Sherlock Homes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow.–A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Fighting words—within the detective genre, anyway. Yet the term “detective” had not yet been coined when one C. Auguste Dupin first greeted the world in 1841 in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The character and the incipient tale in which he appeared (Poe would only pen two additional Dupin stories) were progenitors for the term, the genre, and all future sleuths who would stake out territory within it—none more famously than Mr. Holmes.
The Holmes vs. Dupin debate is a spirited one, freighted with valuable literary insights on how to improve your writing. But its greatest worth resides not in declaring a victor, but in culling gems from the literary treasure chest which was the genius of both. Here are four great lessons the Holmes-Dupin case illuminates for any writer.
1. Improve Your Writing by Building Legendary Characters
How did Poe and Conan Doyle create such compelling, enduring protagonists and how can you do the same?
Both sleuths displayed a singular intellect and disarming capacity for observation and deductive reasoning. Both possessed quirks–if Holmes was eccentric, even socially awkward, Dupin was downright reclusive. Holmes was a cocaine addict, played violin all hours of the night, and fancied indoor target practice. Dupin was infatuated with darkness and fond of “seeking, amid the wild lights and shadows of the populous city, that infinity of mental excitement which quiet observation can afford.” Such traits tinged both detectives with characteristics and vulnerabilities which played off their ubiquitous talents and rendered them more relatable.
Location, Location, Location
Where do we find our favorite characters, in terms of setting as well as situation? We meet Dupin in vivid, mid-19th-century Paris, while Holmes sleuths his way onto the London scene roughly a half century later. But it is the spate of predicaments each faces which elevates their characters all the more. In Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin confronts a baffling mystery: the double murder of Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue, in an inaccessible room on the fourth floor–locked from the inside with no sign of forced entry. In Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes must summon his genius—and no small measure of nerve–to solve the case of a fiendish hellhound prowling the moors in Devonshire. Create your character. Pick a setting. Present a challenge. You will be pleased with the results.
Trust the Reader
A compelling figure must be sufficiently formed to resonate in our consciousness, but not so fully as to rob us of that most precious source of literary magic—the freedom and ingenuity of our own imaginations. Conan Doyle noted in the preface of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes that
The secret of the thinness and also of the intensity of the detective story is, that the writer is left with only one quality, that of intellectual acuteness, with which to endow his hero. Everything else is outside the picture and weakens the effect. The problem and its solution must form the theme, and the character-drawing be limited and subordinate.
The advice is sage—show—through action, dialogue and characterization—more than tell (over-explanation), and the reader shall immortalize the character through that which you have presented, as well as that which you have not.
2. Improve Your Writing by Creating Nail-Biting Tension and Suspense
Both Conan Doyle and Poe were masters of suspense. In some instances, their stories’ tension manifested in classic whodunnit fashion, but in others, it is derived from alternate approaches. In Rue Morgue, it’s less a question of what happened—the murders have already occurred—than why. The suspense hinged upon whether Dupin could successfully prove his theory—and what might happen when he confronted the suspect.
Dramatic irony is another technique the authors employed. In the Holmes’ tale The Adventure of the Speckled Band, we learn in the opening paragraph that the chief villain, Dr. Roylott, is dead—and a good deal of the tension builds upon this cognizance and anticipation of what is to come. Think of the works which had you on the edge of your seat. Thrillers may comprise the lion’s share, but any worthy tale imbues us with a palpable tension, and each writer is well-served by creating the same in her own work.
3. Improve Your Writing by Creating Powerful Themes
Compelling themes underpinned Poe and Conan Doyle’s work. Consider the notion of intellect versus brute physicality, a theme which winds throughout many of the stories–but perhaps none so graphically as Rue Morgue, in which Dupin’s acumen is juxtaposed against unimaginable violence and physical strength. This tale also proffers a common Poe theme: the death of a beautiful woman, to which he referred as the “most poetical topic in the world.”
Conan Doyle mined similar thematic territory, while also delving into others, particularly notions of class and society, and weakness and temptation—not only of his villains but of his protagonist as well. Create great characters, but watch the world in which they exist spring to life on the strength of provoking themes.
4. Improve Your Writing With Original Imitation
If, as noted in Ecclesiastes and by Holmes himself, “there is nothing new under the sun,” the extent to which Conan Doyle patterned his iconic figure after Poe’s may be viewed more in the light of homage, than larceny. Conan Doyle noted:
On this narrow path, the writer must walk, and he sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him. He is happy if he ever finds the means of breaking away and striking out on some little side-track of his own.
Many believe Conan Doyle achieved this with Holmes, building upon Poe’s foundation, accentuating Dupin’s strongest traits and instilling them in Holmes, and sprinkling in his own quirks and details (the Baker Street Irregulars are my favorite example). Consider your favorite stories. Let yourself be inspired—then inspire others by paying proper homage, before taking things in a direction all your own.