How Holmes Was Reborn
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
How Holmes Was Reborn is an article written by Herbert Brean published in LIFE Magazine on 29 december 1952.
The article explains the collaboration between Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr in writing The Adventure of the Seven Clocks published in the same issue just before the article. The short story is the first one of their collaboration which was collected in The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes in 1954.
How Holmes Was Reborn
A Unique Literary Partnership Engineered His Second Return
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who died in 1930, wrote an even 60 stories about Sherlock Holmes — 56 short stories and four novels, more than half-a-million words in all. Yet in 1933 Vincent Starrett, a devout Holmes admirer, wrote, "Good, bad or indifferent, one wishes that there were stories yet to come. And why may not one hope? There is still — is there not? — that long row of year books which filled a shelf in Baker Street..."
This hope reflected Starrett's tongue-in-cheek faith as a Baker Street Irregular that Sherlock Holmes actually lived and that the stories about him were all factual, written by the faithful Doctor Watson from voluminous records.
That faith has been justified, as the foregoing pages indicate. Sherlock Holmes, who once before returned miraculously to life, has returned again. He is back to stay, at least for a while. The authors, Adrian Conan Doyle, son of Holmes's originator, and John Dickson Carr, an acknowledged master of the mystery story and Sir Arthur's official biographer, have written The Adventure of At Seven Clocks as the first story in a series entitled The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.
This unique revival is a literary event of major importance. For Sherlock Holmes, as most people know, is not merely the most famous fictional character ever created; he is also the most believed in and the most beloved. The Holmes books have never been out of print since he and Watson first appeared in 1887. They have been translated into almost every known language including Icelandic, Afrikander and Chinese, and some are even circulated in Russia. This is eloquent testimony to mankind's basic need for Sherlock Holmes since dictatorships generally, and Russia notably, ban detective stories as "decadent" — probably, as Mystery Historian Howard Haycraft has theorized, because any reading that reminds its people of individual rights is highly dangerous to a government-by-force.
Holmes's popularity has received other attestations. He has appeared in more than 100 movies (played by John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone and Raymond Massey among others), in nearly 1,000 radio dramatizations, has been seen in England on television, and has been the hero of at least 14 legitimate stage plays. Holmes has made his own name and such expressions as "Elementary, my dear Watson" a part of the English language. He has evoked an organization of devotees scattered throughout North America, with branch. in Copenhagen, Tokyo, Paris and Sidney, Australia — the Baker Street Irregulars — who study and elucidate the Doyle writings and are chiefly responsible for the 750 volumes, pamphlets and articles which have been written about Holmes (and even about the books about him). Holmes has been solemnly endowed with a coat of arms, based on internal evidence in die stories, and a monk turned advertising executive, the late Harvey Officer, even composed a Baker Street Suite for Violin and Piano, issued on two 12-inch records. For the Festival of Britain last year a full-scale replica of the famous quarters in Baker Street was assembled and joyful thousands paid a total of $7,295.51 to inspect the synthetic residence of a man who never existed. As E. W. Hornung, himself the creator of the celebrated Raffles, once observed in a weirdly multiple pun, "Though he might be more humble, there's no police like Holmes."'
The idea of attempting to continue this staggering (and very profitable) success had been discussed by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr ever since the latter began his research for the scholarly biography of Sir Arthur which he published in 1949. However it was not until last summer that they came to a decision. Both were in New York at theist, Doyle to open the Baker Street room exhibit for its first U.S. showing (LIFE, July 7).
"We were having coffee late one night in Adrian's suite at the Gladstone," Carr recalls, "and got to talking about Doyle's penchant for introducing American characters into his stories. Once again the project we had long discussed came up and Adrian said, 'Well, why don't we get down to it?'
"I said that for some time I had had an idea for a plot involving seven clocks and began outlining it. I was perhaps a quarter of the way through when Adrian interrupted with, 'Now wait a minute. Holmes wouldn't have done that.'
"And we were off."
Even the commas are authentic
If the venture's launching contained an element of spontaneity, there was nothing slapdash about its execution. Both Doyle and Carr knew they had set themselves the task of reproducing a monumental literary success which many others had attempted unsuccessfully. Literally hundreds of pastiches have been written about Holmes and Watson (and even Mycroft, Holmes's older, even more brilliant brother), all of them making some pretense at Doylean style. But Doyle-Carr carried imitation to the point of trying to think like Doyle, and use his words. They studied such minutiae as Doyle's sentence rhythms, his use of the comma, the number of words in the average Holmes sentence of dialog, and how long Doyle might continue a dialog of direct quotations without a "Said I" or "He remarked." Carr, who has produced 59 mystery novels, a number of which are rated among the very best, grew up on Sherlock Holmes and, like his partner have been many careful discussions on the use of such words as "wallet" which in England would be "notecase" but in Doyle-ese is plain, old-fashioned "pocketbook" (e.g., The Adventure of the Copper Beeches). For similar reasons what might have been "luggage" or "suitcase" becomes "traveling case."
