Some Letters of Conan Doyle
Herbert Greenhough Smith was the editor of The Strand Magazine.
Some Letters of Conan Doyle
With Notes and Comments
During the years that Conan Doyle was contributing to this magazine I received from him, as Editor, a number of communications, dealing chiefly with his work. From some of these I now propose to quote such portions as throw a new or interesting light upon the man and upon his methods as a writer, and to add some observations of my own. First of all, I have a word to say upon a matter as to which he has received a good deal of unkindly censure from superior critics — namely, the style in which these works are written. This style has been condemned as commonplace, as "undistinguished." Now I take it that the mark of a good style — as it is of the medium of every art-is its capacity to achieve the purpose for which it was intended. Conan Doyle was one of the great story-tellers of the world, and his purpose was to tell a story; and this his style, simple, clear, and easy-flowing, never drawing off the reader's notice by any frills or gewgaws of its own, achieves to absolute perfection. As well quarrel with the style of Gulliver or Crusoe because they are not written in poetic prose. Really, it is the criticism that is "undistinguished." So much for his style-and now for his ideas. How did Conan Doyle obtain his plots? Well, they chiefly sprang from the most trivial hints — such, for example, as the story of "The Dancing Men," in which the sight of a child's scribbled drawing gave him the idea of using these little figures as letters in a cryptogram.
Such was the tiny germ over which he brooded until it developed into the completed plot. This one, by the way, he termed "a good bloody story," well fitted to appear between two milder ones. Having the plot thought out to the last detail, he would shut himself into his study and with much pacing to and fro, and with as many pipes as Sherlock, he would produce, "with a full head of steam" and with hardly an erasure, the story ready for the press. Then, like Dickens, when a piece of work was out of hand, his mind became a vacuum until, to use his own expression, some new idea would "strike fire." He was always ready to receive a hint from any quarter. Indeed, he once suggested that we should hold a competition with prizes for the best ideas:—
- I can write stories if I have good initial ideas, but have rather exhausted my own stock. No wonder! I wonder if a competition for the best mystery idea would be possible — probably you would get no fish worth taking out of the net.
The competition was never held, for his prediction of the result would have been assuredly borne out. Even as it was, he was continually receiving from his friends and from readers of the magazine all sorts of hints and notions. Yet, as far as I am aware, he found only two of these "strike fire." The first of these was "The Hound of the Baskervilles," to which the following refers:—
- I have the idea of a real creeper for THE STRAND. It is full of surprises, breaking naturally into good lengths for serial purposes. There is one stipulation. I must do it with my friend Fletcher-Robinson, and his name must appear with mine. I can answer for the yarn being all my own in my own style without dilution, since your readers like that. But he gave me the central idea and the local colour, and so I feel his name must appear.
As readers of the story are aware, Fletcher-Robinson's name was fully acknowledged. His share in the transaction was to draw the attention of Conan Doyle to the tradition of the fiery hound in a Welsh guide-book. The other instance of the kind arose from a German case to, which I drew his I notice. A man, resolved on suicide, but desirous that his wife should be entitled to his life-assurance, tied a revolver to one end of a rope and a heavy stone to the other; then, taking up his position on a bridge across a stream, he dropped the stone over the wooden railing and, still holding the revolver, he shot himself dead. The stone in falling twitched the weapon from his hand and vanished with it in the river. The case looked like one of certain murder, especially as his watch and chain and pocket-book were missing. But one of the detectives noted that a fragment had been chipped out of the woodwork of the railing. From this trivial clue he built up the whole case. The stream was dragged and the revolver, with its string and stone, was brought up to the surface. He then tried the experiment for himself; the revolver, whirled across the railing, chipped out a corresponding piece of wood.
This application of Sherlock's methods was, in Conan Doyle's opinion, the most remarkable on record. It "struck fire" with him at once, and the result was "The Problem of Thor Bridge."
This story of Thor Bridge has another interest. Many readers must have felt that, of all the series, their faith in Sherlock's ingenuity had been strained beyond the limit. Yet it is in fact a story of real life. It thus provides a striking answer to the critics who are fond of saying that Sherlock's methods may look all very well in fiction, but that they would never work in practice. It was by these methods and no other that the German Sherlock arrived at a solution to which the rest of the police would have remained for ever blind. It was by these methods and no other that Poe cleared up the mystery of Marie Roget while the officials of the law were groping in the dark. Scotland Yard may smile, but it is at least conceivable that if they had a few such Sherlocks of real life among them we might not have so many criminals escaping.
