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Murder for Pleasure - Chapter 3

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"Excellent!" I cried.
"Elementary," said he
Arthur Conan Doyle "The Crooked Man"

PICTURE a winter's morning in Edinburgh sixty years ago. It is dark and bitterly cold. The crowded lecture theater of the Royal Infirmary is lit murkily by flickering oil lamps. There is a pungent odor of chemicals in the chill air.
Through the thick gloom rasps the crisp, nasal voice of the lecturer on the rostrum. He is Joseph Bell, consulting surgeon of the Infirmary and idol of the students, though they fear his caustic tongue. His powers of observation and analysis are the wonder of pupils and fellow-medicos alike. In five minutes' time, it is said, he can deduce the occupation and past history of any person brought before him.
Beside him this morning stands a clinic patient, whose case is to be diagnosed. Bell calls one of the students to the platform.
"What is the matter with this man, sir?" he barks at the trembling undergraduate. "No! You mustn't touch him. Use your eyes, sir! Use your ears, your brain, your bump of perception, your powers of deduction."
The unhappy tyro makes a wild guess. "H-hip-joint disease, sir," he stammers weakly.
"Hip-nothing!" Bell snorts. "The man's limp is not from his hip, but from his feet. Were you to observe closely you would see that there are slits, cut by a knife, in those parts of the shoes where the pressure is greatest against the foot. The man is a sufferer from corns and has no hip trouble at all.
"But he has not come here to be treated for corns, gentlemen," Bell continues. "His trouble is of a much more serious nature. This is a case of chronic alcoholism. The rubicund nose, the puffed, bloated face, the bloodshot eyes, the tremulous bands and twitching face muscles, the quick, pulsating arteries—all show this.
"My diagnosis/' he concludes dryly, "is confirmed by the neck of a whisky bottle protruding from the patient's right-hand coat pocket.
"Never, gentlemen, neglect to ratify your deductions-".
Verily, the words are the words of Dr. Bell. But the voice, gentlemen, is that of SHERLOCK HOLMES.
 

Arthur Conan Doyle—known throughout the civilized world as the creator of SHERLOCK HOLMES—was born in Edinburgh on May 22, 1859, of mixed Anglo-Irish blood. His family traced its descent on both sides from distinguished ancestry, but in circumstances it was anything but affluent. Nevertheless, the boy received a good education, though not without great struggle and sacrifice: first in a series of Jesuit schools in Great Britain and on the Continent (he was born a Catholic but left the faith later in life) and later at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh, where he came under Joseph Bell's influence. The keen intellect of the older man quickly recognized kindred qualities in the younger, and a helpful appointment of Doyle as Bell's out-patient clerk followed. Despite this assistance, Doyle was forced from time to time to leave classes behind for a term to work as helper to some parish sawbones for the funds to continue his studies. But the bulldog determination which characterized his whole life enabled him to finish his medical course only slightly behind his regular class.
His love of literature, too, manifested itself at an early age. Even in the days when every shilling looked as big as a pound, the thin coppers intended for his daily lunch often found their way to the two-penny book-stalls in the Grassmarket in exchange for tattered editions of Tacitus, Homer, Swift, Addison—and Poe and Gaboriau.
The story of Doyle's almost accidental creation of SHERLOCK HOLMES has been told so frequently and so well that a brief recounting here will suffice.
In 1882 the young practitioner hung out his red lamp in Southsea, a suburb of the southern seacoast city of Portsmouth, and in 1885 he married. He had chosen the South-sea location with high expectations. An anecdote told many years later in his autobiography reveals what he actually found. After he had been in practice some time he received a letter from the tax authorities informing him that his income report for the previous year had been found "most unsatisfactory." The debt-ridden young doctor with a sick wife scrawled two bitter words across the face of the communication and posted it back. The words were: "I agree."
But the faulty judgment that took Doyle to Portsmouth ranks high in the list of literature's disguised blessings. Not many months at Bush Villa, Southsea, were needed to tell the mustached, pugnacious, young physician the nature of his plight. With virtually unlimited time to sit, puff his cheap shag, and ponder in his waiting-room, barren of furnishings and patients alike, he had begun to send out short stories to the cheaper magazines. A modest success in this direction only served to show that his time was wasted—that if any really substantial return were to be expected from his pen, only a full-length book could be the answer. Accordingly one was written and went forth to the wars, until the day arrived when its tattered sheets had been rejected by every possible publisher. Perhaps the ultimate rebuff came by the same post as the tart complaint from the tax office.
At any rate, Doyle was on the verge of despair and surrender when, by some providential trick of the brain, "Joe Bell's eagle-beak came before his mind's eye, and the Great Idea took glimmering shape. Feverishly he began to write, and a few weeks later A Study in Scarlet, with a hero surnamed for an admired American poet, and a foil and narrator to be immortally known as Watson, took its turn in the mails. For many weary months it seemed destined for the same fate as the earlier manuscript. (It was not, in all truthfulness, a very good story.) At length came an offer. Twenty-five pounds "outright" —less by far than the price of a single copy in the auction rooms to-day. Discouraged and disgusted, the author accepted Ward, Lock and Company's terms and resigned himself to waiting a full year to see his offspring in print.
Even when Beeton's Christmas Annual provided one of the most incredible first editions in history, in December, 1887, the battle was far from won. Unlike Byron, the Southsea physician failed to awake to find himself famous. The event, in fact, went to all outward appearances unnoticed; and Doyle in his chagrin had determined never to think of HOLMES again, and probably would not have done so but for an unforeseen piece of fortune. On a day in 1889, almost two years after the Beeton fiasco, Doyle was summoned to meet a representative of the American magazine, Lippincott's, whose editor had admired A Study in Scarlet sufficiently to make a substantial offer for another HOLMES story. (Thus the world's most renowned detective owes not only his name but his very perpetuation to America—a fact which his grateful creator never forgot.) Encouraged by a substantial advance payment, Doyle worked with much greater care, and in due course The Sign of the Four—oh, magical words! — made its bow in Lippincott's for 'February, 1890, was published in London later in the year, and scored an immediate popular success on both sides of the water. Fame had knocked at last. Doyle's poverty had made the world immeasurably richer.
The saga begun in 1887 was to continue for a round forty years, though Doyle made numerous and varied attempts to bring it to an earlier end. The narrative of

Chapter 3 Page 2

 

Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942     Layout © R.D. Collins
Howard Haycraft

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