The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)

The first two Holmes novellas, first published in magazines then in book form, weren’t particularly successful. But the editor of The Strand magazine, George Newnes, saw the potential and commissioned Conan Doyle to write 12 short stories using the Holmes and Watson characters, publishing one a month from July 1891 to June 1892. It was these monthly instalments which began Holmes’s rise to global fame.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia – client: The King of Bohemia calls to say he is engaged to an eligible aristocrat but has had an affair with Irene Adler who has photos of them together. Holmes disguises himself as a groom to get the lie of the land, visits her and arranges an elaborate ruse whereby a fire cracker is thrown into the living room and her startled glance at the wall shows Holmes where the safe is. But the next day when he calls to claim them, she has decamped. She is always The Woman
  • The Adventure of the Red-Headed League – client: Jabez Wilson. Jabez is invited to join a league established by an American philanthropist; he is paid to go sit in a room and transcribe the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is an elaborate ruse to get access to his cellar and tunnel into the bank next door.
  • A Case of Identity – client: Mary Sutherland a quiet legatee of a will becomes engaged to Hosmer Angel at a dance but he mysteriously disappears. Turns out it is none other than her mother’s young second husband trying to swindle her out of her inheritance.
  • The Boscombe Valley Mystery – client: Alice Turner. In Herefordshire a landowner has been murdered by Boscombe pool and his son found bloodied and with the weapon. Eventually the richer neighbouring landowner reveals the back story where one was a bandit and one a security guard in Australia. The bandit, John Turner, came back to Blighty to go straight but was haunted by the blackmailing McCarthy who was determined to marry his son to Turner’s daughter, Alice.
  • The Five Orange Pips – client: John Openshaw, his uncle Elias returned from the States in the 1860s but has been nervous since receiving an envelope containing 5 orange pips, becoming drunk and paranoid until he is found dead in a pool. Then his brother receives a letter containing five orange pips and instructions to leave ‘the papers’ on the sundial… It is leaders of the Ku Klux Klan coming and going to Britain on sailing ships, posting threats and murdering the unfortunate recipients of the pips.
  • The Man with the Twisted Lip – client: Mrs. St. Clair. She glimpses her husband at the window of an opium den, runs upstairs, there is no-one but a raddled addict. The addict is her husband, ashamed to be a City beggar.
  • The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle – no client. A goose contains a vast blue jewel. It was stolen by James Ryder in league with a serving girl to the Countess of Morcar, smuggled across London then, in a panic, stuffed down the crop of one of his sister’s geese at her goose farm in Brixton, but then the wrong goose is despatched in a job lot to a pub where it is bought by a man who, drunk, is beset by toughs and drops the goose, which is rescued by a hotel commissionaire who brings it to Holmes!
  • The Adventure of the Speckled Band – client: Miss Helen Stoner. Impoverished Dr. Roylott forces Helen Stoner, an heiress, to move into a particular bedroom of his heavily mortgaged ancestral home, Stoke Moran where her sister had mysteriously died, her last words being, ‘The speckled band’. It is a poisonous snake brought back by Roylott from India.
  • The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb – client: Victor Hatherley. Victor is hired by a German-speaking man to fix a powerful hydraulic device in the country. He quickly realises it is not mining but counterfeiting equipment and makes his escape with the help of a sweet anguished lady but not before the swinish German has hacked off his thumb with a cleaver! He makes his way to Watson who brings him to Holmes…
  • The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor – client: Lord Robert St. Simon marries Miss Hatty Doran of San Francisco in a very high society wedding but she disappears from the wedding breakfast. Holmes establishes she has been contacted by her first, American, husband, long thought to be dead and has returned to him.
  • The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet – client: Alexander Holder of Streatham, a banker, brings home a priceless coronet but awakes in the night to find his son wrestling with it, half of it snapped off and stolen, his son refuses to say more and is charged. Holmes to the rescue!
  • The Adventure of the Copper Beeches – client: Violet Hunter is mysteriously offered a job at very high pay to be a governess, to have her hair cut, wear a blue dress and sit in a window just so every day. She realises there is a locked wing of the house and suspects someone is incarcerated there, and asks Holmes’s advice…

The Sherlock Universe

From the get-go Conan Doyle deploys the simple strategy of having Dr Watson refer to innumerable cases which Holmes has investigated, most of them never written up in his case notes or stories. He mentions that in 1887 Holmes was involved in the Adventure of the Paradol Chamber, the Amateur Mendicant Society, the loss of the Sophy Anderson, the adventures of the Grice Patersons, the Camberwell Poisoning, the Tankerville Club Scandal and so on. In The Speckled Band he says that Holmes was involved in some 70 cases between 1882 and the time of writing (1891).

