A Gaudy Death: Conan Doyle tells the True Story of Sherlock Holmes's End
A Gaudy Death
Conan Doyle tells the True Story of Sherlock Holmes's End
To interview Dr Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, is not an easy matter. Dr Doyle has a strong objection to the interview, even though he has no personal antipathy to the interviewer. Considerations, however, of his long and friendly relationship with the firm of George Newnes Ltd, in the pages of whose popular and universally read Strand Magazine Sherlock Holmes lived, and moved, and had his being, overcame Dr Doyle's reluctance to be interviewed, and he consented to give the following particulars, which will be read with interest by his admirers all over the world.
Before I tell you of Sherlock Holmes's death and how it came about, it will probably be interesting to recall the circumstances of his birth. He originally made his appearance, you will remember, in a book which I wrote called A Study in Scarlet. The idea of the detective was suggested by a professor under whom I had worked at Edinburgh, and in part by Edgar Allen Poe's detective, which, after all, ran on the lines of all other detectives who have appeared in literature.
In work which consists in the drawing of detectives there are only one or two qualities which one can use, and an author is forced to hark back upon them constantly, so that every detective must really resemble every other detective to a greater or less extent. There is no great originality required in devising or constructing such a man, and the only possible originality which one can get into a story about a detective is in giving him original plots and problems to solve, as in his equipment there must be of necessity an alert acuteness of mind to grasp facts and the relation which each of them bears to the other.
At the time I first thought of a detective - it was about 1886 - I had been reading some detective stories, and it struck me what nonsense they were, to put it mildly, because for getting the solution of the mystery the authors always depended on some coincidence. This struck me as not a fair way of playing the game, because the detective ought really to depend for his success on something in his own mind and not on merely adventitious circumstances, which do not, by an means, always occur in real life. I was seedy at the time, and, not working much, had leisure to read, so I read half-a-dozen or so detective stories, both in French and English, and they one and all filled me with dissatisfaction and a sort of feeling how much more interesting they might be made if one could show that the man deserved his victory over the criminal or the mystery he was called upon to solve.
Then I began to think, suppose my old professor at Edinburgh were in the place of one of these lucky detectives, he would have worked out the process of effect from cause just as logically as he would have diagnosed a disease, instead of having something given to him by mere luck, which, as I said just now, does not happen in real life.
For fun, therefore, I started constructing a story and giving my detective a scientific system, so as to make him reason everything out. Intellectually that had been done before by Edgar Allen Poe with M. Dupin, but where Holmes differed from Dupin was that he had an immense fund of exact knowledge to draw upon in consequence of his previous scientific education. I mean by this, that by looking at a man's hand he knew what the man's trade was, as by looking at his trousers leg he could deduce the character of the man. He was practical and he was systematic, and his success in the detection of crime was to be the fruit, not of luck, but of his qualities.
With this idea I wrote a small book on the lines I have indicated, and produced A Study in Scarlet, which was made Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. That was the first appearance of Sherlock; but he did not arrest much attention, and nobody recognized him as being anything in particular. About three years later, however, I was asked to do a small shilling book for Lippincott's Magazine, which publishes, as you know, a special story in each number. I didn't know what to write about, and the thought occurred to me, 'Why not try to rig up the same chap again?' I did it, and the result was The Sign of Four. Although the criticisms were favorable, I don't think even then Sherlock attracted much attention to his individuality.
About this time I began thinking about short stories for magazines. It occurred to me that a serial story in a magazine was a mistake, for those who had not begun the story at the beginning would naturally be debarred from buying a periodical in which a large number of pages were, of necessity, taken up with a story in which they had no particular interest.
It occurred to me, then, that if one could write a serial without appearing to do so - a serial, I mean, in which each instalment was capable of being read as a single story, while each retained a connecting link with the one before and the one that was to come by means of its leading characters - one would get a cumulative interest which the serial pure and simple could not obtain. In this respect I was a revolutionist, and I think I may fairly lay claim to the credit of being the inaugurator of a system which has since been worked by others with no little success.
