A study in Holmesiana37 min read . Updated: 17 Jan 2016, 06:59 PM IST
Why has Sherlock Holmes and his small world been subjected to more study and analysis than any other literary character, including Hamlet?
Why has Sherlock Holmes and his small world been subjected to more study and analysis than any other literary character, including Hamlet?
On 9 January, I, like many other Indians, I am sure, suspended all activities at 9pm to watch The Abominable Bride, the two-hour New Year special episode of the BBC show (well, co-produced by the BBC actually) Sherlock.
Sherlock, for those who came in late, features original stories with Sherlock Holmes as the hero, set in modern-day London. It has had three seasons of three episodes each, and fans waited two years for what is officially termed Episode 0, Season 4. Season 4 will actually start airing in 2017, because Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Holmes in the show, is one of the busiest actors in the world today, and is currently spending his workdays wearing spandex tights, shooting for the latest Marvel Comics superhero film, Doctor Strange.
The only very quick way to describe The Abominable Bride is by using some hackneyed terms that I hate: It is a “work of post-modern, self-referential meta-fiction".
A less quick and simpler explanation (though a really full one would be brimful of spoilers). It repeatedly mentions that while Holmes goes around solving cases in real life, the cases also get a somewhat different life—and reality—of their own when they are written up by Watson. It is replete with references to the original Holmes stories (or the Canon, but more of that later), but as referenced in the Sherlock TV serial. And, of course, there are both throwaway and crucial references to stuff that happened in the previous three seasons of the show, but which were not part of the Canon which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle presented to the world.
The episode shifts between reality and dream (with both worlds referencing one another). But the dreams too have dreams nestled within them, which are baggage carried over from reality (or rather, earlier seasons). Anyone who has watched Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception would have some idea of what I am trying to convey. It’s Escher as narrative. It’s the sort of film that you have to rewatch (or, if you have recorded it, use the “rewind" button often) to get all the clever tricks the filmmakers are up to.
So, is The Abominable Bride worth watching?
As far as Sherlock Holmes is concerned, there are three types of people in the world. One, who are either disinterested in Holmes, or treat his exploits as just another exciting read, like the Hercule Poirot mysteries, or a Robert Langdon adventure (I am not, repeat not, equating Agatha Christie with Dan Brown; all I mean to say is that this class of people do not know—or bother to think about—“differences").
Two, those who have read some or all of the Holmes stories, and felt entertained by them in various degrees, even loved them perhaps, but would not reread them too many times, nor spend much time thinking about them.
Three, people—and there are a surprisingly large number of them across the world—who are crazy about the man who lived in 221B Baker Street.
Sherlock, the TV serial, seems to have been conceived to principally target the latter two types of audiences—say, 70% of the Type 2 people, and 30% of Type 3. All the Type 1s who watched were, of course, welcome. But this was a façade. The creators of the show—Steven Moffat, certainly one of the best TV writers in the world, and Mark Gatiss, who also plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft on the show—wrote the stories with the target percentages inverted in their minds.
By Season 2, this was becoming apparent, and by Season 3, it was obvious. With its in-jokes and references and innovative twists given to what Doyle had written, it was firmly and openly talking to the hundreds of thousands of deeply committed Holmes fans on the planet (the Types 3s), and adding a considerable number of people to that base, with its gripping new 21st-century storylines which maintained the original 19th-century Doyle ethos, and masterful—often, intellectually demanding—cinematic technique that one rarely sees in TV shows.
Sherlock became, intentionally and intently, a giant game for the extreme Holmes fans, teasing them to catch the winks and nudges about—and respectful bows to—the original Canon. It started from the very titles of the episodes. The Empty House became The Empty Hearse; His Last Bow became His Last Vow. The mystery of the giant rat of Sumatra, which Doyle only mentioned but never elaborated on, became the Sumatra Road station in the London Underground that was built but never used—a breathtakingly apt allegory.
All this, without ever losing sight of the fact that every episode needed to tell a damn good mystery story, which kept the Type 1s and Type 2s satisfied. However, by Season 3, some critics were alleging that the serial was concerned only with providing “fan service", happy in its own echo chamber.
(In extreme contrast, the American TV serial, Elementary, which began airing after Sherlock became a worldwide hit, caters only to the Types 1s, with Holmes as a recovering drug addict in New York, with a female Watson played by the seductive Lucy Liu.)
The Abominable Bride is aimed, openly and unashamedly, almost entirely at the Type 3s, the devoted Holmesians. This one is for the fans (and Inception lovers), who would enjoy it hugely, but it would be somewhat baffling, even unsatisfying for the less initiated. It is the puzzle of all puzzles till now in the Sherlock serial, both in form and content.
