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Case Book: Doyle vs. Holmes

Doyle vs. Holmes
By Ron Miller


In the opening moments of Murder Rooms: The Dark Origins of Sherlock Holmes, which enjoys an encore presentation on Mystery! this week, crowds of angry fans of the famous sleuth are shown milling about in front of the offices of the Strand magazine in London, protesting the death of their favorite detective.

The focus of their anger is Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Holmes, who decided to end the famous detective's career at the climax of his latest adventure, "The Final Problem," by having him fall to his death at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in a fight to the finish with his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

Upstairs, Doyle's frustrated publisher tells the author that he understood why he might want to write about some other characters after so many Sherlock Holmes stories.

"But why kill him?" asks the publisher.

"It was time," says Doyle, rather stoically.

Of course, most mystery fans know that the continual pressure from fans and the persistently rich offers from publishers finally persuaded the author to revive Sherlock Holmes a few years later and to keep turning out new stories about him almost until the time of his death in 1930.

But there's still considerable speculation about how much Doyle enjoyed his long association with Holmes. It's common knowledge that he considered the Holmes stories minor work and felt his literary reputation ultimately would rest on his other writings, such as his popular historical novel, The White Company. There's evidence Doyle resented the popularity of Holmes, even if the fabulous sums he earned from him had made him a very rich man.

Did Doyle really spend many years writing about a character he ultimately came to dislike? It's a problem that has fascinated many biographers. For an answer, I turned to Daniel Stashower, author of an acclaimed 1999 volume, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle.

"Conan Doyle felt very strongly that Sherlock Holmes was, as he put it, taking him from better things," said Stashower, who added that Doyle also was exhausted from coming up with the complex plots required for each Holmes short story. "So, there came a time when he decided, for the sake of his health if not for his bank balance, that it was time to kill Sherlock."

Stashower told me the protests depicted in "Murder Rooms" are rooted in fact.

"The public, to put it mildly, was not amused," said Stashower. "The legend goes that black arm bands were seen in London, that a woman approached Conan Doyle on the street and struck him with her umbrella. He got incredible hate mail."

For the Strand magazine, the venue for most new Holmes stories, it was a disaster. Circulation fell off dramatically and for years afterward the publication of Holmes' "death" story was referred to as "The Dreadful Event" around the editorial offices.

Ultimately, Doyle succumbed to the awesome financial offers to resume Holmes' adventures -- and the pleadings of his editors, his friends and even his mother to bring him back alive from Reichenbach Falls. But Stashower has found many indications that Doyle wasn't totally happy about it, at least at first.

One example of Doyle's attitude about Holmes can be seen in his correspondence with the American stage actor William Gillette, who wrote an immensely popular play about Holmes and asked permission to have Holmes get married in the drama.

"Doyle sent him a telegram back that said: 'You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him,'" said Stashower.

However, in his book, Stashower also recounts Doyle's reaction when he first read the text of Gillette's play, which was produced before the author brought Holmes back to life. Doyle's comment: "It's good to see the old chap again."

Some fans also believe Doyle's lackadaisical attention to detail in the later stories suggests he wasn't giving them his best effort. One classic example is Dr. Watson's old war wound, which seems to move about Watson's body from tale to tale. In another story, Watson's wife calls him James when, in fact, his name was John. Stashower thinks those mistakes probably have more to do with the haste with which Doyle often had to write the stories rather than his lack of interest in them.

"The truth of the matter is that Conan Doyle was writing so much, so quickly, that these things happened," said Stashower.

Before his death, though, Doyle may have made his peace with Sherlock, realizing that his "minor" creation would indeed remain one of the most beloved figures in all of literature.

"He understood his role and what he had done to help bring mystery fiction out of the shadows and into the light," said Stashower.

Stashower cites a letter Doyle wrote to his editor while he was writing his novel The Lost World, which introduced a new character, Professor Challenger. In the letter, Doyle wrote, "I would very much like to do for the adventure story what I did for the detective story."

What he had done, of course, was lift the detective genre to a new height of popularity all over the world. Stashower believes Doyle also knew that with Sherlock Holmes he had created a template for legions of future mystery writers to follow.

Ron Miller is author of MYSTERY! A Celebration.

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