In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes

It was unfair of Conan Doyle to say (as he did in his delightful autobiography, Memories and Adventures) that Dr. Watson had never shown a gleam of humor nor made a single joke. Let me refute that at once. In the first chapter of The Valley Of Fear the good doctor, after some rather sharp taunting by his friend, caught Holmes fairly off guard. They were speaking of Professor Moriarty.

“The famous scientific criminal,” says Watson, “as famous among crooks as–”

“My blushes, Watson!” Holmes murmurs in a deprecating voice.

“I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”

Even Holmes admitted that this was “a distinct touch”.

But another evidence of Dr. Watson’s mischief was his frequent sly allusion to the unrecorded adventures. All Holmes-and-Watson lovers must have brooded sadly on the titles of those untold tales. “The shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, which so nearly cost us both our lives”, the case of Wilson the notorious canary-trainer, the repulsive story of the red leech, the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra “for which the world is not yet prepared”, the singular affair of the aluminum crutch, the Curious Experience of the Patterson Family on the Island of Uffa– these are some of the yarns we have had to do without; having only the melancholy assurance that the documents were safely on file in that famous dispatch box in the vaults of Cox’s Bank at Charing Cross. Perhaps most of all I deplore that we were never told “the story of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant”. In this allusion we surely find Watson in a deliberately pawky vein. –We hoped against hope for some of these stories; we can never have them now.

But there is one omission in the long Holmes-Watson history that some generous survivor could supply. It must not be forgotten that it was a certain “young Stamford”, also a medico, who first introduced Watson to Sherlock Holmes; and the chance that brought this about was that Stamford and Watson met at the Criterion Bar in London. Young Stamford was so specifically outlined in those first pages of A Study In Scarlet that I have always thought that he might reappear some day in one of the adventures. I don’t believe he ever did. But at least his immortal service in bringing that famous pair together should be remembered. A small tablet in that famous bar-room would be a graceful memento; I think it should be erected by the London publisher who bought the complete copyright of A Study In Scarlet for twenty-five pounds. And in any health is drunk in the matter by visiting pilgrims I suggest also a grateful side-look to the gallant Murray, the orderly who saved Dr. Watson’s life in Afghanistan.

The whole Sherlock Holmes saga is triumphant illustration of art’s supremacy over life. Perhaps no fiction character ever created has become so charmingly real to his readers. It is not that we take our blessed Sherlock too seriously; if we really want the painful oddities of criminology lets us go to Bataille or Roughead. But Holmes is pure anesthesia. We read these stories again and again; perhaps most of all for the little introductory interiors which give a glimpse of 221B Baker Street. The fact that Holmes had earlier lodgings in Montague Street (alongside the British Museum) is forgotten. That was before Watson, and we must have Watson too. Rashly, in the later years, Holmes twice undertook to write stories for himself. The have not quite the same magic. No, we are epicures. We must begin in Baker Street; and best of all, if possible, let it be a stormy winter morning when Holmes routs Watson out of bed in haste. The doctor wakes to see that tall, ascetic figure by the bedside with a candle. “Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!” If that is not possible, then I prefer to find Holmes stretched on the sofa in a fit of the dumps; perhaps he is scraping on the violin, or bemoaning the dearth of imaginative crime and reaching for the cocaine (a habit he evidently outgrew, for we hear little of it in the later adventures). We have a glimpse of the sitting-room, that room we know so well. There are the great volumes of scrap-book records; the bullet marks on the walls; the mysterious “gasogene” which appears occasionally in English fiction, and which I can only suppose to be some sort of syphon-bottle. (There is also a sort of decanter-holder called a “tantalus” now and then set out on the side-board: another mystery for American readers, and now more than ever true to its name.) The Persian slipper for tobacco and the coal-scuttle for cigars don’t appeal to me so much. They are more conscious eccentricities. In comes Mrs. Hudson with a message, or a “commissionaire” with a letter, and we are off. Gregson and Lestrade will get the credit, but we have the fun. Already we are in a hansom rattling through the streets to Waterloo or Charing Cross or Paddington. (Holmes rarely takes train at Euston or King’s Cross or Liverpool Street.)