For me, a Type 2.3, the film was enthralling as long as it lasted, but in the end, satisfying only as an intellectual exercise—the filmmakers were perhaps trying to be too clever by, if not half, at least a quarter.
However, I have recorded the episode and will certainly rewatch and use the “rewind" button often. I like the puzzles, I like the Holmesian “game".
Why do I classify myself as a Type 2.3?
The book that I consider as the most precious I own is The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by the great American Holmesian scholar William S. Baring-Gould, originally published in 1967, containing all the 56 short stories and four novels featuring Holmes written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with thousands of annotations, dozens of essays and analytical pieces, photographs, maps, newspaper clippings and hundreds of illustrations that decorated the stories when they were originally published.
My father bought it for me when I was perhaps 12 years old. By then, I had read many of the stories and was exhibiting the first symptoms of an obsession. These two large and thick hardcover volumes, totalling about 1,500 pages, were almost too heavy for me to carry around at that time. But they are the only books that have stayed with me for four decades, through all my wanderings across cities, homes, jobs; all other books from my childhood and teenage have either been lost or gifted away or are at my parents’ home in Kolkata.
The first time I visited London, the first place I wanted to go to was not Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London or Trafalgar Square, but the Sherlock Holmes Museum, run by the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, at “221B Baker Street".
But I have spent a very negligible amount of time on the Sage of Baker Street, compared to the countless others—the Holmesian Societies in Japan alone are reported to have more than 80,000 members—who have spent their lives delighting in, and debating and discussing the stories. Which are known to them as the Canon or the Sacred Text. For them, Holmes (“The Master") and Dr. John H. Watson (“The Chronicler") were real living persons. The stories were all written by Watson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is referred to as “The Literary Agent".
They are a unique breed representing a unique brand of literary studies.
So, I am not Type 3.
Disclosure: Much of the information I have used in the rest of the piece comes from Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Nick Rennison’s Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography and Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes. Other sources used have been cited in the text.
What we today call Holmesiana started in jest—Holmesians have referred to their hobby for decades now as “the game"—but backed by meticulous research. The novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (read) began serializing in Strand Magazine in August 1901. On 23 January 1902, the Cambridge Review published “The Hound of the Baskervilles at Fault (An Open Letter to Dr. Watson)", written by a 23-year-old Cambridge student called Frank Sidgwick. He would later go on to found the renowned publishing firm of Sidgwick and Jackson, now a division of Pan Macmillan.
This is how the open letter began:
Dear Dr. Watson,
Before the appearance of the February number of the Strand Magazine, it is my desire to draw your attention to one or two points in your story, “The Hound of the Baskervilles", in which the world was rejoiced to welcome the reappearance of the late Sherlock Holmes. Whether you can escape all the charges of inconsistency which I shall bring against you, without straining the bonds of literary morality, is to me, and I hope to others, an important question.
From your first chapter the fundamental deduction can be made, that the year of your story is 1889. (“He left five years ago," says Sherlock, looking at Dr. Mortimer’s stick, engraved with the date 1884)…
Sidgwick then points out numerous date and time discrepancies in Watson’s account of events: that dates he mentions as Saturdays were not Saturdays in 1889, his Sundays were not Sundays; that when he says a “fortnight", by his own version, the period could not have been more than 10-12 days; he may even have got his months wrong.
Lastly, and worst of all, you cannot have been living with Sherlock in Baker Street at the date of the beginning of this story. In the “Sign of Four" you became engaged to Miss Morstan in September, 1888, and you were married “a few months later". How then in September, 1889, were you still a bachelor in Baker Street?
In later years, numerous Holmesians have studied the date problems, and have reached various conclusions based on their calculations. Some have dated the adventure as taking place in 1888; others as late as 1900, but there is no consensus, though the majority opinion is 1888, that is, before Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan.
However, Sidgwick’s essay did not cause much stir, since The Hound was the first Holmes story that Doyle had written in eight years, after he killed off Holmes in The Final Problem (The Hound describes events that took place before Holmes’ apparent death). Hundreds of thousands of people in the English-speaking world were lapping it up—the appearance of The Hound was arguably one of the biggest events in the history of popular literature, perhaps second only to the launch of the last volume of the Harry Potter series.
Then, in 1911, Oxford student Ronald Knox (later Reverend Monsignor Ronald Knox), who would himself gain lasting fame as a theologian and a whodunit writer, published his essay Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes (read), which really set the cat among the pigeons.