Doyle-Carr furthermore have at their beck Adrian Doyle's remarkable stock of his father's personal papers and his own personal memories. When the mood was upon him Doyle himself had Holmes's gift for deducing a man's position and background from his bearing, clothing and physique, and more than once Adrian sat with him in a hotel dining room and listened to hiss draw his conclusions about a nearby diner ("a retired lieutenant of Marines, fresh from India"), then check them with the maître d'hôtel. Almost always Doyle's deductions proved right and were followed by a stern injunction to his son to learn how to use eyes and mind simultaneously.
Sir Arthur was an insatiable reader who usually read with an ordinary school "composition book" at his elbow in which to make notes of passages that interested him; later some appeared in the stories, quoted by the great detective himself. Since his father never threw away a note or jotting if he could help it, Adrian has an enormous supply of these, all carefully filed and catalogued in his home in Tangier, where he has lived since 1949. Some go back to the time of Sir Arthur's residence at Southsea, where he first conceived of Holmes and wrote the early stories. Of equal importance is the son's memories of his father's travels and enthusiasms. Says Adrian, "Many of our settings are genuine ones drawn from my father's life — man,or houses where he and I stayed , and the like. We will similarly draw on the sort of real-life incident that he used. For example, the 'clue of the missing dumbbell' in The Valley of Fear was, as I well know, based on the fact that one morning my father, who liked to As morning exercises, could not find one of his dumbbells. A careless maid had kicked it under the bed. And you may recall the little scene in The Sign of the Four where McMurdo, the ex-pugilist guarding Pondicherry Lodge, refuses admittance to Bartholomew Sholto's visitors until he recognized Holmes as an amateur boxer who once fought him ('Ah, you're the one that has wasted your gifts, you have!'). That actually occurred to my father years before."
Before returning to Tangier from the U.S. last fall, the collaborators worked on the project whenever they got a chance to get together — at the Holmes exhibition, over a lunch or a midnight snack. The usual method was for each to pour out his ideas for plot points, phrases or bits of dialog, and the other to criticize or improve. As the story developed, either would scrawl sentences on sheets of paper as they were jointly agreed on; Car would make notes on a typewriter when one was at hand. Says Doyle, "Some of it is written line by line alternately; we cannot tell, nor can anyone else, who wrote which phrase. When we write, our brains are each a half, forming one whole."
Usually the halves became a whole with both men lounging and leaping up by turns to pace, argue or gesticulate. Doing dialog one often took the part of Holmes and the other of Watson, to converse in the curious mixture of biting exasperation and bluff wonderment that was the usual Holmes-Watson conversational style. Arguments about fine points were not infrequent. Doyle might say, "At this point Holmes would tell the client he had done extremely well."
"Not 'extremely,' Adrian. Holmes always used 'exceedingly.'"
"True. Right you are. But then what does he do, John?"
"Now mightn't he typically stray into a little philosophizing on the banality of crime, or how a flower like the moss rose proves the existence of God?" Rapport with the original Doyle methods was further enhanced by the authors' occasional handling of Sir Arthur's pistol or magnifying glass.
They found that this intense joint concentration was best continued for two hours at a time at most. But whether together or alone they were planning the stories almost constantly, for the project dominated the minds of both. By its nature it had to.
For the secret of Arthur Conan Doyle's literary success was not merely an effectively simple style, a fine instinct characterization and a splendid sense of narrative movement. He also possessed an extraordinary ability to imagine his every scene, character and action in such detailed, three-dimensioned reality that he imparted an overwhelming sense of it to his readers. This seems to have been a forte of 19th Century novelists; it has been said that when Dickens' Little Nell died, all England wept. Doubtless it did. But when, after 26 stories, Holmes "died" in 1893, outraged readers wrote Doyle passionate letters beginning, "You beast," and "You cur," and personal friends upbraided him on the street. Even young British bankers went to their offices wearing crape bands of mourning.
Conversely, when in 1903 the Strand magazine triumphantly announced The Return of Sherlock Holmes, in which it was explained that Holmes's death had never occurred after all, it was an occasion for national rejoicing; Britons queued up and all but rioted in their eagerness to buy the magazine. Today people who are confident he is still alive write Holmes for advice at 221B, and some have even written the Swiss newspaper Journal de Genève for its issue of May 6, 1891, the date on which Doyle reported the paper carried its erroneous report that Holmes and Professor Moriarity had perished together in the Reichenbach Fall.
Connoisseurs will be relieved to learn that the Doyle-Carr writings have made no concession to current tastes as regards sex, sadism and other such inventions of the devil or of Mickey Spilane. Holmes continues a misogynistic bachelor, and females, however fetching, are chaste and are treated with the utmost respect (it may be recalled that for 24 years Doyle refused to publish The Adventure of the Cardboard Box in book form because in it he had permitted a lady to make she would now be regarded as a very mild pass at a married man).
