'Dangerous Work' -- Conan Doyle's Arctic Diary

To fend off the approaching heat wave, I’m turning for relief to one of my favorite discoveries of 2013, “Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure” by Arthur Conan Doyle (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Yes, I mean that — a Conan Doyle book first published in 2012. It is comprised of a facsimile of his diary/ship’s log from the time he spent as ship’s doctor on an Arctic whaling ship in 1880, an annotated version of the text, and other writing by Conan Doyle involving the Arctic. Fellow Holmes fans, you’ll read “The Adventure of Black Peter” with new appreciation here.

Besides that, it’s a Sustaining Book for a heat wave.

As my fellow fans of Sherlock Holmes stories will know, “Dr. Watson’s” handwriting was difficult to read — but Dr. Doyle’s, particularly as the log begins early in 1880, was not as bad. Anyway, the handwritten version is made worthwhile by the detailed, vivid, sometimes funny drawings added to it by the author himself.

The editing by the equally expert Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower, who are credited with having “Transcribed and Annotated” Doyle’s text, makes the annotated portion far more than a mere appendix. I look on it as a resource and enjoy finding parts to which I have added my own notes. (Its ample margins, in both halves of the book, make this a book to live with that way.)

Much of the book is a story that’s as foreign to the 21st century as the Arctic is to heat waves — a trip through the frozen north in search of whales. Don’t fear the occasional gore; it is a great look at a bygone time.

The daily struggles in the cold make amazing reading:

“Monday April 6th (5th)

“Went out with Colin this morning for some regular hard work but began proceedings by falling into the sea again. I had just killed a seal on a large piece” (of ice) “when I fell over the side. Nobody was near and the water was deadly cold. I had hold of the edge of the ice to prevent my sinking, by it was too smooth and slippery to climb up by, but at least I got hold of the seal’s hind flippers and managed to pull myself up by them.”

(Lellenberg and Stashower’s footnote begins, “Conan Doyle was young, vigorous, and fortunate.”)

“Tuesday April 6th

“Out on the pack in the morning with Colin and actually did not fall in. The Captain calls me ‘the Great Northern Diver.'”

There’s more in that April 6 entry, but I’ll leave you to discover it. One fun way to savor this book, since it’s a diary format, is to read “On this day in 1880.” As it happens, July 19 is one of my favorite days to do that. Here is the complete entry:

“Monday July 19

“Blowing a gale all day. Nothing to do and we did it.”

Good advice — in cold weather or hot!

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Filed under: Sustaining Books


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  • As a Holmes devotee, I thank you for this post. BTW I love reading your blog. Keep up the good work.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I did reread "The Adventure of Black Peter" (actually I listened to a reading of it on YouTube) and indeed Doyle must have witnessed some harpooning on his Arctic adventure. I had forgotten, BTW, what a well-written story Black Peter is. Thanks, Margaret, for the reminder and for a sustaining revisit.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thank you! I love reading yours, too, so we're even. I notice that I neglected to mention (until now) that when I found "Dangerous Work" at Barnes & Noble, it wasn't under either mystery or biography; it was in the travel section.

  • Cool reading. A wonderful review! Love the diary form, too.

  • In reply to Weather Girl:

    Thank you very much! The diary form is one of the only things that slows me down on this, even re-reading.

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