Pretending to be highbrow literary criticism with numerous spurious references (like the Backnecke theory of the Deutero-Watson, and M. Piff-Pouff quoting the example of Salmoxis and Gebeleizis), the essay subjected the Holmes stories to rigorous analysis. And it treated them as the reminiscences of Watson of real events, not as stories written by Conan Doyle.
Knox was also the first to point out some of the most glaring discrepancies. Why, in The Man with the Twisted Lip (read), did Mrs Watson call her husband “James" when his first name was John? Why was the Holmes character, after he returned from the dead—in the stories compiled as The Return of Sherlock Holmes—in many ways different from the Holmes Watson describes before the great detective fell down into the Reichenbach Falls, locked in mortal combat with his arch-enemy Moriarty? Knox cites numerous examples to prove this distinct shift in Holmes’ persona and behaviour.
How could Moriarty, in The Return, be called Professor James Moriarty, whereas Watson says earlier, in The Final Problem, that James was the name of his military brother, who survived him? Why were the structures of the stories—here, the audacious Knox invents a very authentic-sounding literary theory and attributes it to an imaginary German scholar Ratzegger—so different after Holmes returned?
In fact, in this one essay, written more than a century ago, Knox pins down most of the inconsistencies and discrepancies in the Canon that have Holmesians delighted, argumentative and busy even today. He had also laid down the basic rules of “the game". One, that Holmes and Watson were real people. Two, Watson’s accounts must be studied with both as much seriousness as, say, a War and Peace demands, and Holmes’ rigorous investigative techniques.
In his essay, without saying so explicitly, but piling up a mountain of evidence, a bit of it drawn from the stories and the rest an impressive number of references to wholly fictitious research papers, Knox arrives at a startling conclusion. That Watson was a spendthrift and a drunkard, who, after Holmes died at the Reichenbach Falls, invented all the subsequent exploits to make ends meet.
The essay was widely published and created a sensation. Most readers did not realize that it was a brilliant satire. It read like an academic paper based on diligent research (which it was, but in a different sense, because most of the contradictions that Knox pointed out were true). And how many would know that there was no German scholar called Ratzegger or a French one called M. Piff-Pouff?
Those who got the joke—and also loved the stories—would be the founders of that whimsical and probably the most fun branch of literary studies: Holmesiana.
Interestingly enough, Holmesiana began formally in the US, not England. In 1934, writer and editor Christopher Morley set up the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), “to perpetuate the myth that Sherlock Holmes was not a myth". BSI members met over drinks and had a Constitution with Buy-Laws (not By-Laws) that one should quote at some length:
(2) The current round shall be bought by any member who fails to identify, by title of story and context, any quotation from the Sacred Writings submitted by any other member.
Qualification A. If two or more members fail so to identify, a round shall be bought by each of those so failing.
Qualification B. If the submitter of the quotation, upon challenge, fails to identify it correctly, he shall buy the round.
(3) Special meetings may be called at any time or any place by any one of three members, two of whom shall constitute a quorum.
Qualification A. If said two are of opposite sexes, they shall use care in selecting the place of meeting, to avoid misinterpretation (or interpretation, either, for that matter)…
(4) All other business shall be left for the monthly meeting.
(5) There shall be no monthly meeting.
The BSI opened the floodgates. Holmes societies sprang up all over the US, officially designated as “Scion Societies", with whimsical yet reverential names borrowed from the Canon: The Five Orange Pips in Westchester County; The Speckled Band in Boston; The Hounds of the Baskerville (sic) in Chicago; the Greek Interpreters in East Lansing, Michigan; the Six Napoleons in Baltimore; the Illustrious Clients on Indianapolis, and many others. In 1967, Baring-Gould wrote: “Indeed, today, there is hardly a city of any size in the United States where a member of the BSI cannot find a Scion Society whose members share his interests in things Holmesian."
The London Sherlock Holmes Society (LSHS) was also set up in 1934, but went moribund, and was revived in 1951 with a vigour that has persisted till today and is more vibrant than ever. Though a non-profit organization, it seems commercially very savvy—and I do not in any way blame it for this. It’s a good cause. The last time I visited the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which attempts to recreate the living quarters of Holmes, the entry fee was £15 (around Rs1,500), and very few visitors would be able to leave without buying something—quite overpriced, but that doesn’t matter to a fan—from the Holmesian shop in the basement.
The movement has spread far and wide, from Japan (the Bartitsu Society, referring to the martial art that Holmes was supposed to have been an expert in) to Australia. Many of these societies publish journals featuring new analyses and interpretations of the Canon, including matters that would seem insane to people who haven’t, simply, got it.
