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Authors: Arthur Conan Doyle
THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
THE MEMOIRS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
was born in Edinburgh in 1859 and died in 1930. Into these years he crowded a variety of activity and creative work that earned him an international reputation and inspired the French to give him the epithet of âthe good giant'. He was educated at Stonyhurst and later studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he became the surgeon's clerk to Professor Joseph Bell whose diagnostic methods provided the model for the science of deduction perfected by Sherlock Holmes.
He set up as a doctor at Southsea and it was while waiting for patients that he began to write. His growing success as an author enabled him to give up his practice and to turn his attention to other subjects. He was a passionate advocate of many causes, ranging from divorce law reform and a Channel Tunnel to the issuing of steel helmets to soldiers and inflatable life jackets to sailors. He also campaigned to prove the innocence of individuals, and was instrumental in the introduction of the Court of Criminal Appeal. He was a volunteer physician in the Boer War and later in life became a convert to spiritualism.
As well as his Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle wrote a number of other works, including historical romances, such as
The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard
(1896). In the science fiction tale
The Lost World
(1912), he created another famous character, Professor Challenger, who appears in several later stories.
Sherlock Holmes first appeared in
A Study in Scarlet
in 1887. The Holmes stories soon attracted such a following that Conan Doyle felt the character overshadowed his other work. In âThe Final Problem' (1893) Conan Doyle killed him off, but was obliged by public demand to restore the detective to life. Despite his ambivalence towards Holmes, he remains the character for which Conan Doyle is best known.
is a novelist and historian. He has written six detective novels, as well as
An Instance of the Fingerpost
(1997) and numerous reviews and articles. He lives in Oxford.
was born in Dalston, London, and read Classical Hebrew at Manchester University. He recently edited
The Diary of a Nobody
by George and Weedon Grossmith, and has also annotated the collections of Sherlock Holmes stories
The Valley of Fear and Selected Cases
A Study in Scarlet
The Sign of Four
for Penguin Classics. He is the author of
A Literary Guide to London
(Penguin, 2000) and is currently working on a new guide to London for Penguin.
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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
first published 1892;
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
first published 1894.
This collection published in Penguin Classics 2001
Introduction copyright Â© Iain Pears, 2001
Notes copyright Â© Ed Glinert, 2001
All rights reserved
The moral right of the editors of Introduction
and Notes has been asserted
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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes was a success from the moment of his first appearance in 1887, and has never wavered in public esteem. Even though he had many predecessors, and has had many rivals then and since, he rapidly became the official prototype of the detective, and in particular of the English detective. This is peculiar in many ways, as the Holmes stories are largely atypical of the English detective genre as it evolved over the next half-century or so. Even the classic Holmesian form is at odds with what later became standard. Firstly, Holmes was written by a man while, in England at least, the genre rapidly became dominated by a whole series of women â Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, and so on. Secondly, the presentation was entirely different; most of the Holmes adventures came via the short story of less than ten thousand words, while the classic English detective story was in short novels about five times as long. Finally, the typical Holmesian stamping ground â and what the stories are primarily remembered for â is what might be termed the mean streets of Victorian London, down in the docks, in the opium dens, or alternatively in the new suburbs, all far removed from the cosy world of the English village or the country house murder. So many are the differences, in fact, that it can be doubted whether Holmes can be called the starting point of the English detective story at all; many of the stories' characteristics have much more in common with the American hard-boiled strand as it developed under Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett â both of whom also specialized in the short story for magazines.
So why was Holmes so successful and why, at the same time, was
he not really emulated in his country of origin? Above all, there is the simple quality of the stories, and in particular of the short stories presented here. Like that of many another fictional character, Holmes's success came despite his author; Conan Doyle always had something of a hard time accepting that he was going to be remembered for pieces of work which he considered less important than his more substantial efforts. Yet, the Holmes stories are a classic example of how quality sometimes varies in inverse relation to the amount of effort put in. Whereas many of Conan Doyle's other works show the failings of late nineteenth-century writing â being frequently excessively wordy, overwrought and mannered â with Sherlock Holmes in the earlier stories he achieved an extraordinary economy, an almost impressionistic ability to communicate atmosphere and character with the slightest of brushstrokes. The classic example of this, perhaps, is quite literally the atmosphere. While the London fog is indelibly associated with the tales it is in fact scarcely ever mentioned; there are as many references to London sun as to fog. The weather, indeed, is only rarely referred to at all; the dark brooding quality of many of the tales instead creates an impression which in fact exists largely in the reader's own imagination.
