“The whole Sherlock Holmes saga is a triumphant illustration of art’s supremacy over life.”
It was the spring of 1893, and Arthur Conan Doyle was plotting murder. “I am in the middle of the last Holmes story,” Doyle wrote to his mother, “after which the gentleman vanishes, never to return. I am weary of his name.” Six years earlier, Doyle was an unknown young doctor in Southsea struggling to make ends meet. lie had created Sherlock Holmes to while away the time, to earn a bit of money, and to hone his writing skills for more “serious” literature, meaning historical fiction written in the fashion of Iris idol, Sir Walter Scott. Two novellas, 24 short stories, and six years later, Doyle is famous, and toward the beak-nosed, hawk-faced, thinking machine that had brought him riches and international acclaim, he can feel only disgust. “I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”
This cavalier dismissal of one of the most enduring characters in modern fiction did not wash well with the English-reading public. For if “the spectators are always in their senses, and know, from the first act to the last, that the stage is only a stage, and that the players are only players,” as Samuel Johnson argued about the work of Shakespeare, the very opposite was true regarding Sherlock Holmes and his audience. “He became a part of my life,” confessed Max Beerbohm, “and will never, I suppose, be utterly dislodged.” “The Sign of Four . . . I read first at the age of ten,” said Graham Greene, and it “has never faded from my memory.” For when “we talk of I Holmes],” explained T.S. Eliot, “we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence.” Nor has this “fancy” ever waned. Thousands of Holmesian societies exist worldwide, the Far East included; and the Abbey National bank, which currently occupies Holmes’s famous address, has reportedly hired a secretary just to handle the thousands of letters the character receives each year.
Perhaps channelsurfers and cybersexers will find it hard to understand how a literary figure could be so keenly imagined and deftly drawn that he virtually takes on a flesh-and-blood reality. Addicted to the visual image and unmoved by the written word, they can hardly conceive of the pandemonium that ensued when the Christmas 1893 issue of the Strand hit the newsstands announcing the sleuth’s final adventure and demise. Women appeared in public wearing mourning apparel and men wore black bands around their arms and hats; offices closed, flags flew at half-mast, and newspapers ran obituaries for the man who never lived; the Prince of Wales was unhappy and the Queen “not amused”; some 20,000 of the Strand‘s readers immediately canceled their subscriptions; and tens of thousands more sent Doyle angry letters and telegrams. The curt message of one reader seemingly spoke for the entire English-speaking world: “You brute!”
Owen Dudley Edwards, a professor of history at the University of Edinburgh, has spent a lifetime studying this Edinburgh- born “brute.” As general editor of this collection, he has assembled the foremost scholars on Holmes, composed the general preface to the collection, and written introductions to three of the volumes, A Study in Scarlet, The Valley of Fear, and His East Bow. Fortunately, his fine general introduction is reproduced in each volume, along with a detailed chronology of Doyle’s life, a bibliography of his work (non-Holmes stories included), and a short essay on the principal studies of Doyle’s career, so that each volume can stand alone as a complete work of scholarship. The “definitive” versions of the tales—meaning Doyle’s handwritten manuscripts before copy editors blue-penciled them, as American editors were fond of doing because of Doyle’s “blasphemous” use of such words as “Hell” and “Devil”—have been faithfully reproduced whenever possible and are accompanied by exhaustive, but never exhausting, annotations. In addition, Doyle and his team have collected an array of rare documents, letters, and articles not easily accessible to the general reader and seldom compiled in a single source: such as letters from editors concerning Doyle’s manuscripts; Victorian-era news clippings of bizarre crimes and scandals that perhaps served as sources of Doyle’s clever plots; the more obscure Holmes tales that were privately commissioned and hence rarely reproduced, such as “How Watson Learned the Trick,” which was requested for the Queen’s Doll House and bound in miniature in 1922; as well as historic parodies of the Holmes stories by the more famous of Doyle’s fans, such as those by P.G. Wodehouse and by Doyle’s good friend Sir James Barrie. Handsomely bound with crimson-colored jackets, this collection deservedly ranks alongside the classic studies of the Holmes Canon by Edgar Smith and William S. Baring-Gould.
