Arthur Conan Doyle: What’s happening? What am I doing here?
Ian Rankin: Amazing what you can do with a Ouija board and a bit of channelling, Sir Arthur.
ACD: Wait, I recognise this place. Calton Hill, is it not?
IR: I brought you here so you could get a panoramic view of the city of your birth. I notice you’ve still got the accent, too.
ACD: I was brought up in Edinburgh. I attended university here.
Who are you?
IR: I’m a novelist, same as you. I write about a detective. In fact, one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was the similarity between us.
ACD: What’s that monstrosity down yonder?
IR: Next to the Palace of Holyroodhouse? That’s the Scottish parliament.
ACD: You mean Scotland has broken from England?
IR: Not exactly. I forgot – you’re a Unionist, aren’t you? Ran for Parliament in Edinburgh a couple of times.
ACD: I did.
ACD: Must we dwell on that? Are you an Edinburgh man?
IR: Only latterly. Like you – I was brought up working class, but north of here. I came to Edinburgh as a student. I’d started writing.
ACD: As did I. As a child I wrote and illustrated my own stories.
IR: Yeah, same here. Only my first full-length novel had to wait until I was a student here.
ACD: You tasted early success, then?
IR: Not exactly. You, on the other hand?
ACD: I wrote some stories in my late teens and early twenties. I took time out from my medical studies …
IR: To work as a doctor on a whaling ship, right?
ACD: That is correct. We sailed to the Arctic. It was a formative experience.
IR: Me, all I had was a holiday job in a chicken factory. Your first Sherlock Holmes story had trouble finding a home, didn’t it?
ACD: I learnt the art of perseverance, sir. A novel of mine was lost in the post, yet I continued to write.
IR: I never had that happen. But, like you, I couldn’t afford to make copies of my early stuff. My first novel, all there is of it is the manuscript. It was turned down eight or nine times.
But the thing I’m interested in, of course, is Holmes.
ACD (sighing): Of course. Why should you be different from anyone else?
IR: Wait a second. There is something I need to show you.
ACD: Where are we now?
IR: Top of Leith Walk. Recognise the statue?
ACD: I assume it is meant to be Holmes.
IR: And look across the street – a pub called the Conan Doyle.
ACD: Edinburgh, it seems, has clutched me to its bosom.
IR: One of the people you studied under, Dr Joseph Bell, he was your template for Holmes, wasn’t he?
ACD: Among others. You know the name Vidocq?
IR: Real-life French detective, famous for disguises.
ACD: You are well informed.
IR: But you set your Holmes stories in London rather than Edinburgh or Paris.
ACD: I left Edinburgh as a young man. London was, at that time, more of a criminal city. Only a year after the first Holmes tale, Jack the Ripper began his campaign of terror.
IR: Handy timing on your part.
ACD: I agree. The public were looking for some small comfort. They wanted reassurance that crime was not an intractable problem.
IR: And Holmes gave them that reassurance. I’m assuming that during your time in the hereafter you’ve discovered the true identity of the Ripper?
ACD: He is not part of my “hereafter”.
IR: You did a lot of harm, you know.
ACD: In what way?
IR: Your policemen were ill-informed fools and foils, like Inspector Lestrade. For decades afterwards the fictional detective in England had to be an amateur, a Miss Marple or a Lord Peter Wimsey.
ACD: Holmes was not an amateur.
IR: I know. He was a “consulting detective”, a private eye in other words, which means you also helped create the likes of Marlowe and Sam Spade. And with Watson you created another staple: the faithful sidekick. Do you ever see all those films they’ve made of your books?
ACD: I have knowledge of them. Basil Rathbone wasn’t bad.
IR: I think I prefer The Seven Per-Cent Solution. Nicol Williamson plays Holmes and gets to meet Sigmund Freud. But what about Gene Wilder? Or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?
ACD: Stop, I beg you.
IR: And that’s before we get to Spielberg’s Young Sherlock Holmes, Alan Moore’s use of Moriarty and Mycroft in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and of course Guy Ritchie’s big-screen versions with Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. I even saw a robotic Holmes in a recent Scooby-Doo episode.
ACD: No s—-, Sherlock, as our American cousins might say.
IR: I see you’ve not lost your sense of humour. The point I’m making is, you created an icon, a character that can be shaped by and for different generations.
ACD: Do they still read the stories, though?
IR: Some of them do – and dress up in deerstalkers at conventions. There’s even a magazine called Sherlock. It gives out annual awards.
ACD: From your tone, I deduce that you’ve won one.
IR: Elementary! I got a Sherlock for Best Detective Created by a British Author. I want to talk to you about him. See, you got tired of Holmes, didn’t you? Killed him off by sending him over the Reichenbach Falls.
