle Panek writes about the Victorian
conditions that resulted in the popularity of Doyles stories. Many people had very little excess
money to spend and little time to waste. During what free time they had, people wanted to find a
way to occupy their minds. For many members of Doyles audience the middle class did not
have much free time so a short story was perfect; they could spend just a small amount of time
each day reading and still be able to finish the story in a short time; allowing them to even reread
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the story on occasion. Due to the low income of the middle class there was not much money to
spend on items made purely for enjoyment. Because Sherlock and the detective genre had
become familiar to them, many more people would buy one of Doyles stories over an unknown.

Panek, Leroy. Beginings. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press,
1987. Print.
Panek, Leroy. Doyle. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1987.
Conan Doyle, Arthur. The Sign of the Four. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. Kindle
eBook. Online.
Dove, George N. The Reader and the Detective Story. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green
State University Popular Press, 1997. Print.
The Game Theorists Game Theory: Are Gamers Killing Video Games? Youtube. Web. Mar
30, 2014