Most impressive are the 1,000 or so pages of ancillary material. It is difficult to convey the breadth of learning evident in the introductions and annotations, but whenever a reader is reluctant to leave the endnotes for the text (and they are placed at the end of each volume, leaving the stories uncluttered), either the reader is a bore or exceptional scholarship is at hand, and in my case I would like to think the latter is true. No allusion or quotation or street sign or historical figure in the entire Holmes Canon has gone unnoticed, unanalyzed, and unexplained, and if few readers will be interested in the history of the Alfred Dunhill Pipe or of gray Harris tweed trousers, who can resist a discussion of Victorian opium dens; of Doyle’s dinner with a magazine editor and a budding young writer, the result of which were commissions for The Sign of the Four and The Picture of Dorian Gray; of T.S. Eliot’s cribbing from the Holmes stories for a scene in Murder in the Cathedral and for names in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats; or of Edinburgh’s medical tradition of auto-experimentation, and particularly of the case of Sir Robert Christison, the foremost toxicologist of the 19th century who almost died from sampling a Calabar bean and who saved himself by drinking his morning’s shaving-water? As Owen Dudley Edwards explains, “The two most famous literary uses of auto-experiment by Edinburgh authors are Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and [Doyle’s] ‘The Devil’s Loot’ . . . . [Doyle] himself used auto-experiment with nitrite of amyl for his doctoral research and in other medical investigations.”
We learn about the major sources of inspiration for the methods of Sherlock Holmes, from Voltaire, Edgar Allan Poe, Emile Gaboriau, and Wilkie Collins to, most importantly, Doyle’s medical school mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, whom Doyle gladly acknowledged as his principal model for Holmes. Bell was a skilled surgeon and noted lecturer at the Edinburgh Infirmary, but he was best remembered for entertaining his students with deductions and declarations about the histories and occupations of the patients whom he had never before met. Doyle fondly recalled one scene in particular, when Bell interrogated a new patient in front of the class:
“Well, my man, you’ve served in the Army?”
“Not long discharged?”
“A Highland regiment?”
“A non-commissioned officer?”
“Stationed at Barbados?”
“You see,” Bell turned and announced to his students, this “man was a respectful man, but he 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 elephantiasis, which is West Indian not British, and the Scottish regiments are at present in that particular island.”
We learn as well about the Voronoff monkey-gland experiments of the early 1920’s, which gave Doyle the idea for “The Creeping Man” and that story’s central theme, that “When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it.” We learn that Holmes’s famous first words to Watson, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” parallels Johnson’s pronouncement that Boswell came from Scotland; that the source for the most famous of Doyle’s many epigrams, about the dogs that “barked” in the night, might have been book XVI of Homer’s Odyssey, in which the dogs refuse to bark at Telemachus; that Watson’s description of Holmes as “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known” echoes the final sentence of Plato’s Phaedo describing the death of Socrates; and that the method of solving the mystery in “The Golden Pince-Nez” derives from the Book of Daniel, where ashes are strewn in the Temple to prove that priests and their families had been eating the food placed before the idols.
The editors also painstakingly report on the number of drawings that accompanied every Holmes story in both its American and British versions, and they retell several times in various volumes the famous story of how the Strand had intended the illustrator for the first Holmes short stories to be Walter Paget but mistakenly sent the commission to Sidney, Walter’s brother. They explain that Sidney, who ultimately produced over 350 Holmes drawings, was really more responsible than Doyle himself for establishing “the popular conception of Sherlock Holmes,” for it was he who “gave [Holmes] the deerstalker and travelling cape which are now indelibly associated with him”; who was “as closely associated with the text as ‘Phiz’ to Dickens or Sir John Tenniel to Lewis Carroll”; and whom even Doyle acknowledged was the person responsible for delineating the man “which the whole English-reading race came to recognize.”
Unfortunately, after learning all this, the reader discovers that the illustrations in this collection are distinguished only by their absence: amid the 1,000 or so pages of ancillary material, not a single original drawing has been reproduced.
Yet, no number of illustrations will bring Holmes to life. Endnotes and essays will not make us see the yellow fog, smell the shag tobacco, or hear the hansoms clattering on the brick-laid streets. For as Owen Dudley Edwards correctly concludes, “Dr. Watson will perform that duty, and no one could do it better.”
[The Oxford Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet The Sign of the Four The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes The Hound of the Baskervilles The Return of Sherlock Holmes The Valley of Fear His Last Bow The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, General Editor, Owen Dudley Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press) $99.95]