Watson, similarly undergoing no sea change, remains as the man of action and simple chivalry that Doyle portrayed and not the comic bumbler that some have tried to make him out. ("After all," argues Carr, "who would look bright alongside Holmes?")
The authors have felt no temptation to vary the pattern which Doyle usually observed, beginning with the classic openings: Holmes making leisurely deductions about an object left behind (Dr. Mortimer's stick in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Henry Baker's hat in The Blue Carbuncle); or the dramatic arrival of a client like Dr. Thorneycroft Huxtable (The Priory School) or Alexander Holder (The Beryl Coronet), often with an accompanying demonstration of deductive powers. Or the frantic announcement of vanished papers (The Bruce-Partington Plans, The Second Stain).
Immediately before or after this Doyle usually included a few tantalizing references to untold stories such as "The Singular Affair of the Aluminum Crutch" or "The Case of Wilson, the Notorious Canary Trainer" or "The Adventure of the Tired Captain." Then the statement of the case, usually by the client, and soon after, the departure on the adventure with its steady movement to the climax, and Holmes's ultimate explanation.
Special pains have been taken to reproduce certain Doylean literary tricks such as the enigmatic clue, the most famous of which (and perhaps the most famous passage in all mystery fiction) occurs in the brief conversation in Silver Blaze:
- "[I would draw your attention] to the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."
- "[But] the dog did nothing in the nighttime."
- "That was the curious incident."
As Doyle usually but not always did, clues have been presented with painstaking fairness although they are as carefully hidden as Carr, who is highly skilled in this delicate technique, can manage. Most important of all, the partners have attempted to recapture the ability to arouse curiosity, which Doyle possessed in a superlative degree: the very essence of the mystery story which makes the reader ask, in pleasant bewilderment, what's going on here?... Why is this happening? Thus: thy should someone go around breaking busts of Napoleon (The Adventure of the Six Napoleons) or find a priceless jewel in a Christmas goose's craw (The Blue Carbuncle) or pose as his own brother and write a letter to himself (The Stock Broker's Clerk). It is such titillating puzzlements, presented with solid realism and ultimately explained convincingly, that place the Holmes tales ahead of all others.
Another problem for the collaborators was the creation of the pungent Victorian and Edwardian flavor which permeates the Holmes stories with their now-extinct hansom cabs and gasogenes (an early form of the seltzer bottle). These tales are authentic vignettes of their period, and to simulate them entails scrupulous research. For instance, in The Adventure of the Seven Clocks, Holmes observes a travel sticker on a you, woman's luggage and draws certain inferences from it. To be certain that this was no anachronism, Doyle and Carr enlisted the help of Thomas Cook & Sons to ascertain whether stickers were in use at that time, and by hotels in Switzerland. (They were.) Even the title of the story is typical of Doyle, who liked numerals in this titles (Six Napoleons, Five Orange Pips, Sign of the Four, Three Garridebs and Second Stain). This first story is based on one of the untold tales which Watson was forever mentioning with irritating casualness and never writing, and all the others will be similarly based. There are 75 of the references in all — enough starting points for more stories than Doyle himself wrote.
If 41-year-old Adrian, Sir Arthur's youngest son, brings a wealth of authentic detail to the collaboration, Carr brings no less a wealth of technical skill. The son of a U.S. congressman, Carr was born in Uniontown, Pa. 47 years ago. He attempted his first mystery at 13 and published his first detective novel in 1930. He is widely acknowledged to be the all-time champion at the "sealed room" type of mystery, in which a victim is found murdered at close range under circumstances (in a locked room, or in the middle of an untracked, snow-filled street) that seem to prove conclusively no one could have approached him. He is a member of both London's aloof Detection Club and of the Mystery Writers of America, of which he is a past president.
However much of care and skill Doyle-Carr lavish on their joint effort, it will not be too much, for they are attempting one of the most difficult literary feats in the world and in full view of one of the world's most critical audiences. Edgar W. Smith, leading spirit of the Baker Street Irregulars, for example, says the Irregulars welcome the new series with warm inter.t but cannot accept it into "the canon" of original stories. Most Holmes readers today and certainly all Holmes enthusiasts are actually rereaders who have gone through every word of the stories from five to 100 times. This familiarity with the original 60 tales must necessarily make the 61st seem foreign and unfamiliar. Doyle and Carr therefore have a considerable body of prejudice to surmount, except in the case of the reader wise enough to realize that the success of their efforts will ultimately be determined less by the fist reading than by the fifth, and possibly in 1962 rather than in 1952.
There are certain heartening auguries. Not the least of them is the fact that 65 years after he made his portentous first appearance in Beeton's Christmas Annual, Sherlock Holmes now reappears in yet another sort of Christmas annual — to take LIFE's readers once again to 221B Baker Street where the tobacco is forever in the Persian slipper, the yellow fog coils as ever outside the window, and Holmes's strident voice perennially complains about the commonplaceness of crime — until the footstep of a client is heard upon the stair.