Excerpted from the introduction INTRODUCTION
Struck down by the flu, a friend of mine felt so awful that he was forced to drag himself to bed for a couple of days. There was nothing he wanted to do. Any movement was painful, any printed word was a blur. Then he picked up an old copy of Sherlock Holmes stories, and, as he began to focus, the pages seemed to turn as if by magic, and his condition perceptibly improved. ‘They are perfect comfort reading,’ he told me. ‘Well-written, ingenious and full of fascinating detail. I simply couldn’t put them down.’
He was in fact reading the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes. There are fifty-six, originally published in serial form in the Strand Magazine and later gathered in five books – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
(1892), The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
(1894), The Return of Sherlock Holmes
(1905), His Last Bow
(1917), and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes
(1927). But there are also four Sherlock Holmes novels which, despite their greater length, would certainly have served the same therapeutic need, since they are just as intriguing as the stories. They are A Study in Scarlet
(1887), The Sign of Four
(1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1901–02) and The Valley of Fear
(1914–15) – the first three of which are included here. Each has its special role in the evolution of the Canon, as dedicated ‘Sherlockians’ call the combined stories and novels. And it was in a novel – A Study in Scarlet
– that the detective made his first outing in print. His character is subsequently fleshed out in another novel, The Sign of Four
. He only surfaces in story form as a running serial in the new Strand Magazine in 1891. Then, after becoming a national phenomenon over the next two and a half years, he was rudely killed off by his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted to do other things – only to resurface eight years later in another novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles
, which is often regarded as the perfect Sherlock Holmes package, combining absorbing detective work, astute social observation, and blood-tingling horror.
The world’s most famous detective was conceived in turbulent times in the mid-1880s, when, following the failure of the expedition to rescue General Gordon from the Mahdi’s forces in Khartoum, Britain was coming to terms with one of the first obvious reverses in its steady colonial expansion. At the time Conan Doyle was working as a general practitioner in South-sea, a genteel suburb of Portsmouth. Despite the peacefulness of his surroundings, he was experiencing his own internal upheavals. He had trained as a doctor at Edinburgh University, where the empirical tradition of the ‘Athens of the North’ had made a strong impression on the Roman Catholicism of his birth. He had begun to see himself as a scientist and, to the horror of his deeply religious family, to call himself agnostic. Nevertheless, the struggle between scientific truth and his deep spiritual yearning stayed with him. While a young doctor, the former strand predominated, as he tried to maintain a properly objective approach to all around him. But, as he grew older, his belief in the afterlife could not be restrained and he became the world’s leading advocate of spiritualism.
He retained a good sense of humour throughout, and he liked to joke that his single-handed practice in Bush Villas, Southsea, positioned between a pub and a Pentecostal chapel, acted as a buffer between two very different kinds of opiates. While working as a family doctor, he indulged his more speculative side by writing stories for national magazines. Like many authors, his output reflected the popular genres of his era, so, despite his scientific bent, his tales tended to have fantastical or even occult themes. One of the most successful, ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’, was published in the influential Cornhill Magazine
in January 1884. Loosely based on the last voyage of the Mary Celeste, this story was compared by critics with the work of Edgar Allan Poe. It was followed over the next few months by ‘John Barrington Cowles’ and ‘The Great Kleinplatz Experiment’, two more stories with plots involving mesmerism.
At the same time he was seeking a publisher for a more ambitious novel, The Firm of Girdlestone
, about the life and loves of an Edinburgh medical graduate working for a corrupt London trading concern. But he met with little success – to the extent that he saw fit to note privately that he knew of no man in ‘so sad a position as he who is gifted with some amount of literary ability which is just short of the market value. How he toils and slaves to get into the magic circle and what dreary heart-breaking work it is.’ Uncharacteristically for a generally positive and good-natured man, he even speculated about writing ‘The Autobiography of a Failure’.
In August 1885 his luck seemed to change when he married Louise Hawkins, the sister of one of his patients. She brought a renewed sense of purpose to his life. ‘After my marriage,’ he wrote in his autobiography Memories and Adventures
, ‘my brain seems to have quickened and both my imagination and my range of expression were greatly improved.’ And he was now more determined than ever to get his name ‘on the back of a volume’. He decided to go about this by writing a detective story, which was the latest genre to capture the public imagination. The British public had long been fascinated by crime, devouring the ‘true stories’ of criminals which appeared in The Newgate Calendar
from the 1770s. But its interest in detectives was more recent, following the formation of the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829, and its detective branch thirteen years later. With his journalist’s eye for topicality, Charles Dickens had been intrigued by the exploits of this branch’s Inspector Jack Whicher and had written them up in his magazine Household Words
. One of his employees there was his friend and fellow novelist Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone
, published in 1868, and later described by T. S. Eliot as ‘the first and greatest English detective novel’.