Having the broad lines of his plot worked out, Conan Doyle was no pedant as to accuracy of details so long as he obtained the effect at which he aimed. And this point of view he justified:—
- About the trains in the text, that is all right. Though, for that matter, I should not in my own person hesitate at laying down a fresh line of rails — or a fresh railway line, as I did in story IV. — if by so doing I could get my effect. One must be masterful in telling a story.
Needless to say, the slightest lapse, real or imagined, was pounced upon by readers. In "The Adventure of the Priory School" Sherlock deduces the direction taken by a bicycle from the impression of the wheels:—
- The more deeply sunk impression is, of course, the hind wheel, upon which the weight rests. You perceive several places where it has passed across and obliterated the more shallow mark of the front one. It was undoubtedly heading away from the school.
Several correspondents maintained that this deduction was impossible. Here is Conan Doyle's reply:—
- I don't suppose you take much notice about what cranks write, but with regard to the letters you may be interested to know that I have just been out, tried it on my bike, and got the impressions as in the story, the hind wheel cutting across the line of the front one.
In "The Lost World" there is one palpable slip — the balloon made of an animal's hide, and filled with a natural gas issuing from the ground, could not have lifted even its own weight. In reply to this objection he sent me this facetious note:—
- The gas was Levogen, a volcanic product peculiar to plateau conditions, which has been calculated by Prof. T. E. S. Tube, F.R.S., to be 35.375 times lighter than hydrogen.
A certain number of readers thought "The Norwood Builder" showed a little falling off in interest from its predecessors. Here is the author's own opinion of the story:—
- "The Norwood Builder" I would put in the very first rank of the whole series for subtlety and depth. Any feeling of disappointment at the end is due to the fact that no crime has been done, and so the reader feels bluffed, but it is well for other reasons to have some of the stories crimeless.
- Take the series of points : Holmes's deductions from the will written in the train, the point of the bloody thumb-mark, Holmes's device for frightening the man out of his hiding-place, etc. I know no Holmes story which has such a succession of bright points.
A curious plot sprang from the recorded fact that Bendigo, the prize-fighter, became converted to religion and preached at revival meetings throughout the country. Conan Doyle's idea — a stroke of genius — was to imagine a gang of his old fellow-pugilists conspiring to break up one of Bendy's meetings. This would have been a great scene for a stage-play, or even better for the movies. Conan Doyle, however, in this instance chose to tell the tale in verse. Here is what happened when the row began:—
- Then Bendy said:
- "Good Lord, since first I left my sinful ways,
- Thou knowest that to Thee alone I've given up my days;
- But now, dear Lord," and here laid his Bible on the shelf,
- "I'll take, with your permission, just five minutes to myself."
- He vaulted from the pulpit like a lion from his den.
- They say it was a lovely sight to see him floor his men;
- Right and left and left and right, straight and true and hard,
- Till the Ebenezer chapel looked more like a knacker's yard.
- Platt was standing on his back and looking at his toes,
- Solly Jones of Perry Bar was feels' for his nose,
- Connor of the Bull Ring had all that he could do
- Rakin' for his ivories that lay about the pew.
- Five repentant fightin' men, sitting in a row,
- Listenin' to the words of grace from Mister Bendigo
- Listenin' to his reverence — all as good as gold,
- Pretty little baa-lambs gathered to the fold.
The above, which makes a splendid recitation, reached me with a letter which I value "I've just done a poem which might be popular. If you think it any use accept it as a present. No charge for verse." I keep the manuscript among my treasures.
That the methods of Sherlock Holmes owed at least as much to Poe's Dupin as to Dr. Joseph Bell is, I think, beyond a doubt. But Dupin and his friend are shadows, while Sherlock and Watson are so vivid and alive that readers, the world over, assumed that Sherlock was an actual person, and sent us letters to be forwarded to his address. Yet there are critics who maintain that he is as much a thing of fantasy as Peter Pan. To me he seems as real as Falstaff or as Pecksniff, and much more real than Cato or King John. We know him as well as one of our home circle — his features are as clear to us as if we had met him in the street this morning. Of course, as Conan Doyle was always eager to acknowledge, this vivid personality owed a good deal to Sidney Paget, the artist who first made his face familiar to the public eye.
