“Even after 100 years of study, there is still plenty to write about.”
Leslie S. Klinger.[i]
I had been a card-carrying Holmesian for many years, but it was only after attending a series of talks given by the Sherlock Holmes Society of Scotland and reading Conan Doyle’s “Memories and Adventures”[ii] that I progressed to becoming a Doylean. Conan Doyle’s book demonstrated the extent to which his own life experiences were reflected in, and coloured, the stories he wrote. It is, of course, well-known that he fashioned Holmes from the bones of Dr. Joseph Bell (his mentor), but it was fascinating to see this or that character whom he had met in real-life later being transformed into a Peter Carey[iii] (the “swarthy, dark-eyed, … beard[ed]” shipmate from his whaling days whose “temper was Satanic”), a Holy Peters[iv] (a number of candidates from amongst the “prophets and perverts” he encountered), or a Thaddeus Sholto[v] (the young Oscar Wilde, perhaps – after all, Holmes’s languid witticism on the invitation from Lord St. Simon[vi] (“one of those unwelcome social summonses which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie”) could have come straight from the lips of Algernon Moncrieff[vii].
The manner of art imitating life also provided the subject matter for a surprising number of his tales: the affair of the Beryl Coronet[viii] was based on an incident that happened to one of the Doyle family; the convoluted and (ostensibly) implausible denouement of Thor Bridge had at least one counterpart in Austrian[ix] criminal history (“parallel cases!”); the suicide of Montague Druitt in 1888, whose body was found in the Thames with his coat pockets weighted down with stones, may be where Dr. Watson found the idea for the wharfside scene in “The Man With The Twisted Lip”; and even the Red-Headed League, one of the apparently most preposterous, and amusing, inventions in the entire Canon, had its roots in a secret undergraduate Cambridge debating society (the Cambridge Apostles) notorious for their complete lack of earnestness – a trait shared, as we shall see, with the average Holmesian. One of the Apostles’ senior members (Henry Sidgwick, the English utilitarian philosopher) imagined a world in which, “… a rich bachelor with no near relatives leaves the bulk of his property in providing pensions exclusively for indigent red-haired men, (however much) this might strike us as unreasonable and capricious[x].”
Conan Doyle also had a fascination with the Coptic Church and language, despite having abandoned mainstream religion at one point in his life. He went so far as to visit one of the original Coptic monasteries in the Egyptian desert – a trip which almost had fatal consequences when his party managed to get lost in the searing heat (“the only guide being wheel marks across the sand”), and which inadvertently provided the material for his “Tragedy of the Korosko[xi].” He mentions the Copts twice in the Canon, once in a tantalising reference to an unrecorded case. When I sat down to write this book, it was inevitable that I should include a pastiche on the problem which troubled the Coptic Patriarchs.
Having devoured the Holmes Canon, I soon discovered that not only was there a flourishing trade in pastiches (which began in Conan Doyle’s own lifetime, and with his characteristically kind blessing), but that there was also an extensive body of Holmesian scholarship stretching back more than a century. As regards the scholarly (or perhaps, more precisely, mock-scholarly) articles on the canonical works, I noticed immediately that this strand of scholarship differed wholly from the usual “appreciation society” endeavour which is generally based on a kind of hero worship. If you look at the societies which celebrate some of Conan Doyle’s contemporaries – Arthur Morrison, Arnold Bennet, Stevenson, for example – you will find a rather uncritical, not to say, adulatory flavour. This is truer still when it comes to some of the “classic” authors popular during the Victorian period, take Jane Austen or the Brontës, for instance: "… idolatrous enthusiasm for Jane … and every primary, secondary, tertiary … detail relative to her," thundered one literary scholar[xii], and a celebrated academic[xiii] once complained that “there are so many persons to whom speaking lightly about Miss Austen is as bad as ‘speaking against the Prayer Book.’” Even Kipling (hardly an arch-iconoclast) fashioned a parody on the “Janeites.”
The Brontës fared little better: in the 1950s, the president of the Brontë Society railed against the same “idolatry” which had “a generation ago” spawned a brisk commerce in fake Brontë artefacts fired by “zealous (relic) hunters”[xiv]: A plethora of bogus handkerchiefs, phoney quills, counterfeit inkwells, and forged letters flooded the market, and there were so many pianos circulating in the West Riding whose ivories were reputed to have been tinkled by Anne, Emily, and Charlotte – and just possibly Branwell, when he was sober enough – that they must have gone through one per month at the Haworth Parsonage.
