Stranger Than Fiction

January 2021

“He Takes My Mind from Better Things”: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Reluctant Author

By Dean Jobb

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“I am weary of his name,” Arthur Conan Doyle said of Sherlock Holmes in a letter to his mother in 1893, the year he sat for his photographic portrait. (National Portrait Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons)

The package arrived in early 1891 at an office on the edge of London’s theater district and landed on the desk of Herbert Greenhough Smith, editor of The Strand Magazine. Inside were the handwritten manuscripts for two short stories featuring an ingenious private detective and his mystery-solving partner, a former army doctor.

As Greenhough Smith read them through his pince-nez, he was astonished. “What a God-send to an editor jaded with wading through reams of impossible stuff!” he remembered thinking. The plots were ingenious, the writing clear and engaging. “I realized at once,” he would later say, “that here was the greatest short-story writer since Edgar Allan Poe.”

He rushed to show the submission to his publisher, who read them “with an appreciation equal to my own.” George Newnes had launched The Strand a few months earlier to give London a monthly modeled on leading American magazines such as Scribner’s and Harper’s—something, he explained, “smarter and livelier, more interesting, bright and cheerful” than British publications of the time.

New stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle and featuring the already-known characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson would be a perfect fit.

 

By the spring of 1891 Conan Doyle was desperate for the literary breakthrough that would enable him to abandon medicine and become a full-time writer. Two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, had been published in magazines and later in book form, but had made little money.

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The cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring the first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet. (Wikimedia Commons)

Besides, his first love was historical fiction. In 1889 he had published Micah Clarke, a novel set amidst the turmoil of a failed seventeenth-century English rebellion—a work he believed had “literary dignity.” Next was The White Company, a tale of war and heroism set in the Middle Ages that he judged to be “worth a hundred Sherlock Holmes stories.” The Cornhill, perhaps the most prestigious magazine of the day, began publishing it in monthly installments in January 1891. Critics and readers shared the author’s enthusiasm. “One of the most striking novels published in recent years,” gushed one reviewer.

But he began to wonder if it had been a mistake to serialize a novel-length tale. Readers who missed an installment of The White Company were likely to lose track of the story. Could he write a different kind of serial, where the connecting link between installments was the main characters instead of the storyline? Each would be a standalone story, complete in itself, leaving readers eager to join the characters on their next adventure. “One would get a cumulative interest,” he reasoned, “which the serial pure and simple could not obtain.”

He already had the characters he needed—Holmes and Watson. Within a couple of months he had five stories ready for publication. The Strand Magazine was his first choice, and he was delighted when Newnes and Greenhough Smith accepted them and asked for one more. Conan Doyle’s agent negotiated a handsome £200 fee for the six-part series.

Each month, Holmes and Watson solved a new mystery, from a threat of blackmail—”A Scandal in Bohemia”—to a businessman’s sudden disappearance and the bizarre case of a man hired by the shadowy “Red-headed League” to produce a handwritten copy of an encyclopedia.

 

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A gallery of some of the best-known actors who have portrayed The Great Detective. (Author Collection) 

The wide audience and serialized approach, as Conan Doyle had predicted, made Holmes a sensation. Newnes asked for six more stories, to extend the wildly popular series to mid-1892. Conan Doyle refused.

“The Strand are simply imploring me to continue Sherlock Holmes,” he advised his mother. “I have written by this post to say that if they offer £50 each, irrespective of length, I may be induced to reconsider my refusal.” That would come to £300, or £100 more than he had earned for the first set of stories.

To Conan Doyle’s surprise, The Strand accepted. It was good pay for fast work—he was so comfortable with Holmes and his methods that he could produce a story in record time. Five of the additional stories were ready within a month.

The final installment took more thought. How should he end the series? There was one adversary, he realized, that Holmes could not outwit forever—his creator. The Great Detective, he believed, had served his purpose. With the success of his historical novels and the Strand stories, Conan Doyle had been able to wind up his medical practice that summer and become a full-time writer. It was, he recalled, “one of the great moments of exultation of my life.”

He wanted to tackle serious subjects, not puzzles. He needed to devote his time to great literature, not sensational stories. And Holmes, despite his brilliant insights and groundbreaking investigative techniques, was a derivative—“a bastard” as Conan Doyle admitted to fellow author Robert Louis Stevenson, who combined Dr. Joe Bell, his hyper-observant former medical-school instructor, with Poe’s fictional master of deduction, Monsieur Dupin. A great writer “always begins by imitations,” he once noted, “and ends by real books.” The adventures of Holmes and Watson were popular and lucrative, but they were not the stuff of real books.

“I think of slaying Holmes in the sixth and winding him up for good and all,” he confided to his mother in mid-November. “He takes my mind from better things.”

The letter bearing Mary Doyle’s response to the threatened execution has been lost, but she convinced her son to spare Holmes’s life. Conan Doyle completed the final story, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” over the Christmas holidays.

