An elementary lesson in success

17th June 2005 at 01:00
Magazine serialisations helped make Sherlock Homes the worldwide phenomenon he is today. Jerome Monahan takes a look at the early days of Baker Street's finest detective

In the current season of the hit US TV show CSI Las Vegas, Gil Grissom and his tip-top forensic team are called to investigate the death of a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast. They find him shot dead, dressed as his hero, in a basement converted to resemble the sitting room of 221b Baker Street. It is an episode that speaks volumes about the enduring appeal of a character and a type of detective narrative invented at the tail end of the 19th century by an obscure Edinburgh-born doctor called Arthur Conan Doyle.

Conan Doyle was a good medic. In the 1880s, he built a prosperous practice in Portsmouth. In 1900, at the height of his literary fame, he would set off to participate in the Boer War, proving himself to be energetic and compassionate in his care for wounded and fever-ridden troops at a field hospital near Bloemfontein. But by then his medical ambitions had been long displaced.

In 1891, he had overreached himself in an attempt to set up as a London eye-specialist, a gamble that brought him few patients but left him with plenty of time on his hands for writing. And, happily for the world (and English teachers needing to cover pre-1914 fiction with their GCSE students), part of his early output was a pair of short tales - "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Red-Headed League".

Both featured Sherlock Holmes, a character that Conan Doyle had already established in two largely unsuccessful novels: A Study in Scarlet (1888, sold to publishers Ward Lock for just pound;25) and The Sign Of Four (1890). This time, however, the new tales were to set editor H Greenhough Smith's pulse racing - not only because they were compelling yarns, but also because they were both entirely self-contained, perfect for The Strand Magazine, with its offer of "organically complete" narratives. It was a form that Conan Doyle also felt had considerable commercial potential over the serials that tended to dominate popular magazines at that time.

"He invented the idea of the 'series'," explains Heather Owen of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. "He spotted how readers might welcome intriguing stories in which they could rely on meeting familiar characters in familiar settings, knowing that their pleasure was not going to be spoiled by missing an instalment."

In Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Doyle certainly hit on a winning and lucrative combination. He was soon commanding pound;50 a story. His fee for the next dozen, published in 1893, was pound;1,000. By the time he resurrected them in 1901 in novel form in The Hound of the Baskervilles, he asked for, and received, pound;100 per thousand words. The Strand Magazine would offer the same again for the next 13 short stories in 1903, but this was a mere nothing compared to the $45,000 Doyle would get from Collier's Magazine for the US rights to the same series.

This time-line tells several tales. It underlines the enormous following the stories generated from the beginning. Thanks to them, Conan Doyle's name on an issue of The Strand Magazine would soon add 100,000 copies to sales. It was their success that also gave him his "great break", enabling him to choose full-time writing over medicine.

However, Conan Doyle, almost from the outset, was distinctly ambivalent about Holmes, regarding him as a distraction from the more serious and preferred business of authoring history novels. He was prepared to kill his hero off after the first dozen stories, until persuaded not to by his mother. But Holmes was not so fortunate at the end of the second series, apparently falling to his death into the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a deadly embrace with his arch-enemy, the "Napoleon of crime" Professor Moriarty.

There was an extraordinary reaction to this act of literary slaughter.

According to Conan Doyle biographer Daniel Stashower, news headlines carried the story of Holmes's death and 20,000 people cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine. It was said that people sported black armbands and that members of the royal family were "distraught".

Conan Doyle could be excused any annoyance he felt at all the fuss - at the time he was having to cope with the death of his alcoholic father and the diagnosis that his wife Louisa had contracted tuberculosis. The author described Holmes's death as "justifiable homicide in self-defence", but, as Stashower points out, he never gave the public a body - leaving room to resurrect his hero should he be so inclined.

The return of Holmes eight years later, in The Hound of the Baskervilles, was explained by this being among the cases Watson had not written up prior to the detective's death. When the new series of short stories started appearing, Conan Doyle decided to set them in 1895, a decision that would preserve Holmes in a late Victorian world (already distant for Edwardian readers coping with a brave new world of motor cars, telephones and Dreadnought battleships).

That these stories remain popular today continues to be down to their nostalgic evocation of a world of hansom cabs, swirling pea-souper fogs, and trains that can be relied on to keep to the schedule published in Holmes's copy of Bradshaw's timetables. Of course, there is the threat of madness and chaos in every tale, represented by the stream of perplexed and vulnerable individuals bringing their woes into Holmes and Watson's cluttered yet snug sitting room. And yet the great consolation is that once Holmes focuses his formidable deductive powers to bear on a problem, confusion will eventually be banished, and wrongdoers usually punished.

Except, that is, when his own sense of justice calls for leniency or on the odd occasion - such as in A Scandal in Bohemia - Jwhen he is bettered.

Even then, when the "perps" do get away, as in "The Five Orange Pips", divine retribution in the shape of a sea storm can be counted on to provide satisfactory closure. In a way, it is the same consolation offered by CSI Las Vegas and its ilk. In these shows, however grim the crime or seemingly complete a criminal's cover-up, there will be clues to find and infallible databases to consult. The difference is that what requires an entire team of investigators to achieve now, lies within the capacity of a single individual in Conan Doyle's tales.