It is a kind of piety for even the least and humblest of Holmes-lovers to pay what tribute he may to this great encyclopedia of romance that has given the world so much innocent pleasure. Already the grandchildren of Holmes’ earliest followers are beginning upon him with equal delight. I was too young to know the wave of dismay that went round the English-reading world when Sherlock and Professor Moriarty supposedly perished together in the Reichenback Fall, but I can well remember the sombre effect on my ten-year-old spirits when I first read the closing paragraphs of the Memoirs. The intolerable pathos of the cigarette-case on the rocky ledge; the firm clear handwriting of that last stoic message! I then put in two or three years in reading everything else of Dr. Doyle’s. One walked downtown to the old Enoch Pratt Free Library on Mulberry Street in Baltimore and got out a book– The Firm Of Girdlestone, or The Captain of the Pole Star, or Beyond The City, or A Duet, or Round The Red Lamp, or The Stark Munro Letters or The Doings of Raffles Haw. For this I specialized chiefly in the lesser known tales, and regret Sir Arthur’s tendency (in his autobiography) to make light of some of these yarns. As for The White Company and The Refugees and Micah Clarke and Uncle Bernac, these were household words. When one found at the library a Conan Doyle he had not read, he began it at once on the walk home. It was quite a long trudge from Mulberry Street to the 2000 block on Park Avenue, and the tragedy often was that, loitering like a snail, almost like the locomotion of a slowed moving picture, the book was actually finished by the time one got home. There wall all the journey to do over again the next day.

But all that time I knew, deep in some instinct, that Holmes was not really dead. In the first place I had noted that the date of his Reichenbach crisis lacked only one day of being my own birthday; and I felt positive that the eve of my festival would not have been marred by the death of my hero. So you may imagine the thrilling excitement– in 1903, wasn’t it?– when the Return began printing in Collier’s. Then we saw how Dr. Doyle had got himself out of his predicament. He had revived Holmes, but (to be fair all round) he had killed off Mrs. Watson. We had been tolerant of Mrs. Watson because she was nee Mary Morstan in The Sign Of Four , but obviously she was a little in the way. Her patience was certainly exemplary in allowing the doctor to rush off on various expeditions; but it could not last. One of the unsolved questions, by the way, is the second Mrs. Watson. Evidently the good doctor, who was always perservering, had tried again; for Holmes in January 1903 (see The Adventure Of The Blanched Soldier) refers to an existing Mrs. Watson. But who or why this second lady we have no data.

One of the blissful ways of passing an evening, when you encounter another dyed-in-the-blood addict, is to embark on the happy discussion of minor details of Holmesiana. “Whose gold watch was it that had been so mishandled?” one may ask; and the other counters with “What was the book that Joseph Stangerson carried in his pocket? One of the blissful ways of passing an evening, when you encounter another dyed-in-the-blood addict, is to embark on the happy discussion of minor details of Holmesiana. “Whose gold watch was it that had been so mishandled?” one may ask; and the other counters with “What was the book that Joseph Stangerson carried in his pocket?” Endless delicious minutiae to consider! There was Dr. Verner, “a distant relative of Sherlock Holmes,” who bought out Watson’s practice. Undoubtedly, this was an Anglication of the name of Holmes’ grandmother, Vernet. She was French, a sister of the French military artist of that name. (A real and very distinguished family of painters, incidentally; undoubtedly suggested to Doyle by his own artistic family inheritance. I wonder if the Vernet family in France realize that the world-famous detective has thus been grafted onto their genealogy?) Or there are the glimpses of Moriarty to be talked over: his youthful treatise on the binomial theorem “which had a European vogue”. Or Mycroft Holmes, seven years older than Sherlock: we would gladly have heard more of him and of the Diogenes Club. How was it that Dr. Watson happened to cherish a portrait of Henry Ward Beecher, but never had it framed? Or we might air a minor grievance that the devoted Mrs. Hudson had never been implicated in a mystery of her own. There was a mystery about a landlady, but a certain Mrs. Warren was brought in for the purpose. And why did Gregson and Lestrade gradually fade out of the picture? Why does Billy the page boy remain only a phantom? Holmes speaks once of being at college: what college was it? And Dr. Watson’s wound from the “Jezail bullet”: was it in his shoulder or his leg: apparently Sir Arthur was not quite sure.

