The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: A Gaudy Death (Doyle on Holmes)

The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: A Gaudy Death (Doyle on Holmes)

This essay precedes the two prior ones in our series, having appeared in Tit-Bits in December of 1900. The aptly named Tit-Bits was a potpourri of ‘stuff’ which was published by George Newnes, who also owned The Strand.

Wanting to make a big to-do about their thousandth issue, Newnes used his unique position to secure an ‘interview’ essay written by the publicity-shy Doyle. Holmes had gone over The Reichenbach Falls and Doyle was resisting pressure to bring him back.

To interview Dr Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, is not an easy matter. Dr. Doyle has a strong objection to the interview, even though he has no personal antipathy to the interviewer. Considerations, however, of his long and friendly relationship with the firm of George Newnes Ltd, in the pages of whose popular and universally read Strand Magazine Sherlock Holmes lived, and had his being, overcame Dr. Doyle’s reluctance to be interviewed, and he consented to give the following particulars, which will be read with interest by his admirers all over the world.

It’s Elementary – Man, that is one serious run-on sentence above!

“Before I tell you of Sherlock Holmes’ death and how it came about, it will probably be interesting to recall the circumstances of his birth.”

So does Arthur Conan Doyle open this essay, seven years after readers had been shocked by “The Final Problem.” He reminds the reader it began with A Study in Scarlet, with Holmes suggested from “a professor under whom I had worked at Edinburgh, and in part by Edgar Allen Poe’s detective, which, after all, ran on the lines of all other detectives who have appeared in literature.”

It’s Elementary – It’s interesting to me that Doyle does not name Dr. Joseph Bell here, though that’s clearly who he is referencing. He cites Poe’s Dupin as an influence. That was mentioned in the first essay, The Truth About Sherlock Holmes. And that’s a main item in next weeks’ post, The Case of the Inferior Sleuth.

Doyle explains there are limitations in “the drawing of a detective,” and that:

“…every detective must really resemble every other detective to a greater or less extent. There is no great originality required in devising or construction such a man, and the only originality required in devising or constructing such a man, and the only possible originality which on can get into a story about a detective is in giving him original pots and problems to solve, as in his equipment there must be of necessity an alert acuteness of mind to grasp facts and the relation which each of them bears to the other.”

Doyle goes on in further detail, his thought process similar to that which he recounted years later in The Truth Behind Sherlock Holmes.

“At the time I first thought of a detective – it was about 1886 – I had been reading some detective stories, and it struck me what nonsense they were, to put it mildly, because for getting the solution of the mystery the authors always depended on some coincidence. This struck me as not a fair way of playing the game, because the detective ought really to depend for his success on something in his own mind and not merely adventitious circumstances, which do not, by any means, always occur in real life.

I was seedy at the time, and not working much, had leisure to read, so I read half-a-dozen or so detective stories, both in French and English, and they one and all filled me with dissatisfaction and a sort of feeling how much more interesting they might be made if one could show that the man deserved his victory over the criminal or the mystery he was called upon to solve.”

It’s Elementary – I talked about the situation that led Doyle to set up his own practice in Southsea in this essay. While there, Doyle got married, played rugby, then soccer, and wrote pre-Holmes. What he did not do much was doctoring. To say his practice was ‘slow’ is like saying that Nero Wolfe was a little chubby.

“Then I began to think, suppose my old professor at Edinburgh were in the place of one of these lucky detectives, he would have worked out the process of effect from cause just as logically as he would have diagnosed a disease, instead of having something given to him by mere luck, which, as I said just now, does not happen in real life.”

It’s Elementary – Here we have a clear statement from Doyle himself, in 1900, about Bell’s direct influence in the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

“For fun, therefore, I started constructing a story and giving my detective a scientific system, so as to make him reason everything out. Intellectually that had been done before by Edgar Allen Poe with M. Dupin, but where Holmes differed from Dupin was that he had an immense fund of exact knowledge to draw upon in consequence of his previous scientific education. I mean by this, that by looking at a man’s hand he knew what the man’s trade was, as by looking at his trousers leg he could deduce the character of the man. He was practical as he was systematic, and his success in the detection of crime was to be the fruit, not of luck, but of his qualities.”

Doyle recounted a story (not here) of Bell making those types of deductions during one of his classes. It was very much what Doyle would do with Holmes.

Next he recounts that he created Holmes and wrote A Study in Scarlet, followed by The Sign of Four. Neither had much impact. Then, mystery history would be made:

“About this time I began thinking about short stories for magazines. It occurred to me that a serial story in a magazine was a mistake, for those who had not begun the story at the beginning would naturally be debarred from buying a periodical in which a large number of pages were, of necessity, taken up with a story in which they had no particular interest.”