In addition to his extraordinary though eclectic areas of expertise, tellingly catalogued by Watson early on in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is free of most human desires. He is untroubled by passions other than the desire for stimulating work, resorting to a variety of decidedly eccentric pastimes, including injecting cocaine to combat the between-case ennui.

According to Ed Glinert, in an introduction to the Penguin edition of the The Valley of Fear, there is something reminiscent of autism in Holmes's practice -"a capacity to examine raw data without turning it into a hypothesis. (His) perception is not contaminated by other kinds of understanding. (He) is gifted in his ability to understand visual information before it is distorted by being processed into language".

One of the conventions and principal joys of a good Holmes story is the early opportunity Conan Doyle affords his hero to demonstrate his deductive skills. These moments include charting Watson's thought processes from simple observations of his body language, or conjuring up a portrait of a prospective client from their walking stick or the splashes of mud on their sleeve. Indeed, where his tales outstrip the few examples of "detective fiction" that preceded them, is in their construction of solutions dependent on their hero's wit over improbable coincidence, or absurd lapses in the intelligence of his adversaries.

Undoubtedly, Conan Doyle tended to dash off his Sherlock Holmes tales, reserving his energies for the historic novels he hoped would be his enduring legacy. They are full of errors. Watson's war wound acquired at the battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan in 1880 shifts about his body on occasion, and there are numerous other inconsistencies and mistakes.

However, these tales are far more then mere puzzles, and they reward re-reading, not least for their rich characterisation, clever construction and frequently inspired description and dialogue. They are also recommended for students needing to show a knowledge of the social and historic context surrounding literary texts.

They are rich in period detail and insights - granting an insight into the seamier side of late 19th-century life and the strengths and weaknesses of the police at a time when the recently formed CID was frequently referred to in Punch as "the Defective Department."

Further reading Teller of Tales - The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower (Henry Holt - 1999) Sherlock Holmes on Screen by Alan Barnes (Reynolds and Hern Ltd 2002)


* Despite his medical background, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was known for his neat writing, often submitting his stories to editors in long hand.

* On two occasions, he turned detective, attempting to overturn the convictions of individuals he regarded as being the victims of injustice - George Edalji, accused of mutilating cattle, and Oscar Slater, wrongfully imprisoned for a Glasgow murder.

* For much of his adult life, Conan Doyle was fascinated by spiritualism.

It was to cost him much of his credibility when, in 1919, he adamantly defended the claim that the Cottingley fairies, photographs taken by two Yorkshire schoolgirls, actually showed them playing with fairies. Today, writers consider his enthusiasm for this belief was fed by grief for his son, who had died on the Western Front during the First World War. In old age, one of the children, Frances Griffiths, admitted that the photographs had been a fraud.

* Five days after his death, on July 8 1930, a mass seance was held for Conan Doyle at the Albert Hall in London. Thousands attended, and the presiding medium, Mrs Roberts, claimed that Conan Doyle was on the platform with her throughout the proceedings.


The Sherlock Holmes Society of London

The Sherlockian

221b Baker Street - Sherlock Holmes Illustrations www.bakerstreet221b.degallery.htm

Who Shot Sherlock? CSI Las Vegas

Sherlock Magazine Email:

Other online resources



There are numerous radio recordings of Sherlock Holmes stories. Among the most recent and effective are the BBC audio recordings featuring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson. These are an ideal means of testing students' listening skills. Invite them to note down any story details and clues as they hear the dramatisation of such tales as "Thor Bridge" or "The Sussex Vampire". Then stop the recording ahead of Holmes's revelations and invite pupils to come up with group or individual explanations for the mysteries.


The English and Media Centre has produced an invaluable resource, ideal for anyone thinking of tackling Sherlock Holmes. "Studying Sherlock Holmes" focuses on four tales, including the most famous of his "locked room" stories, "The Speckled Band". The tales are provided along with occasional activities designed to test students' grasp of the narrative construction or character development.

In a separate section, there are numerous tasks providing insights into the social context underlying the tales, including the development of crime fiction before and after Sherlock Holmes, and interrogating the attitudes they contain concerning class, status, crime and criminals. There are also useful explorations of the pleasures to be derived from crime fiction and how to construct an effective comparative essay. One copy: pound;9.95; 15 or more copies: pound;7.95 each) from www.englishandmedia.

co.ukpublications pubsfictionSher_Holm.html

* The relationship between Holmes and Watson is often misrepresented. Far from being a bumbling idiot, Watson often proves himself an invaluable friend and confidant to Holmes - even when completely mystified by his friend's detective work. Watson also performs a useful job for the reader, being their representative in the tales and also Holmes's chronicler.

Invite students to study a series of the stories, concentrating on Watson's function both as part of the stories and also as a crucial source of their pleasure.

* The varied depiction of Sherlock Holmes and Watson in film provides a rich opportunity for a media studies assignment. There have been multiple versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles, including a 1959 Hammer Films version starring Peter Cushing and Christoper Lee. One intriguing focus of any book-to-screen investigation might be the depiction of the hound itself - always a difficult moment in screen versions but chilling in the original text.

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