Actually there had been several forerunners. Edgar Allan Poe had blazed the trail with a sleuth called C. Auguste Dupin in his story ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ in 1841. Dupin was not a fully paid-up detective, but his skill lay in deciphering clues through a process of ‘ratiocination’. Although detectives subsequently appeared in other books (one example is Clara Vaughan in R. D. Blackmore’s eponymous novel in 1864), the genre took a leap forward in 1866 when the French journalist Emile Gaboriau invented a policeman detective called Monsieur Lecoq and invited his readers to share in the process of solving various crimes. Conan Doyle had been observing these developments, for he later wrote, ‘Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own?’
His solution was to cast his mind back to his student days and, in particular, to his former professor of surgery, Joseph Bell, who was known for his remarkable powers of observation and deduction. Bell had a knack of being able to look at his patients and determine not only their medical ailments, but also their whole life story. As the professor himself put it, the basis of ‘all successful medical diagnosis’ was ‘the precise and intelligent recognition and appreciation of minor differences’. Thus his rationale for working out that one of his patients had recently served as a non-commissioned officer in a Highland regiment stationed in Barbados: ‘The man was a respectful man, but did not remove his hat. They do not in the army, but he would have learned civilian ways had he been long discharged. He has an air of authority and he is obviously Scottish. As to Barbados, his complaint is elephantitis, which is West Indian and not British.’ Conan Doyle wondered to himself, ‘If he [Bell] were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect.’
He was beginning to see how he could build on Dupin’s ‘ratiocination’ and create a detective who brought a real scientific approach to his work. Another of his university mentors had been Sir Robert Christison, who had pioneered the use of forensics in criminal enquiries (notably in the trial of the notorious ‘body-snatchers’ Burke and Hare in 1828, when his experiments into the bruising of corpses helped secure Burke’s conviction after Hare had turned King’s evidence). Christison was also known for trying out on himself new drugs derived from vegetable alkaloids – a practice Conan Doyle himself followed, as would his fictional creation.
Conan Doyle was keen to show how the process of criminal investigation was becoming more scientific. It was a quarter of a century since Sir William Herschel, a magistrate in Bengal, had noted that every person’s fingers had a configuration of ridges and furrows which was unique to them and could be used to help combat fraud. The fingerprinting techniques which he had trialed in India were starting to be used in Britain. Meanwhile on the continent the Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon had invented ‘anthropometrics’, which tried to describe criminals and even predict their behaviour on the basis of precise body measurements. Conan Doyle would adopt such methodology for his own sleuth who, in ‘The Adventure of the Naval Treaty’, praises ‘the Bertillon system of measurements’ and expresses ‘his enthusiastic admiration of the French savant’.
Having decided to give his detective a scientific approach, Conan Doyle turned to his story and characters. His earliest name for his work was A Tangled Skein
, but his notebooks show that he soon replaced this with the more melodramatic A Study in Scarlet
. Before long he was contemplating a ‘consulting detective’ with the unpromising name of Sherrinford Holmes, whose story would be told by Ormond Sacker, his room-mate at 221B Upper Baker Street. In some early notes, Conan Doyle sketched out some familiar features for Holmes. He was a ‘sleepy eyed young man’, a ‘philosopher’, and a collector of rare violins, who had access to his own chemical laboratory. Sacker was a less defined personality: someone who had seen military service abroad – originally in Sudan, where General Gordon had recently met his death at the hand of the Mahdists in Khartoum, though later, as it turned out, for the internal chronology of the story, in Afghanistan.
Within a short time these two main characters had evolved into Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. At the start of A Study in Scarlet
, Dr Watson is in London, having been invalided back from Afghanistan following an injury at the battle of Maiwand. Needing a place to live, he learns from Stamford, his old dresser at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, of a man who is looking for someone to share his rooms. Stamford warns that his friend, Sherlock Holmes, is taciturn and ‘a little queer in his ideas’, with a ‘passion for definite and exact knowledge’ that verges on cold-bloodedness. When Holmes is later introduced to Watson, he is working in a small laboratory in a corner of the hospital, trying to find a new way of detecting blood stains which he says will come to be known as the Sherlock Holmes test. His first remark to Watson is straight out of the Joseph Bell textbook – ‘How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ – and he later details the clues which have led him to this conclusion. Watson discovers another side to this curious figure when he goes to live with him in Baker Street. Holmes proves to be a neurotic workaholic who can only relax when he plays his violin. At times he falls into a stupor, staring at the world with such ‘a dreamy, vacant expression’ that Watson thinks he must be addicted to some drug, which indeed turns out to be true.