This multiplicity, this cornucopia of events and cases creates a universe around the adventures which are actually reported which helps to give them plausibility and also continually reinforces the sense of Holmes’s fame and superhuman abilities. It is also attractive to a certain type of mentality, a certain type of fan, who loves immersing themselves in the minutiae of the fictional universe – a mentality which in our day extends to a vast range of adaptation and merchandising – the Robert Downey Jnr movies, the Benedict Cumberbatch TV series, the new books and stories, the books about the historical background and wider context, quiz books, the board games and mugs and t-shirts and top trumps sets etc etc.

Literature and quotations

Early on in A Study Watson humorously summarises Holmes’s fields of knowledge and says ‘Literature: Nil’. In fact this is extensively refuted in the texts themselves where Holmes is very given to sententiously quoting from a wide range of literary sources:

  • In A Study he quotes Boileau: ‘Un sot trouve toujours un plus sot qui l’admire’. The very last words of the novella are a quote from Horace: ‘Populus me sibilat, at mihi plaudo / Ipse domi simul ac nummos contemplor in arca.’
  • Almost the last words of Sign of Four are a quote from Goethe: ‘Schade dass die Natur nur EINEN Mensch aus Dir schuf / Denn zum wuerdigen Mann war und zum Schelmen der Stoff.’
  • In Boscombe Valley, when bored, Holmes pulls out his pocket Petrarch.
  • In A Case of Identity he quotes the Persian poet Hafiz.
  • In the Red-Headed League he quotes Flaubert writing to George Sand.
  • In the Noble Bachelor he quotes Thoreau.

Apart from Watson getting it wrong, I think these literary quotations demonstrate two aspects of the texts:

  1. Their sententiousness: Holmes is an extremely didactic character. On one level the stories consist of Holmes endlessly lecturing, teaching and scolding Watson.
  2. Their multitextuality: they are made up of numerous other texts: newspaper reports and adverts, notes, police reports, Holmes’s own files and records, and so on. The stories are pieced together, stitched together like puzzles made of fragments of other texts.

The fin-de-siècle and Oscar Wilde

We’ve seen how The Sign of Four was commissioned by the same publisher who commissioned The Picture of Dorian Gray, an indication of how close the London literary scene was, and of the finances underlying the creation of short dramatic stories. But Holmes also has a lot in common with Wilde’s aristocratic protagonists, Lord Henry Wotton or Lord Arthur Saville. It’s true he is not an exquisite fainéant, a dandy, an aesthete. But he does display plenty of aristocratic disdain for convention, effortless superiority over the laughable bourgeois police detectives, a lordly indifference to how he is perceived, sang-froid and indifference to personal danger. He suffers from aristocratic ennui which drives the Wildean hero into dangerous moral territory:

‘My life is spent in one long effort to escape from the commonplaces of existence. These little problems help me to do so.’ (cf ‘I play the game for the game’s own sake.’ from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans)

And he is much given to paradoxes: all his detective work reveals the strange and telling in the apparently innocent and mundane, and vice versa, and sometimes he summarises his attitude in witty paradoxes worthy of Wilde:

‘It is, of course, a trifle, but nothing is so important as trifles.’

London the cesspool of Empire

One of the many appealing things about the stories is how Doyle capitalises on London’s position as heart of the greatest empire the world has ever known to bring in characters with stories from all over the world:

  • The Red-Headed league claims to have been set up by an American millionaire
  • In Boscombe the two fathers made their money in the colonies, in Victoria state, Australia
  • The Five Orange pips is about the long reach of the sinister Ku Klux Klan from the American South
  • In the Speckled Band the ill-fated Dr. Grimesby Roylott has brought his snakes back from his time in India
  • The Noble Bachelor marries the daughter of an American who made his pile in the California Gold Rush

and so it goes on, creating a particularly quaint and dated vision of the world when half the map was painted red and the world was run by Anglo-Saxon chaps.

Women

If the chaps are, for the most part, noble Anglo-Saxons, then the women are even more dated, fixed in amber from that period, as saintly, innocent, virginal helpmeets and dutiful daughters and damsels in distress. The image of the concerned and helpless young lady, flushed and panting, caught in a hapless plight and requiring help from Holmes the Master-Male, repeats again and again. Any grown-up would be repelled by this stereotyping, but Holmes isn’t for grown-ups.

Read the stories

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes at Project Gutenberg

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Cover of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, First edition (Wikimedia Commons)

Novels

A Study in Scarlet (1887, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual)
The Sign of the Four (1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (serialised 1901–1902 in The Strand)
The Valley of Fear (serialised 1914–1915 in The Strand)

Short story collections

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891–1892 in The Strand)
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892–1893 in The Strand)
The Return of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1903–1904 in The Strand)
His Last Bow: Some Later Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1908–1917)
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1921–1927)

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