The Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle EncyclopediaThe Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

Holmes Wouldn't Recognize It

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Holmes Wouldn't Recognize It is an article written by John Dickson Carr published in The New-York Times Magazine on 21 february 1954.

Holmes Wouldn't Recognize It

The New-York Times (Magazine, 21 february 1954, p. 10)
The New-York Times (Magazine, 21 february 1954, p. 35)
The New-York Times (Magazine, 21 february 1954, p. 36)
The New-York Times (Magazine, 21 february 1954, p. 37)

Scotland Yard, so long derided in fiction and fact, today basks in the admiration of whodunit cultists and the public, too.

London. "There is no clue," said Lestrade.

"None whatever," chimed in Gregson.

That was the doleful chorus which wailed through the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. And we were happy. We knew, of course, that there toss a clue; even Watson knew that; but we could be certain it was the one thing Scotland Yard would never find.

"Ours is the only trade," remarks G. K. Chesterton's Inspector Bagshaw, "in which the professional is always supposed to be wrong. After all, people don't writ, stories in which hair-dressers can't cut hair and have to be helped by a customer; or in which a cabdriver can't drive a cab until his fare explains to him the philosophy of cabdriving."

Nowadays, sensibly, all that has been changed. Nobody would dare write a story in which the official detectives were anything but able and intelligent. All the same. since Scot-land Yard has recently been in the news with a shake-up of its top administration, we might glance back over in history.

The London Police Force, as a matter of record, wag found. by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, "Peel," wrote the schoolboy. "was a huntsman who invented bobbies." These original "peelers," in blue swallow-tail coats and varnished black top-hats. led a dogs life as spies and spoilsports. And no detective force as yet existed.

It was not until 1842 that a dozen men, three inspectors and nine sergeants, were poured into plain clothes and set up in an office at Old Scotland Yard. no great distance away from the present building, as the first Scotland Carders of history.

At first, it is cheering to relate, they were applauded and even idealized in fiction. Charles Dickens, always fascinated by a good murder or an ingenious robbery, Molted the entire detective force to have tea with him at the office of his new magazine, "Household Words." More than half of them attend., splendid in side-whiskers because Policemen were for to wear beards or moustaches. Over tea, which took the form of brandy and cigars, they impressed the great novelist by staying sober and relating their adventures in crime.

None of their experiences, as retold by Dickens in 1850, would have roused the envy of the unborn Sherlock Holmes. It was run-of-the-mill stuff. "Burn my body," exclaims a forger arrested by Inspector Field, "if this ain't too bad!" But these detectives were alert, they were honest, they were even reasonably literate. They detected well, but the surprising thing was that they detected at all. Up to this time England had known only the Bow Street Runners, those swaggering gentry with red waistcoats and Pistols in their belts, who had railroaded men to prison because they received a cash bonus for each conviction.

Hence the new detective police seemed almost a set of masterminds. When Dickens wove ix-murder mystery into the somber length of "Bleak House" (1853), twice misleading the reader with false suspects before his surprise ending, he modeled his shrewd, kindly Inspector Bucket on the real-life Inspector Field. Dickens' young friend, Wilkie Collins, went even further.

It is well known that Collins' "The Moonstone" (1868), is the first great detective novel in the modern fair-play tradition. He anticipated "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by making the teller of the story turn out to be the culprit, and he introduced is rose-growing detective, Sergeant Cuff, who has set a fashion in horticultural sleuths to this day. But it is not so well known that Collins, as early as 1858, wrote a. long short-story in which the official police are brilliant and the amateur detective is a bungling fool.

"That empty-headed puppy," writes Chief Inspector Theakstone to Sergeant Bulmer, in "The Biter Bit," "has made a mess of the case at Rutherford Street, exactly as I expected he would." Here he encloses the amateur's report. .king Sergeant Bulmer to read it. "[Sharpin] has looked for the thief in every direction except the right one. You can by your hand on the guilty person in five minutes, now."

And Sergeant Bulmer winks and agrees; and the bumptious amateur is driven howling from the field. Don't blame the fiction-writers too much. They glorified Scotland Yard long before they threw bricks at it.

Unfortunately, this honey-moon did not last During the next three decades, as we watch Scotland Yard through the eyes of derisive newspaper comments, we can see the founding of the wooden-headed legend and the birth of Inspector Lestrade. In 1867, for instance, came the famous Clerkenwell Blunder.

A wild-eyed thug named Richard Burke had been shut up in the Clerkenwell House of Detention. Somebody tipped off the "peelers" that Burke's gang would try to rescue him by blowing up the wall of the prison round the exercise ground. Detectives, ready for trouble, were lurking in the street when Burke's gang grandly drove up in a cart loaded with gunpowder-barrels. Rolling the cart against the wall, they threw a white ball over the wall as a signal to the prisoner inside, and then set fire to the fuse — all, for some reason, without any intervention by the police.