The Holmesians have dated each and every story, using 19th-century and early 20th-century weather reports, and clues from the stories. These dates (and years) of the cases that Holmes solved are hotly debated among the initiates, all of whom have done their own research and present their own chronologies. There is no general consensus about many of the dates and years, except that Watson was wrong most of the time—he clearly had a faulty memory or, in some stories, was trying to be discreet, to shield well-known public figures.
But that is just for starters. Who, you may wonder, would want to recreate the lost manuscript of Holmes’ monograph of the difference between the ashes deposited by 140 varieties of tobacco? But there are such people and they live a richer life of the mind for its.
Something is not right
It is the enormous number of errors, discrepancies, inconsistencies and details which seem plain inexplicable that have provided rich and entertaining intellectual fodder to Holmesians for more than a century.
For instance, there is one fundamental mistake which Doyle made that persists through the Canon. Holmes repeatedly refers to his process of reasoning as “the science of deduction". But this is wrong. “Deduction" is reasoning from the general to the specific. For instance, “All dogs have a keen sense of smell. Juno is a dog. So Juno has a keen sense of smell."
“Induction" is reasoning from the specific to the general. In The Blue Carbuncle (read), when Holmes figures out from a cracked and dusty hat that the owner had been fairly well-to-do but had now fallen on bad times, had possibly taken to drink, which is why his wife had ceased to love him, he is inducing, not deducing. And this is the method he follows all along his career, and what the reader remembers him most for.
Here are some of the big questions that have kept the Holmesians occupied for decades.
Where was 221B Baker Street?
In 1881, when Holmes and Watson moved into the most famous address in the world, Baker Street was barely half a mile long, and the house numbers ended at 85. It was only in 1930, after York Place and Upper Baker Street had been merged with Baker Street, all the houses were renumbered, and for the first time, there was a 221 Baker Street—the last house now was 247.
However, that has hardly stopped dogged and intrepid Holmesians from going through every detail of which streets the Master and the Chronicler walked though to reach their home in various stories, getting hold of maps of 19th-century London and attempting to surmise where the house could have been. After all, so much of Watson’s accounts suffered from lapses of memory or was pure fabrication, so why couldn’t the address too be different from what he revealed?
Holmesians also went through old photographs of that period to spot a house that matched the description that Watson had left for posterity: that the house must have been south side of the street; that there was no streetlamp near it; that the house was at least three storeys high (Watson slept on the third storey); the second storey sitting room had two large windows, and so on. On the basis of all this research, various scholars have argued for various house numbers, from No. 31 to No. 67. There certainly is no agreement on this.
What, then, about the real 221B Baker Street that exists today?
In 1932, the Abbey National Building Society finished building its headquarters, Abbey House, on the plots numbered 219-229 Baker Street, and moved in (the houses on the left as you are walking down from the Baker Street tube station are odd-numbered, and the houses on the right, even.) The building society later renamed itself Abbey National Plc, and in 2004, was bought over by the Spanish Santander Group. In 2010, it was renamed Santander UK Plc.
From the day Abbey National moved in, it began to receive mail addressed to Sherlock Holmes from all over the world. The volume finally rose to such a level that the company had to hire a full-time secretary to answer the mail, designated “Secretary to Mr Sherlock Holmes". The company also stuck a bronze plaque with a picture of Holmes on the building exterior, and in 1999, financed the famous bronze statue of Holmes that stands at the entrance to the Baker Street tube station. Obviously, the company was proud of its coincidental association with Holmes.
In 1990, the LSHS established the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which is actually located at 239 Baker Street, and put up a plaque on the door proclaiming that the address was 221B Baker Street. In fact, it got the Westminster City Council to renumber the house as 221.
This caused much confusion and acrimony. Abbey National, which had been replying to letters addressed to Holmes for nearly six decades, wanted to continue to do so, since this obviously though intangibly added to the company’s brand appeal. The bureaucracy, as its wont, was quite clear that a house could not suddenly be numbered out of sequence—this was against the rules and there was no precedence. The Royal Mail kept on delivering the Holmes letters to Abbey National.
Finally, in 2002, 12 years after the museum had opened, Abbey National moved out of Baker Street, and the Royal Mail recognized the right of the museum to receive mail addressed to Holmes.
Incidentally, the creators of the American TV serial House M.D, modelled the character of their hero, Dr Gregory House, on Holmes—after all, House, too, is a detective, though a medical one. So, House’s home address is 221 Baker Street, Apartment B, Princeton, NJ, 08542.
When was Sherlock Holmes born?