Such are the questions that the Holmesians argue with innocent satisfaction. Even in the less successful stories we remain untroubled by any naiveté of plot; it is the character of the immortal pair that we relish. It is not mere chance that they are well-loved. Doyle himself must have been a singularly loveable man. There is an anecdote in his Memories and Adventures that reveals very clearly the fine instinct of delicacy in his massive personality. He was visiting George Meredith in the latter’s old age, and they were walking up a steep path to the little summer-house Meredith used for writing. In Doyle’s own words:

The nervous complaint from which he suffered caused him to fall down occasionally. As we walked up the narrow path I heard The nervous complaint from which he suffered caused him to fall down occasionally. As we walked up the narrow path I heard him fall behind me, but judged from the sound that it was a mere slither and could not have hurt him. Therefore I walked on as if I had heard nothing. He was a fiercely proud old man, and my instincts told me that his humiliation in being helped up would be far greater than any relief I could give him.

I can think of no truer revelation of a gentleman than that.

The character of Holmes, Doyle has told us, was at any rate partly suggested by his student memories of Dr. Joseph Bell of the Edinburgh Infirmary, whose diagnostic intuitions used to startle his patients and pupils. But there was abundant evidence that the invention of the scientific detective conformed to a fundamental logic in Doyle’s own temper. The famous case of Oscar Slater was one example; another was his ingenuity in transmitting news of the war in cipher to British prisoners in Germany. This he did by sending books in which he had put needle-pricks under various printed letters so as to spell out the desired messages; but beginning with the third chapter, believing that the German censor would examine the earlier chapters more carefully. Of his humour, there is a pleasant income-tax story. In his first year of independent medical practice his earnings were 154 pounds, and the income-tax papers arrived he filled it up to show that he was not liable. The authorities returned the form with the words Most Unsatisfactory scrawled across it. He returned it again with the subscription I entirely agree. As many readers must have guessed, Round The Red Lamp and The Stark Munro Letters were very literally drawn from his own experiences in medicine.

“Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms,” Sherlock Holmes once remarked. Undoubtedly Doyle was thinking also of his own inheritance (both artistic and Irish) and certainly he himself, though he looked so solidly Watsonian, gave his friends many surprises in the mutations of his vigorous career. One of the quaintest of these must have been his collaboration with Barrie in an operetta. Of the final spiritualist phase only those who have made careful study of those problems can profitably speak. But there was no stage of the life, from the poor student d “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms,” Sherlock Holmes once remarked. Undoubtedly Doyle was thinking also of his own inheritance (both artistic and Irish) and certainly he himself, though he looked so solidly Watsonian, gave his friends many surprises in the mutations of his vigorous career. One of the quaintest of these must have been his collaboration with Barrie in an operetta. Of the final spiritualist phase only those who have made careful study of those problems can profitably speak. But there was no stage of the life, from the poor student doing without lunch to buy books to the famous author enduring painful hostility for his psychic faith, which did not reflect the courage, the chivalry, the sagacity we would have expected from the creator of Holmes. Certainly it was characteristic of that student of mysteries to attack the greatest one we know.

Those of us in our earliest boyhood gave our hearts to Conan Doyle, and have had from him so many hours of good refreshment, find our affection unshakable. What other man led a fuller and heartier and more masculine life? Doctor, whaler, athlete, writer, speculator, dramatist, historian, war correspondent, spiritualist, he was always the infracaninophile — the helper of the underdog. Big in every way, his virtues had always something of the fresh vigor of the amateur, keen, open-minded, flexible, imaginative. If, as Doyle utterly believed, the spirits of the dead persist and can communicate, there is none that could have more wholesome news to impart to us than that brave and energetic lover of life.

A blessing, then, on those ophthalmic citizens who did not go to that office at 2 Devonshire Place, near Harley Street, where in 1891 Dr. A. Conan Doyle set up consulting rooms as an eye specialist. It was there, waiting for the patients who never came, that he began to see the possibilities in Sherlock Holmes. No wonder that Dr. Watson too sometimes rather neglected his practice.

— Christopher Morley