It’s Elementary – That is a very interesting market analysis by Doyle. Black Mask encouraged serials. The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Fast One, are classic hardboiled novels. They were all serials across multiple issues. Doyle – years before – took a different approach.

“It occurred to me, then, that if one could write as serial without appearing to do so – a serial, I mean, in which each installment was capable of being read as a single story, while each retained a connecting link with the one before and the one that was to come by means of its leading characters – one would get a cumulative interest which the serial pure and simple could not obtain. In this respect, I was a revolutionist, and I think I may fairly lay claim to the credit of being the inaugurator of a system which has been reworked by others with no little success.”

If you get various ‘Learn how to write’ books, they often include advice regarding what you should write. Some variation of “Study the markets” is usually discussed. I find it interesting that Doyle studied the market and rather than write for a potentially lucrative one, he literally created his own sub-market. To an enduring success still huge today. I respect and admire that.

“It was about this time that The Strand Magazine was started, and I asked myself, ‘Why not put my idea in execution and write as series of stories with Sherlock Holmes?’ whose mental processes, were familiar to me.”

That has to be one of the most significant questions – as answered – in fiction history.

“I was then in practice in Wimpole Steet as a specialist, and, while waiting for my patients to come, I began writing to fill up my waiting hours. In this way I wrote three stories, which were afterwards published as part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I sent them to The Strand Magazine. The editor liked them, seemed ken on them, and asked for more. The more he asked for, the more I turned out, until I had a dozen. That dozen constituted the volume which was afterwards published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

While there had been the two prior novels, Holmes was essentially a ‘new’ creation to almost everyone, as the short stories were being published. H. Greenhough Smith took all three and clamored for more. It’s interesting to contrast that with another Conan: Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian (the ‘Barbarian’ appellation came much later).

Howard was a prolific pulpster in the thirties, writing for multiple markets. He repurposed an unsold Kull (also a barbarian) story, added a dash of the supernatural, and turned it into the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright bought it, and thus was born the most iconic character in sword and sorcery fiction. But Wright rejected two other stories. So whereas Holmes went three-for-three with a request for more, Conan was one-for-three. We’re fortunate that Howard didn’t simply give up and turn to other things.

“That dozen stories being finished, I determined they should be the end of all Sherlock’s doings. I was, however, approached to do some more. My instincts were against this, as 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 with this sort of stuff. Besides, I had other subject in my mind. The popularity of Sherlock Holmes, however, and the success of the new stories with the common thread running through them brought a good deal of pressure on me, and at last, under that pressure, I consented to continue with Sherlock, and did twelve more stories, which I called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.”

It’s Elementary – As he was moving towards the end of writing those first dozen stories, Doyle told his mother in a letter, “I think of slaying Holmes in the last and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”

She replied with, “You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!” So he wrote “The Adventure of The Copper Beeches,” based on a plot she proposed. The Ma’am (what Doyle always called his mother) had saved Sherlock Holmes.

“By the time I had finished those I was absolutely determined it would be bad policy to do any more Holmes stories. I was still a young man and a young novelist, and I have always noticed that the ruin of every novelist who has come up has been affected by driving him into a groove. The public gets what it likes, and, insisting on getting it, makes him go on until he loses his freshness. Then the public turns round and says: ‘He has only one idea, and can only write one sort of story.’

The result is that the man is ruined; for by that time, he has probably himself lost the power of adapting himself to fresh conditions of work. Now, why should a man be driven into a groove and not write about what interests him? When I was interested in Holmes I wrote about Holmes, and it amused me making him get involved in new conundrums; but when I had written twenty-six stories, each involving the making of a fresh plot, I felt that it was becoming irksome this searching for plots – and if it was getting irksome for me, most certainly, I argued, it must be losing its freshness for others.”

I can see Doyle’s point here. I’ve had about a half-dozen Holmes stories published, and plotting is definitely my weak point. Doyle’s stories were being read by thousands, and he certainly had pressure to keep coming up with innovative cases for Holmes to solve.

It’s Elementary – “The Adventure of The Red Headed League,” and ‘The Adventure of The Three Garridebs,’ are basically the same story. I like both quite a bit, which shows that Doyle was writing quality stuff, even when revisiting familiar ideas. “The Adventure of the Stock Broker’s Clerk” even bears more than a passing similarity.

I also don’t begrudge him wanting to write other things. As his bibliography shows, he had wide-ranging interests.

It’s Elementary – It’s interesting to note that Basil Rathbone had a similar attitude towards ‘being stuck.’ Feeling he was typecast as Holmes, he made his last film as the great detective, in 1946. Now, I quite like him in 1955’s We’re No Angels, with Humphrey Bogart. But there’s no denying that his career declined after he quit Holmes.