As with everything else about Holmes, there has been much debate on this. The first mystery that Holmes solved was The Gloria Scott (read), when he was an university student. According to which Holmesian’s arguments you are swayed by, this was a year between 1872 and 1876. Baring-Gould opts for 1874.
But we do not know whether Holmes was a first-year man or a second-year man at that time. Indeed, we are never told at what age he entered university. It is very likely that he was a precocious child, so he would have gone to Oxford or Cambridge younger than the average 18-year-old entrant. However, it is equally likely that given his phlegmatic and non-normative nature, he would have taken a couple of years off after school. In fact, a huge debate has always raged among Holmesians about Holmes’ college/university education, whether he was a Cambridge man or an Oxford man, did he at all finish his formal education, and so on. But we shall leave that for another day.
Then we have Holmes referring to himself as a “middle-aged" man in The Boscombe Valley Mystery (1889, read). Eminent Holmesian A. Carter Simpson opined that 35 has been accepted as middle age by Christians for many centuries, since it is the halfway point of the Biblical “threescore years and ten". So, if the Master was 35 in 1889, he was born in 1854.
Typically, however, Holmesians have quibbled for scores of years on the matter of just a few years: 1853, 1854, 1855, 1856. Finally, in the 1960s, the BSI decided that the matter had been discussed enough and its members preferred 1854. This is also the year that Nick Rennison goes with in his Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography.
But when in 1854? Alert Holmesians have noticed that The Valley of Fear (read) begins on the morning of a 7 January, with the detective “leaning upon his hand, with his untasted breakfast before him". This could certainly signify a hangover, and since this is the only time in the Canon that the Master is indicated to be suffering from one, is it not obvious that he was celebrating his birthday the night before?
Also, while Holmes quotes Shakespeare in many of the stories, Twelfth Night is the only play he quotes from twice. Twelfth Night is 6 January. So, quite definitely, that was the day he was born. Elementary, my dear Watson.
(Interestingly, nowhere in the Canon does Holmes utter these words. He says both “Elementary" and “my dear Watson" a few times, but never “Elementary, my dear Watson." Just like Rick in Casablanca never says “Play it again, Sam." The phrase was, in fact, first used by P.G. Wodehouse, in Psmith Journalist (1915). Wodehouse was a great Holmes fan, and wrote the introduction to a 1970s edition of The Sign of the Four (read). Like Doyle, he was a keen cricketer, who made his debut at Lord’s on 29 June 1905 in a Authors vs Actors match, where he opened the innings with his team captain, Doyle.)
That was a digression. To come back to 6 January, of all this evidence was not clinching enough, we have astrological support too. British astrologer Joan Revill has written that in the early hours of 6 January 1854, Scorpio had just reached the ascendant, and Scorpio fits Holmes “like a glove… impassive features… relentless, courageous prober of mysteries, dabbler in poisons and chemicals". Case closed.
How many times did Watson marry?
So much has been written about this that Dorothy L. Sayers, enthusiastic Holmesian and creator of the detective Lord Peter Wimsey, once said: “There is a conspiracy afoot to provide Watson with as many wives as Henry VIII."
In The Sign of the Four, whose events, it is now agreed more or less, took place in 1888 or 1889, Watson woos and weds Mary Morstan. When Holmes returns from the dead in April 1894 (The Empty House, read), Watson spoke of his “sad bereavement". So, Mary was dead. But in The Blanched Soldier (January 1903, read), Holmes himself writes: “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife." So, obviously Watson married again. But who? No one is sure.
But there is also very strong evidence that Mary Morstan was not Watson’s first wife. For, in his retelling of several adventures that took place before The Sign of the Four, like The Man with the Twisted Lip and The Five Orange Pips, Watson refers to his wife or his marriage. Clearly she also passed away—or divorced Watson—before he met Mary. We do not know her identity either.
So, Watson married at least three times. Many scholars, though, believe that he married more than thrice, based on their interpretation of the dates of the events recounted by Watson. The highest number posited till now is six. After all, Holmes once told Watson: “The fair sex is your department." And in The Sign of the Four, the doctor himself boasts of his “experience of women extending over many nations and three continents". Clearly a ladies’ man.
And why did John Watson’s wife call him James?
This particular question has given rise to possibly more theories than any other in the world of Holmesiana. The facts are as follows:
The Man with the Twisted Lip begins with Watson at home one night with his wife (his first wife, as we now know, before he met Mary Morstan, the only spouse of his he deigned to name in the Canon). They are visited by a friend of Mrs Watson, obviously in great distress.