It was about this time that The Strand Magazine was started, and I asked myself, 'Why not put my idea in execution and write a series of stories with Sherlock Holmes?' whose mental processes were familiar to me. I was then in practice in Wimpole Street as a specialist, and, while waiting for my patients to come, I began writing to fill up my waiting hours. In this way I wrote three stores, which were afterwards published as part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I sent them to The Strand Magazine. The editor liked them, seemed keen on them, and asked for more. The more he asked for the more I turned out, until I had done a dozen. That dozen constituted the volume which was afterwards published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
That dozen stories being finished, I determined they should be the end of all Sherlock's doings. I was, however, approached to do some more. My instincts were against this, as I believe it is always better to give the public less than it wants rather than more, and I do not believe in boring it with this sort of stuff. Besides, I had other subjects in my mind. The popularity of Sherlock Holmes, however, and the success of the new stories with the common thread running through them brought a good deal of pressure on me, and at last, under that pressure, I consented to continue with Sherlock, and did twelve more stories, which I called The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
By the time I had finished those I was absolutely determined it would be bad policy to do any more Holmes stores. I was still a young man and a young novelist, and I have always noticed that the ruin of every novelist who has come up has been effected by driving him into a groove. The public gets what it likes, and, insisting on getting it, makes him go on until he loses his freshness. Then the public turns round and says: 'He has only one idea, and can only write one sort of story: The result is that the man is caned; for, by that time, he has probably himself lost the power of adapting himself to fresh conditions of work. Now, why should a man be driven into a groove and not write about what interests him? When I was interested in Holmes I wrote about Holmes, and it amused me making him get involved in new conundrums; but when I had written twenty-six stories, each involving the making of a fresh plot, I felt that it was becoming irksome this searching for plots - and if it were getting irksome to me, most certainly, I argued, it must be losing its freshness for others.
I knew I had done better work in other fields of literature, and in my opinion The White Company, for example, was worth a hundred Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet, just because the Sherlock Holmes stories were, for the moment, more popular, I was becoming more and more known as the author of Sherlock Holmes instead of as the author of The White Company. My lower work was obscuring my higher.
I therefore determined to stop my Holmes stories, and as my mind was fully made up I couldn't see any better way than by bringing Holmes to an end as well as the stories.
I was in Switzerland for the purpose of giving a lecture at the time when I was thinking out the details of the final story. I was taking a walking tour through the country, and I came to a waterfall. I thought if a man wanted to meet a gaudy kind of death that was a fine romantic place for the purpose. That started the train of ideas by which Holmes just reached that spot and met his death there.
That is really how I came to kill Holmes. But when I did it I was surprised at the amount of interest people took in his fate. I never thought they would take it so to heart. I got letters from all over the world reproaching me on the subject. One, I remember, from a lady whom I did not know, began 'you beast.'
From that day to this I have never for an instant regretted the course I took in killing Sherlock. That does not say, however, that because he is dead I should not write about him again if I wanted to, for there is no limit to the number of papers he left behind or the reminiscences in the brain of his biographer.
My objection to detective stories is that they only call for the use of a certain portion of one's imaginative faculty, the invention of a plot, without giving any scope for character drawing.
The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now, nobody can possibly be the better - in the high sense in which I mean it - for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so. It was not to my mind high work, and no detective work ever can be, apart from the fact that all work dealing with criminal matters is a cheap way of rousing the interest of the reader.
For this reason, at the outset of my career it would have been bad to devote too much attention to Sherlock Holmes. If I had continued with him I should by this time have worn him out, and also the patience of the public, and I should not have written 'Rodney Stone', 'Brigadier Gerard', 'The Stark Munro Letters', 'The Refugees', and all the other books which treat of life from many different standpoints, some of which represent my own views, which Sherlock Holmes never did.
There is one fact in connection with Holmes which will probably interest those who have followed his career from the beginning, and to which, so far as I am aware, attention has never been drawn. In dealing with criminal subjects one's natural endeavour is to keep the crime in the background. In nearly half the number of the Sherlock Holmes stories, however, in a strictly legal sense no crime was actually committed at all. One heard a good deal about crime and the criminal, but the reader was completely bluffed. Of course, I could not bluff him always, so sometimes I had to give him a crime, and occasionally I had to make it a downright bad one.
My own view of Sherlock Holmes - I mean the man as I saw him in my imagination - was quite different from that which Mr Paget pictured in The Strand Magazine. I, however, am eminently pleased with his work, and quite understand the aspect which he gave to the character, and am even prepared to accept him now as Mr Paget drew him. In my own mind, however, he was a more beaky-nosed, hawk-faced man, approaching more to the Red Indian type, than the artist represented him, but, as I have said, Mr Paget's pictures please me very much.