To my initial surprise it seemed that, far from being offenders against the First Commandment, Holmesians – hammering away in each of the five continents, connected by societies, journals, magazines, posh dinners in swanky hotels[xv], and, latterly, the internet – were busily de-constructing, re-constructing, post-modernising, dissimulating, and generally contradicting every single word that Conan Doyle had written on any conceivable point. Every Holmesian worth the name was an avid revisionist; there was no orthodoxy!
On the contrary, they triumphantly gloated over each plot hole and mercilessly exposed every inconsistency: how in “The Sign Of The Four” July slips into September and then apparently back again as dawn breaks at 3 a.m. (it could have been the Côtes De Beaune which Watson had drunk at lunchtime!); Watson’s embarrassing ignorance of the rules of the turf in “The Adventure of Silver Blaze”; the fact that there is no such creature as a “swamp adder,” which allegedly killed Dr. Roylott in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”; Holmes’s miscalculation of “obliquity of the ecliptic” in the “Musgrave Ritual,” about which he lectured Watson in “The Greek Interpreter”; and how anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Victorian railways must have winced painfully when they read about the train departing for the Derbyshire Peak District[xvi] from, yes, Euston!
In addition to those who boldly affirmed that Dr. Watson deliberately lied (“diligently and frequently” according to one scholar[xvii]), there were those who shamelessly propounded an orrery of blatant and unpalatable heresies from behind Watson’s written word: Holmes was a woman (and Watson’s lover); Holmes never emerged from Reichenbach (that was deutero-Holmes); Holmes was Moriarty (playing a cunning dual role); Holmes never existed in the first place (it was Moriarty all along); Holmes was wedded to Irene Adler (who bigamously married Godfrey Norton, with Holmes, albeit incognito, as a witness); Holmes was secretly married to Mrs. Neville St. Clair[xviii]; Watson was not so much Holmes’s Boswell as his Bosie (hence the detective’s apparent overreaction in “The Three Garridebs”[xix] when Watson is wounded by Killer Evans) and so on.
What a breath of fresh air. This was no secret gnostic sect where only a small circle of the anointed received some direct revelation form the deity or were entrusted with the “true” interpretation of the dogma. On the contrary, the tradition of Holmesian scholarship afforded a living example of encouraging a hundred flowers to blossom and allowing a hundred schools of thought to contend; not only was a plurality of readings considered possible, indeed desirable, but any illusion of a single correct reading had been dispelled. Moreover, novitiates were positively welcomed and encouraged.
These influences provided much of the inspiration for writing this book (and others), and for some of my own Holmesian mock-scholarship. As Holmes himself says in “The Problem of Thor Bridge”: “One drawback of an active mind is that one can always conceive alternative explanations.”
[i] “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories, Vol 1,” November 2007, Leslie S. Klinger.
[ii] “Memories and Adventures,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[iii] From “The Adventure of Black Peter,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[iv] From “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[v] From “The Sign of the Four,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[vi] From “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[vii] From “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Oscar Wilde.
[viii] “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[ix] Dr. Hans Gross, an Austrian professor of criminology, noted such a case in “The Handbook for Criminal Investigators” (translated into English in 1898).
[x] From “The Methods of Ethics”, Henry Sidgwick, 1874.
[xi] “Tragedy of the Korosko,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[xii] Professor of English Literature at Princeton University, Claudia L. Johnson.
[xiii] Wordsworth scholar and Oxford Professor of Poetry, Heathcote W. Garrod.
[xiv] From “The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects,” Deborah Lutz, Department of English, University of Louisville.
[xv] One of which the author must admit to having been invited by the Baker Street Irregulars, no less, following one of his contributions to the “Baker Street Journal.”
[xvi] In “The Adventure of the Priory School,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[xvii] Leslie S. Klinger, “What Do We Really Know About Sherlock Holmes And John H. Watson?” of which an earlier version was presented as “A River Runs By It: Holmes and Doyle in Minnesota,” sponsored by the Friends of the Sherlock Holmes Collection and the Elmer Anderson Library of the University of Minnesota in June 2004.
[xviii] In “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Arthur Conan Doyle.
[xix] In “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Arthur Conan Doyle. The evidence presumably being the recollection by Watson, who has just been wounded, informing the reader that “my friend’s arms were around me ... his eyes ... were dimmed for a moment, the firm lips shaking”, to which Watson reciprocates by revealing that to receive such caresses “… was worth many wounds ...”; the scene climaxes with Holmes ripping off Watson’s trousers with a knife (“… his hands were possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch” Watson tells us in “A Study In Scarlet”).