“It was very sweet of you to come," says Mrs Watson. “Now you must have some wine and water, and sit here comfortably and tell us all about it. Or should you rather that I sent James off to bed?"
Here are some of the theories—from the mundane to the fantastical—that have addressed this awful anomaly:
• It was a mere typographical error.
• Watson had terrible handwriting, and the typesetter mistook “John" for “James".
• Watson’s real name was actually “James", not “John", but he chose to write as John H. Watson for some unspecified reason.
• James was the Watsons’ pet dog. In The Study in Scarlet, at their first meeting, Watson informs Holmes that he has a bull pup. This creature is never again mentioned in the Canon, for reasons no one can fathom. But the bull pup appears in the Guy Ritchie film Sherlock Holmes (2009) as Gladstone!
• “James" was a playful reference to Watson being Holmes’ Boswell—James Boswell.
• Mrs Watson was an extremely forgetful person. In fact, Watson had tolerated this enough, but this slip was the last straw. It may have led to the separation of the Watsons.
• Watson never revealed what the “H" in John H. Watson stood for. A leading theory is that the initial stood for “Hamish", the Gaelic for “James". It was not uncommon for wives to call their husbands by their second names, just to make the relationship special, and why not “James", if Watson had Gaelic—Irish or Scottish—blood in him?
• There were two Watsons, John and James, and John died prematurely. Subsequently, James seized the opportunity and masqueraded as John.
• And the most alarming one: James was actually James Moriarty, who had killed John Watson, with his wife as accomplice, and fooled the world into believing that he was the real Watson. If this is true, of course, the entire edifice of the Canon crumbles.
However, if you are not a dyed-in-the-wool Holmesian, and do not believe that Doyle was merely “The Literary Agent", it would be wise to consider the fact that Doyle named Watson after his close friend James Watson. As such, a slip of the pen is quite understandable.
The literary agent’s disinterest
One could go on and on, for the Holmesiana literature is vast, and still growing, an universe that is astounding, and both funny and awe-inspiring. Christopher Morley, who set up the Baker Street Irregulars, once said: “Rarely has so much been written by so many for so few."
One could, for instance, talk about the cases that Watson mentions in passing but never chronicled: the Trepoff murder case that Holmes solved in Odessa; “clearing up of the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee"; “the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse, of the facts connected with the loss of the British barque Sophy Anderson, of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa, and… the Camberwell poisoning case". And many others. The unexplained mystery involving the giant rat of Sumatra has already been mentioned.
Most of these untold stories of the Canon have been fleshed out and published by dozens of authors, including Sir Arthur’s son Adrian Conan Doyle.
In fact, the TV show The Abominable Bride, which served as a trigger for this article, is a take-off from a throwaway reference to the case of “Ricoletti of the club foot and his abominable wife" (The Musgrave Ritual, read).
One could talk about what Holmesians call The Great Hiatus, the years when Holmes was supposed to be dead. In the Canon, Holmes tells Watson that he spent these years visiting Tibet (and “spending some days with the head Llama (sic)"), then Persia, “looked in at Mecca", “paid a short but interesting visit to the Khalifa at Khartoum", and so on.
Extensive historical research by Holmesians indicate that all these claims could hardly be true. Edgar W. Smith, one of the greatest of Holmes scholars (and also, one of the top bosses of General Motors in the days when “what was good for General Motors was good for America, and vice versa") described Holmes’ version of the Great Hiatus as “an itinerary that starts from the realm of the merely improbable and carries us swiftly to the never-never land of the globally impossible".
This has led many Holmesians to conclude that the Holmes who came back was not the same man at all. As mentioned earlier. Reverend Ronald Knox posited that Holmes died at the Reichenbach Falls, and a down-at-heel Watson made up the later stories. Others have gone further, arguing forcefully that it was Moriarty who survived the battle at Reichenbach, and not Holmes, and returned to England to impersonate his great adversary.
However, the point is: Why are there so many discrepancies and inconsistencies in the Canon? For that, one has to visit the Literary Agent.
In July 1882, the 23-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle set up his practice as an eye doctor, off Harley Street in London. Very few patients ever came in, and he had a lot of time on his hands. He began writing and managed to sell a few short stories. He even wrote two novels, one of which was lost in the post and never recovered. While the other was being passed on from one publisher to another, Doyle decided to try his hand at writing a detective story.
Holmes was not an overnight success. A Study in Scarlet (read) received many rejections, and even after getting published, sold little and went almost unnoticed by book reviewers.