It’s More Elementary – Re-watching We’re No Angels, I think that at that time, Peter Ustinov would have made a good Watson. Pairing he and Rathbone up for even one movie would have been neat.

“I knew I had done better work in other fields of literature, and in my opinion, The White Company, for example, was worth a hundred Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet, just because the Sherlock Holmes stories were, for the moment, more popular, I was becoming more and more known as the author Sherlock Holmes instead of as the author of The White Company. My lower work was obscuring my higher.”

THIS is what has long irked me about Doyle. I get he wanted to be taken more seriously as an author of literature. His ego apparently desired that. Whatever. I have friends who like The White Company, and its sequel, Sir Nigel. I’ve read each once. I’ve read worse. I have zero interest in revisiting either one, ever again. The White Company is NOT worth one hundred Holmes stories. I might trade the five worst ones for it, but I’d have to give it some thought. The ‘lower work’ (Holmes) obscuring the ‘higher work:’ That’s the same elite, snobbish garbage, that hardboiled Pulp, and sword and sorcery, were subjected to.

“I therefore determined to stop my Holmes stories and as my mind was fully made up I couldn’t see any better way than b y bringing Holmes to an end as well as the stories.”

He recounts that he was in Switzerland to give a lecture and came up on a waterfall while on a walking tour of the country:

“I thought if a man wanted to meet a gaudy kind of death, that was a fine romantic place for the purpose. That started a train of ideas by which Holmes just reached that spot and met his death there.”

Clearly, Doyle was scheming ways to kill Holmes. To be out in beautiful country, come upon an amazing waterfall, and thinking, ‘This would be a great place to get rid of my most popular creation,’ is rather telling.

“That is really how I came to kill Holmes. But when I did it I was surprised at the amount of interest people took in his fate. I never thought they would take is so to heart. I got letters from all over the world reproaching me on the subject. One, I remember, from a  lady whom I did not know, began ‘you beast.’

From that day to this I have never for an instant regretted the course I took in killing Sherlock. That does not say, however, that because he is dead I should not write about him again if I wanted to, for there is no limit the number of papers he left behind or the reminiscences in the brain of his biographer.”

This was a smart move on Doyle’s part, to not have the body found. Agatha Christie so definitively killed off Hercule Poirot in Curtain that it wasn’t published for thirty years, as the stories kept coming.

“My objection to detective stories is that they only call for the use of a certain portion of one’s imaginative faculty, the invention of a plot, without giving any scope for character drawing.

The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now, nobody can possibly be better – in the high sense in which I mean it – for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so.”

Again: this is exactly the attitude critics and high-brow people used in dismissing pulp fiction in the twenties and thirties.Some folks today look down on fantasy fiction the same way. I hold Terry Pratchett to be one of the great satirists of our time, even though he wrote fantasy.

“It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work ever can be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader.”

I’d like to have seen a discussion between Doyle and Raymond Chandler, on this very topic.

“For this reason at the outset of my career it would have been bad to devote too much attention to Sherlock Holmes. If I had continued with him I should have by this time worn him out, and also the patience of the public, and I should have not written Rodney Stone, Brigadier Gerard, The Stark Munro Letters, The Refugees, and all the other books which treat of life from many different standpoints, some of which represent my own views, which Sherlock Holmes never did.”

In and of itself, that’s fine. He should write what he wants to write. And ideally, that will sell, since it pays the bills. But the ongoing ‘This is my good stuff. Way better than that low-class Holmes stuff everybody liked’ is wearying. And it’s inaccurate.

“The is one fact in connection with Holmes which will probably interest those who have followed his career from the beginning, and to which, so far as I am aware, has never been drawn. In dealing with criminal subjects one’s natural endeavor is to keep the crime in the background. In nearly half the number of Sherlock Holmes stories, however, in a strictly legal sense no crime was actually committed at all.

One heard a good deal about crime and the criminal, but the reader was completely bluffed. Of course, I could not bluff him always, so sometimes I had to give him a crime, and occasionally I had to make it a downright bad one.

My own view of Sherlock Holmes – I mean the mas I saw him in my imagination – was quite different from which Mr. Paget pictured in The Strand Magazine. I however, am eminently pleased with is work, and quite understand the aspect which he gave to the character, and am even now prepared to accept him now as Mr. Paget drew him. In my own mind, however, he was a more beak-nosed, hawk-faced man, approaching more to the Red Indian type, than the artist represented him, but as I have said, Mr. Paget’s pictures please me very much.”

It’s Elementary – Paget’s daughter wrote a relatively short essay about her father and Holmes. I may do a similar type of post on that one.

Swing on my next week for another Doyle on Holmes post.


Some Truths About Sherlock Holmes
Some Personalia About Sherlock Holmes

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Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE DEFINITIVE guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.

He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.


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