“So now a long farewell to Sherlock,” he reported back to her a few days into 1892. “He still lives, however, thanks to your entreaties.”

Newnes and Greenhough Smith, oblivious to the private drama over Holmes’s fate, alerted readers that more stories were coming. “The extraordinary adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which have proved so popular with our readers during the past six months,” they noted in The Strand’s December issue, “will be continued in the new year.”

Holmes survived, but Conan Doyle had no intention of dispatching him
on new adventures. “That dozen stories being finished, I determined they should be the end of all Sherlock’s doings,” he later explained. “I believe it is always better to give the public less than it wants rather than more, and I do not believe in boring it.”

But far from boring readers, The Strand stories had them begging for more. The truth was, Conan Doyle was tired of devising intricate puzzles for Holmes to investigate. He was tired, too, of writing about a one-dimensional character, “a calculating machine,” as he put it, who “admits of no light or shade.” And he was determined to distance himself from his creation. “I was becoming more and more known as the author of Sherlock Holmes instead of as the author of The White Company,” he complained. “My lower work was obscuring my higher.” Crime stories, “a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader,” were beneath him. “The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now, nobody can possibly be the better,” he contended, “for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so.” As time wore on, his resentment towards Holmes deepened. “I believe that if I had never touched Holmes,” he wrote decades later, his standing as a man of letters would have been “a more commanding one.”

When Newnes and Greenhough Smith asked for another set of stories, Conan Doyle seized the chance to finally rid himself of his nemesis. Quoting an exorbitant fee, he thought, would squelch the idea. He offered to do twelve more stories for £1,000, double his earnings from the first dozen. “I sincerely hope,” he told his mother, “that they won’t accept it.” They did. Realizing the windfall would boost his income for 1892 to £3,000, he held his nose and began churning them out.

Conan Doyle, however, was more determined than ever to rid himself of his fictional albatross. He still feared being relegated to the “lower stratum of literary achievement” and known only as the creator of Sherlock Holmes. “I am weary of his name,” he complained in an April 1893 letter to his mother, as he drafted the final story of the new series. This time, he followed through on his threat to kill off the character he feared was hijacking his career.

“The Adventure of the Final Problem,” published in December 1893, plunged Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, into the abyss at Reichenbach Falls. Readers were stunned and outraged. “You Brute,” one woman scolded him in a letter. Conan Doyle pleaded that he had acted in self-defense. “If I had not killed him,” he claimed, “he would certainly have killed me.”

He turned to other projects, from pirate adventures and tales set in the Napoleonic era to a history of the Boer War. While he had yet to embrace spiritualism—a cause he would promote throughout the 1920s—he was frustrated to discover that Holmes offered proof of life after death. Journalists and fans pestered him with the same question: When would he resurrect Holmes? “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much,” he protested at one point. “The name of it gives me a sickly feeling.”

He relented in 1901, serializing the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles and launching a new series of monthly Strand stories in 1903. More appeared occasionally until 1927, three years before his death, when he published “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place,” Holmes’s sixtieth and final case.

Sherlock Holmes has become part of the culture, as iconic a character
as Robin Hood or King Arthur. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes has sold sixty million copies in sixty languages, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. There have been dozens of film and television adaptations,
with Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey, Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch among the actors who have tackled the starring role.

There are hundreds of Sherlock Holmes clubs and societies worldwide and visitors to London can tour the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, where the sitting room Doyle imagined for No. 221B is staged in a Victorian-era townhouse.

“The interest in Sherlock Holmes,” Swedish Holmes scholar Mattias Boström has observed, is “everywhere, everything, everyone.” And all thanks to the wise counsel of Mary Doyle.

 

Sources

Herbert Greenhough Smith, “Authors I Have Known: Thumbnail Sketches,” John O’London’s Weekly, April 19, 1919; “The Man Who Made ‘The Strand,’” World’s Press News, December 18, 1930; Michael Sims, Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury Publishing 2017); Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures and Western Wanderings (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2009); “A Gaudy Death: Conan Doyle tells the True Story of Sherlock Holmes’s End,” Tit-Bits, December 15, 1900; Mattias Boström, From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon (Mysterious Press 2017); Boström and Matt Laffey, eds., Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in the Newspapers, vol. 1 (Gasogene Books 2015); Richard Lancelyn Green, comp., The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (Penguin Books 1983); Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley, eds., Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters (HarperPress 2007); “Portraits of Celebrities at Different Times of Their Lives: A. Conan Doyle,” Strand Magazine, December 1891; Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole art of Storytelling (Princeton University Press 2012); Arthur Conan Doyle Papers (1867-1970), Western Manuscripts, British Library, London; Arthur Conan Doyle Correspondence, 1888-1930, C. Frederick Kittle Collection of Doyleana, Newberry Library, Chicago.

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Dean Jobb’s new book recreates the hunt for Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian Era serial killer who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, England and Canada – a true tale of crime and madness told against the backdrop of the birth of forensic investigation. Coming in July from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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