ACD: You’re thinking of dispatching your detective in the same way?
IR: Not exactly, though I do have a Moriarty figure in my books. His name is Cafferty and he’s the villain who runs Edinburgh.
ACD: Cafferty? Sounds Irish.
IR: I suppose he might be.
ACD: And Catholic?
IR: I forgot you were Catholic yourself.
ACD: I renounced at an early age.
IR: And became a spiritualist. You took part in séances.
ACD: I saw things, the most incredible things.
IR: Ectoplasm, right? Voices telling you things no one but yourself could have known?
ACD: And more.
IR: You didn’t manage to convince Harry Houdini. He sat in on a séance led by your wife, then slated it in a newspaper article.
ACD: He was … misguided.
IR: But you could be misguided, too – remember those Bradford girls, the ones who photographed fairies at the foot of their garden?
ACD: As with all systems of belief, spiritualism is not free from frauds and charlatans. And yet you have conjured me here, meaning you must be a believer in a higher power.
IR: I channel characters all the time. Maybe you’re just another one. Come on, let’s get a drink. I’m buying.
ACD: Where are we now?
IR: The Oxford Bar. It’s my local. My hero drinks here, too. I’m sorry you’re not corporeal enough for a dram.
ACD: But I can smell the malt; that’s welcoming enough. You say your hero drinks here?
IR: His name is Rebus. Some people think he has a drink problem. The thing is, he’s getting old. I made him 40 in the first book and he lives in real time. That makes him 56 now, and the cops in Scotland retire at 60. [This séance took place some years ago].
ACD: You are facing your own Reichenbach, in a manner of speaking. I’m not sure I can help. Yes, I felt stifled by Holmes. I wanted to write fantasy and serious fiction.
IR: You once said crime fiction was “a lower stratum of literary achievement”. I know quite a few present-day crime writers who would contest that.
ACD: Hardly my concern, sir. But the lure of money and the heartbreak of my readers conspired to revive Holmes, much as your whisky is reviving my memories of Edinburgh’s low drinking dens.
IR: You feel your non-Holmes books are underrated? For what it’s worth, some critics now agree with you. It’s funny, the last book I finished reading was all about Holmes. It’s by Michael Chabon and imagines your hero in extreme old age, at the time of the Second World War.
ACD: Let’s not discuss those wars.
IR: Of course … I’m sorry. You lost your son in the First World War.
IR: You visited the trenches, wrote propaganda. Same with the Boer War. You wrote in defence of British tactics there, after working as a surgeon on the battlefield.
ACD: It is important to stand by one’s beliefs. People these days don’t seem so willing. But to attempt a change of subject – none too subtly, I’m sure you’ll agree – have you ever used my work as a template for your own?
IR: Sure. One of Rebus’s early sidekicks is called Brian Holmes and I had a police chief called Watson. Then there was “The Acid Test” …
ACD: And what was that?
IR A short story I wrote a while back. Sorry, but it turned out you were the murderer.
ACD: Was I? By Jove!
IR: You don’t sound upset.
ACD: Actually, I have to confess that I’ve read it. Not much else to do in the hereafter but keep an eye on one’s competitors. I know, for example, that you once worked as a music journalist in Upper Norwood. I assume you’re aware that I had a home in South Norwood? More connects us than you might think. I also know that your father was a Freemason, as was I, but you’ve never been persuaded to join. You have campaigned about certain perceived injustices, as did I in my heyday. All this information I could have used to startle you, in the style of Holmes.
IR: But you didn’t.
ACD: Because I’m not him. I’m a man who saw life, from whaling ships to serving the national interest in two wars. I knew great men – Hardy, Wilde, Chesterton, Wells. I lost a wife to consumption and a son to enemy action. I saw the world in all its facets.
IR: Do you still see the world? What sort of mess are we in right now?
ACD: I remain an “optimistic imperialist”. I feel the British Empire exerted a largely positive influence on its colonies.
IR: And is that what the US is doing?
ACD: Ah, politics … What an arid discussion that would engender!
IR: You’re probably right.
ACD: You know I must leave soon?
IR: You’re already fading.
ACD: The other world calls to me. It’s a world not all are privileged to see. Do you have a final question for me?
IR: I don’t think so … No, wait! Here’s one. What did you think of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street? Hey, Sir Arthur! Artie! You still there?
BARMAN: Jesus, Ian, keep the noise down, pal. I think you were on your way.
IR: F—- off, I’ve only had one.
B: Ya daft b———, you’ve been here all afternoon. And what’s with the mess on the table – torn bits of beer mat made into a circle and the whisky glasses turned upside-down in the midst of it all?
IR: I was just … Nothing, Harry. Nothing.
This is an extract from Dead Interviews Granta, £11.99
[MX - what a brilliant idea]