those years has been so brilliantly chronicled by Vincent Starrett and
other devoted worshipers at the shrine that it would be sheer effrontery
to repeat more than the outline here.
The success of The Sign of the Four brought the editor of the young Strand Magazine camping on Doyle's doorstep with an assignment for a dozen HOLMES short stories. They began in July, 1891. A second twelve tales followed in the same publication some two years later. In America, the first series appeared simultaneously in a large number of daily newspapers (no small item in HOLMES' early and wide American renown) through the agency of the newly organized McClure's Syndicate; the second series in Harper's Weekly. The initial twelve tales were collected between covers as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in England and America in 1892; and eleven of the second twelve (the recalcitrant disciple is preserved in His Last Bow) as The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1894. If any reader be prepared to name two other books that have given more innocent but solid pleasure, let him speak now—or hold his peace!
At the end of the second series Doyle made his most determined attempt to rid himself of his sleuth. Even to-day one shudders at the enormity of the deed. He killed HOLMES 1 The outcry was instant, sincere, and voluminous. (A letter from the distaff side began, "You Beast!") In his own mind Doyle began to wonder if there might not have been an error in his information. The first sign of weakening was the appearance, in 1902, of the full-length HOLMES novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson, to be sure, explained carefully that the events antedated the affair of the Reichenbach by some years and that the work was by way of being a posthumous memoir. But the seed of doubt was planted.
The momentous tidings of the colossal mistake came first to the readers of the Strand for October, 1903. (It is no apocryphal exaggeration, but a matter of sober publishing record, that queues formed at the London stationers' on publication date.) "The Adventure of the Empty House," the episode chosen to bring the exciting news to the world, was the first of a new series of thirteen tales about the resurrected investigator. In America they appeared in Collier's Weekly, with the famous Frederic Dorr Steele illustrations. The collected book version, entitled—inevitably—The Return of Sherlock Holmes, was purchasable on both sides of the Atlantic in 1905.
The reading public was properly grateful and would not for any known worlds have had matters otherwise. And yet—the reception of the new tales was not entirely unmixed. Doyle enjoyed relating a homely incident that expressed the state of the popular mind neatly. "I think, sir," he quoted a Cornish boatman as saying to him, "when HOLMES fell over that cliff he may not have killed himself, but he was never quite the same man afterwards." Thus did opinion that deplored the slackening in the quality of the stories at the same time demand their continuance.
In response to this demand, Doyle, with evident and proper reluctance, produced three more HOLMES books: The Valley of Fear (1915), His Last Bow (1917), and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (192?)- The first of these was a full-length novel, and one which it is to be feared posterity will pronounce sadly inferior to anything else in the saga; the last two were the familiar groupings
of short stories that had previously appeared in a number of English and American journals over a period of years.
As the Adventures were somewhat fresher and more original than the Memoirs, so were the Memoirs better than the Return, and the tales in the Return to be preferred to the books that followed. No one knew better than Doyle that each new series and volume marked a perceptible retrogression in his and HOLMES' powers—yet in the face of popular clamor he was helpless. One exception may be made to this chronological diminution: The Hound of the Baskervilles, which, despite the date of its publication, is definitely Early HOLMES in both conception and execution. One can not quarrel, in fact, with those idealists who maintain that Doyle's knighthood in the same year must have been a grateful government's recognition of this masterpiece, rather than the author's Boer War services which were publicly assigned.
The remainder of Sir Arthur's life was largely pleasant and mildly eventful. The Baker Street saga was translated into virtually every known written language and brought prosperity in its wake. Doyle wrote and traveled much. Of his other works, many of them notable in their own right, Micah Clarke and The White Company may be mentioned particularly as two of the best historical novels in English. But everywhere he went he was associated with HOLMES, a good deal to his annoyance, and he was constantly expected to solve every sort of great and small puzzle and problem. Controverting the popular belief that fiction and fact are widely separated, he took a successful part in two major causes celebres, the Slater and Edalji affairs. His brilliant analysis of the evidence in each case aided materially in preventing grave injustice It is interesting to note that on several occasions in later years Joseph Bell suggested plots to Doyle for HOLMES stories, but the author was forced to confess his old teacher's ideas "not very practical."
As more than one writer has pointed out, Bell may have been the model from whom HOLMES was drawn, but the real detective was Doyle himself. In appearance, with his beefy British frame and walrus mustache, he was much closer to Watson than HOLMES. Ruggedness was his predominant characteristic. He had the Englishman's traditional fondness for sports of all kinds and an equally typical partisanship for the underdog. He was an unusual combination of the militant and the gentle, a dauntless fighter in any cause he believed to be right, and an adversary to be feared; but in his heart, said his friends, there was no room for malice. The great sorrow of his life was the death of his son Kingsley in the First World War. The tragedy intensified an earlier interest in spiritualism, and both he and Lady Doyle (who lived until 1940) became ardent converts. Ignoring denunciation and ridicule, he spent the last years of his life in travel to all parts of the world lecturing on the subject. Of the passionate sincerity of his convictions there could be no doubt.
Arthur Conan Doyle's life ended, after seventy-one active and fruitful years, at his home at Crowborough, Sussex, July 7, 1930.
The role of
Doyle and HOLMES in resuscitating and rejuvenating the Poe-Gaboriau
formula was enormous and far-reaching. It is something of a paradox,
therefore—but one which can not be ignored—that by modern standards the
tales must often be pronounced better fiction than detection. They
undeniably gave new life-blood to the form; they established a pattern
which was to endure for a generation; yet it is certainly no
disparagement to point out that they live to-day for the two immortal
characters who move through their pages rather than for any particular
excellence of plot or deduction. Subjected to purely technical analysis,
in fact, they will be found all too frequently loose, obvious,
imitative, trite, and repetitious/ in device and theme.
Original text © Howard Haycraft and Peter Davies 1942 Layout © R.D. Collins
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