Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Introduction: A Dying Detective

 “I think of slaying Holmes…...He takes my mind from better things”
Arthur Conan Doyle, letter to his mother, November 11, 1891

The world’s greatest detective didn’t have very long to live.

If left to his own devices, Arthur Conan Doyle, an ophthalmologist in private practice and author of two commercially unsuccessful novels featuring Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, an eccentric gentlemen of virtually unknown origins and questionable moral character, would have killed him stone dead in the final story of twelve commissioned for The Strand magazine that year by his literary agent, A. P. Watt. It is to Mary, Doyle’s mother that we owe quite a bit of thanks. Her hasty reply was recorded for posterity: “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” Perhaps fearing her son’s murderous impulses masked exhaustion over deadlines or, worse, writer’s block, Mary Doyle also included in her response a brief synopsis of a work she herself had recently re-read, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, originally published some thirty years earlier. The result was Conan Doyle’s own “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” the last story in the sequence eventually published in book form as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It borrowed liberally from Collins and, perhaps in deference to a mother’s love, Holmes survived. By the time “Copper Beeches” saw publication, Holmes, and his author, were fast becoming household names around London. It would soon spread around the world.

The legacy of the four novels and fifty-six short stories that encompass the Holmes “canon,” is staggering. The works have, as of 2008, been published in over 60 languages, birthed thousands of derivative works, served as the basis for dozens of successful television and film adaptations, and generated a massive body of literary scholarship, led primarily by a loose network of ‘Holmesian’ or ‘Sherlockian’ societies around the world. These organizations, most notably The Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934, whose membership has included writers, actors, mathematicians, and two U.S. Presidents, are responsible for continuing to promote and sustain the Holmes legacy, adding literally reams of scholarship, speculation and enthusiasm to the Holmes legend with every passing year, and might be said to have taken on a life of its own, separate and distinct from the literary creation it studies.

While certainly prolific and devoted to the point of possessiveness, those are not the most unique features of Sherlockian scholarship. For many Irregulars, including William S. Baring-Gould, Sherlock Holmes is to be treated as a real person and the canonical stories recordings of actual vignettes from the “reminiscences” of John H. Watson, M.D., Holmes’ sometime flatmate and amanuensis, of a sort, for all but four of the stories. Conan Doyle, for his part, serves as Watson’s literary agent. It is perhaps characteristic of the sheer descriptive nature of Conan Doyle’s prose that would support such a disposition. In fact, one Sherlockian quite rightly attested that, were London to have been leveled during the harrowing nights of German blitzkrieg, the Holmes canon could, along with works of Charles Dickens, be utilized to rebuild it to its exact former state. Indeed, the presumption of existence is one which had its earliest exponents early on in Conan Doyle’s writing of the stories. With every new issue of The Strand, Conan Doyle received letters from readers asking for the detective’s assistance, or inquiring as to how to get a hold of Holmes or Watson, or, in one case, applying to provide temporary relief to the long-suffering housekeeper of 221B Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson.

While the “great game” of Sherlockian speculation affords a unique look into how it all fits together, our project is something a little different. We want to invite the reader to take a closer look at Sherlock Holmes and to appreciate the details that might have gone unnoticed. We will re-read each of the 60 tales of mystery and detection and focus on a single theme or element in the novels and stories—one which may or may not be obvious—and explore what new meanings and details emerge. Each essay begins with a “keyword” or theme, and a small passage or quotation from the story. Then, every avenue, both factual and fictional, is explored with relation to that theme, using a wealth of sources, from Victorian literary criticism, works of mathematics, scientific and sociological research, to Sherlockian studies and commentary, as well as the staggering amount of historical research, literary scholarship, and personal psychology and biography Conan Doyle put into his stories, as well as his relationships with other writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde. The original illustrations that accompany each essay are also unique contributions to this perspective. Since Holmes, with only a few exceptions, was always represented by another (either Dr. Watson or a third-person narrator), his perspective is often refracted through others. Indeed, even the two stories Sherlock himself narrates are done at the urging of (and, if one accepts the Sherlockian perspective, later published by) Watson. The illustrations put paid to all that by focusing on the one-person view of the great detective, seeing the minutiae that are so vital to his brilliant deductions.

In presenting both the essays and artwork, we have tried to reveal our details without compromising the central mysteries of the stories themselves. A reader new to Sherlock Holmes can find plenty of inspiration to delve into the canon by following our literary and artistic adventures, but there may be a few unavoidable spoilers ahead. We encourage those interested in reading along with us to enjoy the original novels or stories first before examining the essay and artwork. For those already familiar with Holmes’ adventures, we are sure that reading and examining our work here will lead you back to original stories—the scene of the crime, as it were. For a closer look. 


  1. Interesting coincidence that this starts as the TV series "House" ends. Connections to Holmes are very strong (Holmes; read "homes, to "House". A drug addicted doctor only seeking to solve the most challenging cases, the 221B address and numerous plots that linked to Doyle characters. Looking forward to your explorations.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark. 'House' certainly had a lot of Holmesian qualities and we were pleased to hear its series finale had echoes of "The Final Problem" - glad to have you aboard!