Inventing Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle; drawing by David Levine


One hundred and seventeen years after his first appearance in print, in the pages of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, fans and nonbelievers alike seem to feel compelled to try to explain Sherlock Holmes’s lasting appeal, marveling or shaking their heads at it, or both, as if the stories of the adventures with Dr. Watson were a system, like semaphore or the pneumatic post, that ought long since to have been superseded. Such explanations make the case, with varying success, for clever and competent plotting, or the bourgeois thirst for tidy adventure, or nostalgia for a vanished age (Victorian, or adolescent), or the Holmes–Watson dynamic (analyzed perhaps in terms of Jungian or queer theory), or the underlying and still-palpable gentlemanliness of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or even, of all things, for the quality of the writing itself, so much higher than it ever needed to be. Inherent in these explanations, buried or explicit, among apologists and critics alike, is a feeling that maybe the fifty-six stories and four short novels that make up the so-called canon (so-called by Sherlockians, about whom more later) are not worthy of such enduring admiration.

Like the flaw in the kabbalists’ universe, doubt about the literary merit of the Holmes stories has been present from the first, and the fault lies squarely with the author. It would be foolish to argue that Conan Doyle despised his Holmes work; it is well known that he regretted it, and disparaged it, saying of Holmes, “I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do toward pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.” In 1893, in “The Final Problem,” a story that reads very much like the act of a desperate man, he made a sincere attempt to have Holmes murdered (by Dr. Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls). But even the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, suffers from the author’s lack of faith in his creations, since for most of its second part it wanders forlornly, sans Holmes or Watson, amid the Mormon wastes of Utah, where the assassin, later trapped by Holmes, loses the girl he loved.

The next Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, opens with a chapter that features the first of many metacriticisms the detective would offer about the literary efforts of his companion and, by extension, of the cash-strapped young doctor who held their strings: “I glanced over it,” Holmes remarks to Watson, referring to A Study in Scarlet, and continues,

Honestly, I cannot congratulate you upon it. Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a…

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