And now, what were Conan Doyle's own feelings towards his popular detective? Well, there is no doubt that he felt that Sherlock and his exploits had caused the public to do less than justice to his other work. In one letter he goes so far as to say "You will be amused to hear that I am at work upon a Sherlock Holmes story. So the old dog returns to his vomit." This is pretty strong. At the same time, he would suffer no liberty to be taken with his hero. On one occasion a picture was submitted to him for use in an advertisement. He comments :—
- The picture would never do. Holmes must preserve his dignity. He looks about five feet high, badly-dressed, and with no brains or character — an actor out of a job.
But that his sense of grievance was well grounded is too true. I have even seen him alluded to as "a writer of stories for boys." To me, and to others like me, this opinion seems to be (not to put too fine a point upon it) the last word in nonsense. To my way of thinking, such stories as "The Leather Funnel" or "The Lord of Chateau Noir" have never been excelled by any writer in the world — no, not by Kipling or Stevenson or Maupassant or Anatole France. Stories for boys, indeed! Faugh!
Conan Doyle's own favourite among his stories was "Sir Nigel." In his own words:—
- I have put into it every ounce of research, fancy, fire, and skill I possess. It rises to the very highest I have ever done or could do, at the last.
Yet he once told me that he had a sort of sneaking fondness for "The Stark Munro Letters" — much in the same way as a mother has often a preference for the weakling of the flock. It is a simple domestic story about two young people who get married and have a baby. But I believe it was founded on his own experience, and that may account for the warmth of his regard. Of his short stories he preferred "The Leather Funnel," which he alludes to in a letter I shall quote below.
Conan Doyle always took the keenest interest in the illustrations to his stories. Paget's drawings for Sherlock Holmes, and Rountree's for "The Lost World," were among those which moved his admiration. But, on the whole, artists and art editors were to him, as they are to most authors, a continual thorn in the flesh. Here is one extract on the subject:—
- Let me do a small grumble. That "Leather Funnel" was literature, or as near literature as I can produce. It is not right to print such a story two words to the line on each side of an unnecessary illustration. Take the last of the Brigadiers also. My whole object is to give the reader a stunning shock by Napoleon lying dead at the crisis of the adventure. But the story is prefaced by a large picture of Napoleon lying dead, which simply knocks the bottom out of the whole thing from the story-teller's point of view.
Here is another in a similar vein:—
- About that fourth story, if the artist draws a picture — as he will be tempted to do — of the train jumping down the shaft, he simply gives the whole thing away. It would be a shame. Let his drawing be mysterious like the story, so that the reader cannot quite understand it until he has read it.
It may be noted that he never criticized a picture as a work of art. What he wanted was an illustration that "hit the reader in the eye."
Anything like puffery was against the very nature of the man, and advertisements were apt to stir his ire. The following announcement he drew up himself, and it is of two-fold interest — it shows his own idea of how such a notice should be written, while it also tells the striking origin of another of his plots:—
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's serial story, "The Lost World," which begins in the April number of THE STRAND MAGAZINE, had its genesis in a curious way. A friend had been discussing with the author as to the possibility of opening up a new type of story of action. He contended that the possibilities had been exhausted and that with the pirate ship, the treasure hunt, and the other well-known forms of adventure books no new thrill was possible. The novelist, on the contrary, upheld the view that there was a large field which had not yet been worked, and that it should develop upon the lines of a combination of imagination and realism each pushed as far as the writer's capacity would carry him. The argument ended in a small bet and a promise by Sir Arthur that he would endeavour to vindicate his opinion by producing such a book. The result is " The Lost World." It must be admitted that in his Sherlock Holmes tales Sir Arthur recast the stereotyped detective story of our childhood, and it will be interesting to see how far he succeeds in this new attempt at fresh methods of treatment.
By the way, there is a passage in one of his letters that would have made an excellent advertisement for this magazine:—
- Foreigners used to recognize English by their check suits. I think they will Soon learn to do it by their STRAND MAGAZINES. Everybody on the Channel boat, except the man at the wheel, was clutching one.
My next, and last, extract provides a pretty little puzzle. It arose out of the statement in one of his stories that the middle day of the last century was January 1st, 1850. Several correspondents pointed out that the correct date is January 1st, 1851. Here is Conan Doyle's reply:—
- I still adhere to my statement. The middle day of the century is Jan. 1st, 1850. The century ends with Dec. 31, 1899.
I thought — and still think — that the correspondents were right, and, moreover, that the end of the century is Dec. 31, 1900. But I have been surprised to find how many people take Conan Doyle's view. Reader, what do you say?