But an American publisher read it and thought there was potential. He (or his representative, this detail is not very clear) met Doyle and Oscar Wilde for lunch at a London restaurant and commissioned each to write a short novel. That lunch remains a barely talked-about but quite incredible event in literary history. For it birthed The Sign of the Four and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
After the appearance of The Sign of the Four, Doyle was given a contract by the monthly Strand Magazine to write 12 Holmes stories. With the publication of the first story, A Scandal in Bohemia (read), in the words of Baring-Gould, “Holmes at last did blaze into popularity". After six months, Doyle renegotiated his terms to double his fees, and was soon making several times more money out of Holmes than from his medical practice.
But his heart was elsewhere. He was also writing historical novels, which he believed had far greater literary value than the Holmes stories. But neither reviewers nor readers agreed. This frustrated Doyle, who could churn out Holmes stories at an incredible rate (surpassed only by Agatha Christie in the next century with her Hercule Poirot short stories, dozens of which she produced without any break in the 1920s for the weekly magazine The Sketch.). Even though Doyle needed to send in only one story per month to Strand, he wrote five in April 1891 and dispatched them.
Quite clearly, Doyle did not invest much thought and effort on the Holmes stories, which he saw only as a means to making some money. He laboured much harder on his historical novels, but sadly, The White Company, Micah Clarke and Sir Nigel are almost forgotten today, while Swahili readers read and enjoy Mbawa wa Familia ya Baskerville, Slovaks Pes Baskervillesky, and visually challenged people across the planet can experience all the thrills of Holmes’ exploits in Braille.
(A short, and perhaps blasphemous, digression here. If Doyle wrote anything historical that come close to his Holmes stories, and—in my humble opinion—possibly surpass them, it is the series featuring Brigadier Gerard, a soldier in the Napoleonic Army. They are gripping adventures that are also hilarious and use literary devices more complex than the Holmes tales.)
The remarkable disdain Doyle felt for Holmes shows in the speed with which he dashed the stories off, and certainly accounts for the inconsistencies. One, Doyle did not care for Holmes (he was writing them only for the money, which was something he hated; he wanted to be known as a creator of “high" literature). Two, he once explained: “In short stories it has always seemed to me that so long as you produce your dramatic effect, accuracy of details matters little. I have never striven for it and have made some bad mistakes in consequence. What matter if I hold my readers?"
When his 12-month contract with Strand came to an end, the magazine implored him to continue for one more year. In response, Doyle asked for a sum of money that was outrageous at that time: £1,000 (He never earned more than £300 a year from examining ophthalmic patients). He wrote to his mother: “I sincerely hope that (Strand) won’t accept (my demand)."
But Strand did, and Doyle morosely began on the next set of stories. And decided that the only escape was to kill off this monster he had created who was thwarting his literary ambitions. In late April 1892, he began writing The Final Problem, “with a happy sigh of relief".
A few days later, he wrote two laconic words in his diary: “Killed Holmes."
The public consternation and outrage that ensued astonished Doyle. Thousands of letters poured in, including a postcard from an elderly lady, which simply read: “You brute!"
Yet, Doyle stood firm. He would not relent. It took eight years for him to succumb and write The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the novel related events that had taken place before Holmes’ Reichenbach death—it was a reminiscence, not a resurrection.
However, the phenomenal success of The Hound began to weaken Doyle’s resolve. He finally surrendered in October 1903, when he published The Empty House, which brought Holmes back to life. He had been offered $5,000 per story for the American rights alone for a series of 13 Holmes pieces—this was a world record at that time.
But the reborn Holmes was never the same, as has been mentioned by most Holmesians, leading to dark theories mentioned in this article. The stories that were later anthologized as The Return of Sherlock Holmes, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and His Last Bow, are vaguely unsatisfying, compared to the stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. There is almost nothing that is within comparable distance from stories like The Speckled Band or The Red-Headed League (read) or A Case of Identity (read), which actually made an important contribution to real criminal investigative processes, by diagnosing that some typewriters are as distinctive as fingerprints.
It is also noteworthy that though Ronald Knox pointed out the John/James conundrum in 1911 (and Knox wrote to Doyle about it), Doyle did not bother to correct his mistake, even though he lived till 1930—in those 19 years, countless new editions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes would have been published in scores of languages.
The creator never loved his creation. Yet, this son, treated as at best an unwanted child, and at worst, a child the father would have liked to disown and get rid of (which Doyle tried), is about the only reason the father is still remembered across the planet by millions of people and held in high esteem.
The father tried to kill the son. The son has kept his father alive.