The fuse was damp and wouldn't burn, but the conspirators got away. Next day the same conspirators, nothing if not persistent, trotted back with the same powder cart and tried it again. This time the waiting police failed to prevent the explosion and still failed to arrest anybody, though the blast wreck, the street and killed four bystanders.

"Our police," was the official explanation, delivered to a hooting House of Commons, "were misled by the terms of the warning they received. They thought that the wall would be blown up from underneath. They never dreamed it would be blown down from outside."

It would be unfair to choose an isolated instance like this, and to intimate, as certain newspapers did, that the Metropolitan Police were all but indistinguishable from the Keystone Cops. But public confidence was not sweetened by the Scotland Yard scandal of 1878, when three of the highest-placed detective officials were jailed for being on the pay roll of Master Criminal Harry Benson.

Harry Benson, by the way, really deserves the name of master criminal. He was the son of an English clergy-man and an accomplished linguist. On his way to New York to bring off a gigantic swindle, he met and charmed the great singer, Adelina Patti. When the ship docked, he proved his respectability by walking down the gang-plank with Madame Patti on his arm. Bribing Scotland Yard had been all in the day's work.

As a result of this scandal. the Metropolitan Police were greatly strengthened by a new and much enlarged detective force. For the first time it be-came officially known as the Criminal Investigation Department. Nevertheless, there were many who remained as skeptical as the magazine Punch.

"The Criminal In(ve)stigation Department," wrote Punch in 1881, "has issued its annual report, and the Defective Police is declared to be absolutely perfect. No allusion is made to undiscovered murders in Bloomsbury, Cannon Street, Hoxton, Euston Square, Burton Crescent. Harley Street, etc., etc. Let's all have a holiday."

Again, in the Sixties and Eighties. London was rocked with a series of dynamite explosions set off by an Irish political society called the Fenians. There were eighteen of them in one year. It inspired Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife to write their fantasy of "The Dynamiter," in which one plotter tries to blow up the statue of Shakespeare because of Shakespeare's "disgusting political opinions."

Yet fantasy lagged behind fact. There were explosions at the office of The Times, at the Tower of London, at Victoria Station, at London Bridge, at the Admiralty, and at the House of Commons. In 1884, as their noblest effort, the Fenians put dynamite in a lavatory at Scotland Yard itself, and blew out a side of the building!

Apologists could point out. truthfully, that the solution of murder mysteries is no test of a detective department's efficiency. Murders, domestic or political, are the thin exception rather than the fat rule: and, even so, Scotland Yard has had fewer unsolved murders than any great city in the world. Whenever a police howler splashed the headlines. it was due to faulty organization. The police were controlled entirely by the Home Office, the Home Secretary being (as he still is) a member of the Cabinet. There was always friction between the Home Secretary and the Commissioner of Police; friction between the Commissioner, who was usually an army man with military methods, and the various departments at the Central Office; and bad coordination between the Central Office and the divisional stations. Misunderstandings led to recurrent shake-ups and the resignation of one Commissioner after another.

In February, 1886, a riot began in Trafalgar Square and tore a trail of ruin from there to Oxford Street Windows crashed down in the stately clubs of St James' Shops were smashed and looted. Though Scotland Yard had been forewarned of it, more than five hundred police reserves failed to quell the riot because they had all been directed to the wrong places.

Now, 1886 is a significant date in fiction. A young Southsea physician, Dr. Conan Doyle, may well have read those newspaper accounts as he sat down in March to write a short but epoch-making novel called "A Study in Scarlet."

It is usual to suppose that Conan Doyle, in his portrayal of Lestrade and Gregson, was merely having some fun — as Edgar Allan Poe had done with the bumbling Prefect G. No doubt he enjoyed it. The instinct to make game of the police is as old as Punch and Judy, and may be found in any democratic country; it is a healthy sign. But comedy was only incidental to the author's purpose. He simply pictured the official detectives as most people really saw them.

"It's all very well for you to laugh, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," angrily cries Lestrade, after announcing that the Lauriston Gardens murder must have been committed by a woman named Rachel. "You may be very smart and clever, but the old hound is best when all is said and done."

They were the old hounds, the die-hards, and they were not much exaggerated. They had risen from the ranks in a system which paid starvation wages, worked its constables twelve hours a day, and left them open to death or injury on the moat peaceful beat.

True, public opinion toward Scotland Yard began to change as the Nineties rolled into the new century, and better wages as well as better conditions recruited abler men. The creator of Sherlock Holmes faithfully mirrored the change by showing us such capable young officers as Stanley Hopkins and Inspector MacDonald. But never had the police met more savage criticism than in 1888, when all London shivered to the tread of Jack the Ripper.

