"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
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
"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
"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
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