The strange case of Sherlock Holmes
Why has Sherlock Holmes and his small world been subjected to more study and analysis than any other literary character, including Hamlet? Of course, the studies on Holmes have not been printed in “academic" journals, like the ones on Hamlet have been, but most of them have certainly been peer-reviewed and argued over; essential conditions for academic publication.
This demands a simple question: What is it about Sherlock Holmes that makes him so special and that makes us love him so much? To the extent that men and women possessing very high intelligence have chosen him as their primary recreational focus, but a recreation that demands serious intellectual involvement and physically demanding, time-consuming, rigorous research in a make-believe world?
What is it about Sherlock?
Of course, he was a man who was, in Edgar Smith’s words, “Galahad and Socrates, bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our biased minds. He is the success of our failures, the bold escape from our imprisonment." But this may not be the full explanation.
After all, “the success of our failures, the bold escape from our imprisonment" could apply also to a huge number of fictional characters, from Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men to all Marvel Comics superheroes. A combination of “Galahad and Socrates" could well be an apt description of a lot of fictional detectives.
Then there is the argument about the atmosphere—a foggy gas-lit London, etc, but one can be certain that most non-British Holmes lovers would not have paid too much attention to that. Besides, Doyle was not the only writer in his time who was writing detective stories set in late 19th-century London. These other authors are all forgotten today.
But what we have in Holmes is all this and more. He is as three-dimensional a character as any created in world fiction—yes, a giant brain, but also moody, arrogant, irascible, painfully chivalrous yet utterly disinterested in the sexuality of women. He admires Irene Adler for her intelligence and her chutzpah, but cannot dream of a sexual alliance with her. He is extremely methodical when on the job, but also whimsical and absent-minded—he often forgets to eat.
He has no curiosity about either the universe or matters of state, but is patriotic enough to use his revolver to shoot the initials VR, standing for Victoria Regina, into the wall of his sitting room. He has a very high opinion of himself, yet he refuses a knighthood. He is frequently disparaging of Watson’s intelligence, but is as staunch a friend as one can hope for. He is a man among men, possessing great physical courage, yet in many ways, he is a child.
He is, quite simply, one of the most fascinating characters in world literature. He has enough depth to be portrayed as a “high-functioning sociopath" in Sherlock, and as a street-fighting weirdo in Guy Ritchie’s films, and get both versions accepted enthusiastically by audiences.
This is my explanation (and you are welcome to damn me for this). My two cents—Rs1.33 at 11.15pm on 12 January 2016.
Holmes was created carelessly by a failed medical practitioner who had no high ambitions for him. But if ever there was a case of the creation overshadowing the creator, this was—is—it.
The 1984 TV series Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett was faithful to Doyle’s stories, almost painstakingly so, and it was delightful. Brett’s face absolutely matched the visual image we all had of Holmes. This face, incidentally, we owe to the illustrator Sidney Paget (Doyle himself thought that Paget could have made him a bit uglier). Paget, also, at one point of time, bestowed the deerstalker hat on Holmes, which Doyle (or Watson) never mentioned, but which has become the Holmes icon.
The Holmesians loved the 1984 series. It was the Canon.
Ritchie’s films starring Robert Downey Jr. was a completely different take, with Holmes as a man of action, quick with his fists and guns, completely unemotional on the surface but unnaturally possessive—he hates it when Watson falls in love and is plainly jealous of Mary Morstan.
Elementary is no different from any other American mystery serial, except that the producers wanted to cash in on the Sherlock Holmes name, and added the gimmick of turning John Watson into Joan Watson.
Back to Sherlock, from where we began. The 1984 Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock are possibly the best screen interpretations of Doyle’s stories, though utterly different from each other—this is further evidence of the vast scope that all great literature offers. For, both closely follow the Canon. But one is the Canon, while the other builds on it, with original stories, but retaining all the essential elements of the Canon and frequently paying homage to it—sometimes playfully. It also adds an additional and very engaging subtext about Sherlock’s complex relationship with his elder brother Mycroft.
We have no reason to believe that Sherlock will remain the most imaginative interpretation of what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. More innovative screenwriters than Moffatt and Gatiss may appear one day with an even bolder vision.
But what we know for sure is that millions will still watch every Holmes film or TV show, and thousands of Holmesians will carry on their labour of love, figuring out whether Watson was hit in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet or on the leg during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (another of the Canon’s discrepancies). Or was he hit somewhere else in between, which accounts for the fact that there is no mention of Watson having ever fathered a child, even though he apparently married at least thrice?
To twist one of the most well-known lines uttered by Sherlock Holmes, the game will always be afoot.
Sandipan Deb is the editorial director of swarajyamag.com
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