Conan Doyle started writing A Study in Scarlet
on 8 March 1886 and finished by the end of April. He despatched his manuscript, which ran to just over 43,000 words, or approximately 200 pages, to the Cornhill Magazine
, which had published ‘J.Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’ and looked kindly on his work. By then the story had been fleshed out. After two chapters setting the scene at Baker Street, Conan Doyle developed a clunky, if always vivid, tale about a gruesome murder in South London, where the victim, Enoch Drebber, is found in a room smeared with blood spelling the word RACHE (meaning ‘revenge’ in German). Using a magnifying glass and a tape measure, Holmes gets a good idea of the man who committed the murder. However, after Drebber’s secretary, Joseph Strangerson, is also found dead, the story flashes back to Salt Lake Valley in Utah and the early years of the Mormon religion, which clearly fascinated Conan Doyle. Both murdered men had been prominent members of the Mormon church, otherwise known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. They had tried to use their seniority to prise a young girl from her fiancé, Jefferson Hope. When she is forcibly married to Drebber, Hope vows revenge which he is finally able to take, after tracking Drebber and Strangerson to London, and himself taking a job as a cabby.
Holmes works this out without too much trouble. However, the story was rather crudely divided into two halves – the murder investigation in London and the earlier historical saga set among the Mormon community in Utah (a backdrop that borrowed heavily from The Dynamiter
written by Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny only the previous year). As a result A Study in Scarlet did not prove easy to place. By Conan Doyle’s own admission, it took a ‘circular tour’ of several publishing houses, before Ward, Lock and Company, which specialized in cheap, sensational fiction, came up with an offer in September. This was only £25 which Conan Doyle found insulting, particularly as they were demanding the full copyright. But, not being in much of a bargaining position, he was forced to accept. As he pointedly noted in his autobiography, this was the only money he ever received for a work which became an instant success when it finally saw the light of day a year later in the publisher’s popular Beeton’s Christmas Annual.
The book edition of the story followed in July 1888, after which Conan Doyle started to gain more recognition as an author. He was particularly delighted when, in February 1889, Micah Clarke
, his novel about the Monmouth rebellion, was published by Longmans. He had always regarded historical novels as a particularly exalted branch of literature (which explains why he spent so much time on the early history of the Mormons in A Study in Scarlet
). As a result of this and other items in print, he found himself fêted in literary circles in London. While dining with the critic Andrew Lang, who rated him highly, at the Savile Club, he met the novelist Walter Besant who had recently set up the Society of Authors. In August 1889 he was unexpectedly invited to dinner by Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of the influential Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine
in Philadelphia, who was in London looking for talented new writers to promote in the American market. The dinner was attended by two other guests – an Irish MP, Thomas Patrick Gill, and another Irishman, the journalist Oscar Wilde. As a result Stoddart invited Wilde and Conan Doyle (who was also Irish on both sides of his family) to write novels for serialization in his magazine. Wilde’s offering was The Picture of Dorian Gray
, which was to be a classic of the emerging decadent literature of the age. After a few false starts Conan Doyle decided to give his detective Sherlock Holmes another outing. ‘I notice that everyone who has read [A Study in Scarlet
] wants to know more of that young man,’ he told Stoddart.
After being accused of writing a ‘penny dreadful’ last time round, he was determined to make this new book more identifiably a proper novel. Doubtless influenced by meeting Wilde, whom he liked, he decided also to dabble with some contemporary aestheticism, and even decadence. Thus The Sign of Four
(originally The Sign of the Four
) starts dramatically with Sherlock Holmes confirming Watson’s suspicions about his drug habit as he extracts a hypodermic syringe from a neat morocco case and takes a bottle from his mantelpiece. ‘With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks.’ He then plunges the needle into his arm and sits back in a velvet-lined armchair, letting out ‘a long sigh of satisfaction’.
One does not expect to find a leading consulting detective in a state of stupefaction. When Dr Watson enquires as to his flatmate’s drug of choice, Holmes replies that it is a seven per cent solution of cocaine. The doctor declines an invitation to partake, making clear that he considers it a health risk. However, Holmes tells him that he needs stimulants to stop him getting bored when he is not working. In this way he reaffirms that he is not merely a ‘calculating machine’. Despite his scientific approach to his work, he also needs time to switch off and to recharge his batteries. This duality has been an essential part of Holmes’s enduring appeal. He may appear to be an automaton, but he is much more than that. This ambivalence surfaces in different forms, often as a running joke – as when Holmes berates Dr Watson for producing in A Study in Scarlet
an account which is ‘tinge[d] with romanticism’. Detection, he argues, should be ‘an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner’.
In fact Holmes is extraordinarily romantic. On one level he is a successful consulting detective who operates according to strict Victorian scientific principles; on another he is a fragile personality whose unpredictable behaviour reflects something of the fin de siècle
anxiety that was beginning to emerge in British culture. And this dichotomy was also mirrored in the attitudes of Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, who, for all his scientific training, could not help looking to other philosophies for his understanding of the world.
Copyright © 2014 by Arthur Conan Doyle; Introduction by Andrew Lycett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.