What I like about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the vigour of his sentences and the richness of his ideas. He has a great imagination, which he uses not just to devise his stories and scenarios, but to draw you into his imagined world. He presents his material creatively and his plots are full of genuine surprises that nevertheless ring true.
The New Catacomb appears to be about archaeological adventure and the academic rivalry between two well-matched friends. The darker heart of it is foreshadowed in almost every sentence but you only notice it subsconsciously or, consciously, on a second or third reading.
From the very first words, his stories have depth and shade. Characters are lodged in a definite time and place, they have distinct personalities and the relationships between them hum with energy.
His fiction is more real than any facts.
If this is a skill that can be learnt, there’s no better teacher. And what a pleasure it is to be learning while you are reading brilliant passages like this, the opening of The New Catacomb.
“Look here, Burger,” said Kennedy, “I do wish that you would confide in me.”
The two famous students of Roman remains sat together in Kennedy’s comfortable room overlooking the Corso. The night was cold, and they had both pulled up their chairs to the unsatisfactory Italian stove which threw out a zone of stuffiness rather than of warmth. Outside under the bright winter stars lay the modern Rome, the long, double chain of the electric lamps, the brilliantly lighted cafes, the rushing carriages, and the dense throng upon the footpaths. But inside, in the sumptuous chamber of the rich young English archaelogist, there was only old Rome to be seen. Cracked and timeworn friezes hung upon the walls, grey old busts of senators and soldiers with their fighting heads and their hard, cruel faces peered out from the corners. On the centre table, amidst a litter of inscriptions, fragments, and ornaments, there stood the famous reconstruction by Kennedy of the Baths of Caracalla, which excited such interest and admiration when it was exhibited in Berlin. Amphorae hung from the ceiling, and a litter of curiosities strewed the rich red Turkey carpet. And of them all there was not one which was not of the most unimpeachable authenticity, and of the utmost rarity and value; for Kennedy, though little more than thirty, had a European reputation in this particular branch of research, and was, moreover, provided with that long purse which either proves to be a fatal handicap to the student’s energies, or, if his mind is still true to its purpose, gives him an enormous advantage in the race for fame. Kennedy had often been seduced by whim and pleasure from his studies, but his mind was an incisive one, capable of long and concentrated efforts which ended in sharp reactions of sensuous languor. His handsome face, with its high, white forehead, its aggressive nose, and its somewhat loose and sensual mouth, was a fair index of the compromise between strength and weakness in his nature.