Forty Years of Sherlock

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Forty Years of Sherlock is an article written by Arthur Bartlett Maurice published in The Bookman (US version) in october 1927.

Forty Years of Sherlock

The Bookman (october 1927, p. 160)
The Bookman (october 1927, p. 161)
The Bookman (october 1927, p. 162)

In a villa upon the southern slope of the Sussex Downs, commanding a great view of the Channel, there lives an elderly gentleman engaged in bee farming. With advancing years the reticence of earlier life has mellowed into what might be considered garrulousness. Occasionally he is moved to babble of the exploits of the past, instead of leaving the task of narration entirely to his faithful historian Watson. In one of the tales that make up "The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes" he descants eloquently of the scenic beauties of the chalk cliff upon which the home of his retirement is perched. In the description there is a suggestion of the lines of a Sussex neighbor who lives some miles to the north.

And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,
And here, each warning each,
The sheep-hells and the ship-bells ring
Along the hidden beach.

Despite his physical vigor and his still unclouded mind, age is descending upon him just as it inevitably descends upon all our favorite heroes who belong in the Valhalla of fiction. The exact date of his birth is a matter of surmise.

Ten years or so ago Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was in the Argonne, a dinner guest of a number of French general officers. It was General Humbert who fixed the Englishman with his hard eyes and demanded: "Sherlock Holmes, est-ce gu'il est un soldat dans l'armee anglaise?" [1] There was an embarrassed moment. "Mais, mon general," stammered Doyle, "il est trop vieux pour service." [2] Just how much too old for service Sherlock was Sir Arthur did not see fit to explain. But proper application of the science of deduction, with particular study of the cases of the "Musgrave Ritual" and the "Gloria Scott" establishes the date of his birth as early in the 1850's, and his approximate present age as in the neighborhood of seventy-five.

Just forty years ago Mr. Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance upon the scene of fiction. It was in the late autumn of 1887 that "A Study in Scarlet", the story in which he made his initial bow and professional gesture to the world, was published as the year's Beeton's Xmas Annual.

That second natal event was not only unheralded; for a time it was threatened by grave complications. It was a hard case for Dr. Doyle. The newly born literally fought its way into existence against the opposition of hostile hands. In other words, the manuscript went the rounds of the publishers only to meet repeated rejection. Finally the copyright was purchased out-right for twenty-five pounds. As an added complication the baby came near to being christened "Sherringford" Holmes.

Now, forty years later, we take up "The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes" to find the author's announcement that these stories are to be the last dealing with the career of the creator of the science of deduction. Perhaps we are inclined to take the announcement lightly and with mental reservation. In the course of the stories published there have been allusions to some sixty or seventy other cases that are yet unrecorded. Fascinatingly suggestive are the titles. What about "The Adventure of the Tired Captain", and "The Trepoff Murder", and the "Affair of the Amateur Mendicant Society", and "The Tankerville Club Scandal", and "The Affair of the King of Scandinavia", and "The Camberwell Poisoning Case", and "Ricoletti of the Club Feet and his Abominable Wife"? Those were of long years ago. "The Case Book" mentions others; "Vanderbilt and the Yegman", "The Two Coptic Patriarchs", and "The Case of Isadoro Persano".

Then again there was substantially the same threat with the story "The Final Problem", which sent Holmes to apparent death over the edge of an Alpine pass, when Doyle felt that, like Frankenstein, he had builded an amiable monster from whom he could not escape. Yet Holmes reappeared to play his part in the twelve stories of "The Return of Sherlock Holmes"; to follow the trail of "The Hound of the Baskervilles"; to bring light out of darkness in the enigma of "The Valley of Fear"; and to frustrate German war intrigue in the fugitive tale, "His Last Bow".

But perhaps the time has come to accept the verdict of finality. How rich in variety and achievement the forty years have been! In the matter of worldwide popularity never in the long history of fiction has there been a figure comparable to Sherlock Holmes. A dozen readers know him intimately to one who is acquainted with the name of Robinson Crusoe, or Uncle Tom, or Mr. Pickwick, or the Count of Monte Cristo.

Spain has her Don Quixote, yet in Spanish-speaking countries Sherlock Ol-mes is a byword whereas the Knight of La Mancha is merely a memory. Years ago in Barcelona there was a literary factory employing a score of hack writers engaged in turning out "Sherlock Ol-mes" adventures with such fantastic titles as "Sherlock Ol-mes and the Poisoners of Chicago", "Sherlock Ol-mes and the Stranglers of Pittsburg".

But is he, after all, a character merely of fiction? There are in the world thousands who refuse to accept him as such. A party of French school-boys was taken to London. The boys were asked whether they wanted to be shown first the Tower, or Westminster Abbey, or the British Museum. Unanimously they decided that they wished first to see the house in Upper Baker Street, that was the residence of M. Sherlock Holmes.

When Doyle first tried to dispose of his hero in "The Final Problem" he was amazed at the public concern and indignation. One letter of remonstrance from a woman began: "You brute". He heard of others who wept at the idea of Holmes going over the ledge of the Alpine pass locked in the arms of the sinister Professor Moriarty.

For years part of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's correspondence has been made up of letters to Sherlock Holmes with the request that he forward them. Watson has also been the recipient of a number of letters in which he has been asked for the address or the autograph of his brilliant colleague. A press-clipping agency wrote to Watson asking whether Holmes would not wish to subscribe. From all countries communications have come asking the cooperation of Holmes in the investigation of mysterious cases and offering large rewards. Finally with the announcement that Holmes had decided to retire to his present exile on the Sussex Downs several elderly ladies volunteered to keep house for him, and one offered the particular qualification that she knew all about bee-farming and could "segregate the queen".

  1. Sherlock Holmes, is he a soldier in the British army?
  2. Well, General, he is too old for service.