Between the end of August and the middle of November of that year the Ripper butchered five prostitutes. Two of his victims died in a single night, one of them in a fifteen-minute interval between the rays of flashing lanterns. His long knife struck and vanished in an area so narrow that you may visit the scene of every murder in one short walk. And yet nothing could stop him.

Panic swept the streets. Through greasy alleys, under the brown fog, Metropolitan constables joined forces with the City of London police to hunt in pairs, with strips of rubber fastened to their boots to deaden noise.

The terror grew. Respectable women refused to venture out after dark, even in the West End. Richard Mansfield, the American actor, was playing "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" at Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre. One journalist, leaving the theatre unnerved by a memory of Mr. Hyde's face in green limelight, nearly jumped out of a crawling skin when he heard news venders shouting of another Whitechapel murder.

That was on November 10, when in the morning they found the mutilated body of Mary Kelly, the only one of the phantom's victims to be killed indoors. Here they used bloodhounds in an attempt to track the killer: which proved nothing because the blood-hounds only followed the wrong trail, and provided the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes' fiasco with the mongrel dog Toby in "The Sign of the Four."

Somebody, who was prob-ably not the murderer st all, had been writing jeering letters to the Central News Agency. "Yours truly, Jack the Ripper"; that was how he got his name. Another Com-missioner of Police, Sir Charles Warren, resigned under fire. It all but brought down the Government as well And still the maniac remained at large. His identity has never been known.

At the very beginning of the holocaust Scotland Yard had met more trouble from another source. The C. I. D., in 1888, were at last preparing to move from their old, over-crowded headquarters. A site for a new building had been chosen on the Thames Embankment, and workmen began to clear it. And the first thing these workmen found, slap on the site of New Scotland Yard, was the dismembered body of a murdered woman. All the efforts of the C. I. D. failed to discover who she was, let alone who had murdered her.

But the Case of the Scotland Yard Corpse was their last misadventure. An American commentator, in his introduction to Sir Basil Thomson's "The Story of Scotland Yard," has summed it up.

"To put a finger on the exact moment when the feeling for the Yard changed from distaste through tolerance to adulation is impossible. Certainly by the turn of the century the ugly and imposing building by the Thames, built of granite quarried by the convicts at Dartmoor, had begun to fire men's imaginations. Police were an old story by then, the world was getting on. and eighteenth-century individualism was little better than a memory; the romantic criminal, from Robin Hood to Professor Moriarty, was at a discount. People had learned that the austere honesty of the criminal judges had its counterpart in the austere honesty of the Yard.

"But it was more than honesty; it was patience, it was brains, it was bravery. Case after case had piled up; you couldn't buy the Yard; you couldn't use what is politely known as 'influence'; it simply wasn't safe to be a major criminal in England."

That is the glory of Scotland Yard. And that is true, though credulity boggles at the statement that the romantic criminal is at a discount. The picturesque criminal has never been at a discount. We remember Robin Hood and Professor Moriarty, those admirable individualists, when we can't remember who robbed whom in yesterday's newspaper.

Stern critics of fiction have derided the story of Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, in which Raffles steals the Gold Cup at Ascot as a present for Queen Victoria. But a brace of suave and well-dressed crooks really did steal the Gold Cup at Ascot. They drove up in a handsome car, according to Sir Robert Anderson, and pinched the cup out of the Royal Enclosure Nor can fiction improve on the personality of George Joseph Smith, who found a way of drowning his wives in tin baths without the slightest struggle or out-cry, and afterward, on one occasion, played the harmonium while water soaked through the ceiling above him.

"I'm not a murderer," shouted Smith at his trial. "though I may be a bit peculiar."

No, we must not be gulled into thinking that the picturesque never happens, and dis-courage writers from any dangerous use of their imaginations. The trend toward realism is excellent, if we are always sure what realism is. Fictionally speaking, Scotland Yard long ago came into its own with such "natural" characters as Freeman Wills Croft's Inspector French and Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyne. This is only just; fairness would not have it other-wise.

And yet — and yet—

There are times when some of us, secretly and guiltily yearn for the good old days of Lestrade and Gregson. The modern world, in its passion for accuracy, is in danger of becoming a little too solemn-minded. There was real joy in life, the laughter of high gods, when the violin sang in Baker Street like the nightingale in Berkeley Square; when the client fainted on the hearth-rug: when Lestrade, crying. "They can't deceive me," set up a Constabulary Chorus with Gregson and Athelney Jones. For the ideal detective story will have something else besides a great detective. it will also have a great dunce. Inspectors French and Alleyne are more like real life. But they are less like epic poetry. Give us the poetry, of tobacco-ash and bloodstains and hand-cuffs, and we shall get on as best we can without the prose.