The requirements of the short story meant that the adventures were presented in a stripped-down form, with no redundant words. The forward momentum that results is remarkable, and everything hangs from the framework of the plot; this, more than anything else, has given them their enduring strength. With Holmes the reader is not wearied by the author's concerns to meditate on the ills of society or present his insight into character, both of which would have made the stories date far more obviously. Nor does he have those tastes and interests â cooking, cultivating orchids, body-building, or whatever â which are often grafted on to characters to give them an appearance of depth. He plays the violin and used to box; that is almost all we know about him and these are referred to rarely and economically. Even his habit of using cocaine is referred to in passing only: it is not used as a way of excavating his character. Holmes's personality is so strong because he is supposed not to have one; he is meant to be âcold, precise, but admirably balancedâ¦ the most perfect reasoning and
observing machine' (âA Scandal in Bohemia'). Seen through the eyes of Dr Watson â the perfect embodiment of open-minded yet conventional Victorian society â this gives him his unique and fascinating eccentricity.
In other words, however, Holmes's popularity endures despite what is in the stories, through an almost deliberate attempt to ignore some of the implications of the tales. For the character presented is the archetypal ânew man' of the Victorian age, a meritocrat, living solely off his brains, dislocated socially and scornful of the society in which he lives. This is, again, in complete contrast to later varieties of English detective; Holmes doesn't really care about society, seeing it mainly as a producer of intellectual puzzles â âthe status of my client,' he says in âThe Noble Bachelor', âis a matter of less moment to me than the interest of his case'. Most of the aristocrats who walk through the pages are presented in a less than sympathetic fashion and, while there are hints that he is a patriotic Englishman, properly loyal to the throne, there are none that this patriotism extends to any great affection for the English class system. The heroes of later years, in contrast, are all very conservative figures, from the snobbish Poirot to the aristocratic Wimsey, Campion and Alleyn. Holmes is instead uprooted from his place in society, indeed has uprooted himself â we learn through hints that he comes from the squirearchy, but no more; his background is of no importance in comparison to his own intellectual merit. Holmes is, purely and simply, his method and the cases he solves; it is perhaps significant that much of the Holmes industry which now exists occupies itself in seeking out those details â through guesswork, cross-referencing and so on â which Conan Doyle deliberately omitted.
Dr Watson, in contrast, is by far a more fleshed-out character; we are given more hard facts about his life than about the hero of the stories, and the division which gives most of the action to one figure, and most of the character development to the other, is a strange literary device which proves remarkably effective in practice. Had the stories depended on Holmes alone, they would perhaps have been a little too dry; had Conan Doyle tried to fill out Holmes's character, he would have diminished the mystery: Holmes is fascinating because nobody really knows him well. Instead, Conan Doyle adopted the
risky technique of all but forcing the reader to identify with the second string, the man constantly shown up by his friend's brilliance, whose instincts and conclusions are an infallible guide only to what did not happen. Many successors tried this technique, but few succeeded; certainly, no one ever created a secondary character who himself stands as a major creation.
For Watson is a considerable invention and, despite his obtuseness, is an admirable man possessed of all the human virtues except great intelligence. He is courageous, loyal, capable of human relationships quite beyond Holmes's range and, above all, he is a man of the greatest tolerance. He puts up with Holmes (no easy matter) as well as with various acquaintances who are cocaine addicts or other reprobates normally excluded from society by right-thinking men. Not once in all the stories does a moral judgement slip from his pen, even when dealing with high-class prostitutes in âA Scandal in Bohemia', interracial marriages (âThe Yellow Face') or bigamists (âThe Noble Bachelor'). Aristocrats and their mistresses excite Holmes's contempt, but Watson passes no comment. Again the contrast with stories from the âgolden age' of crime writing, the interwar years, is striking â only Agatha Christie shows any of Conan Doyle's tolerance, while racist, anti-Semitic and morally judgemental comments flow freely from the pens of far too many others. Through Watson, we have a picture of at least one section of respectable Victorian society which was far more easy-going and tolerant than anything that emerged for several decades afterwards. He stands as a character who is a worthy foil to his more famous associate because of these understated qualities. He is a decent, honest man who manages not to be dull by virtue of his openness to new experiences and his utter lack of pretension: it is hard to dislike a narrator who so freely illustrates his friend's brilliance by contrasting it with his own lack of perception; that Conan Doyle manages this without Watson ever seeming disingenuous, dull or false in his modesty is a measure of his skill.
Rather than the lands of aristocrats, squires and the wealthy, Holmes's primary stamping ground is the parts of Victorian London untouched even by the likes of Dickens, and many of his subjects are the residues of Empire washed back to the Mother Country. In
addition to the East End and the docks, he also operates in the ânear country', the new suburbs which grew up around the city in the nineteenth century, like Norbury, Lee, Pinner â all areas later ridiculed into obscurity for their lower middle class respectability but which then had not yet acquired their reputation for bland dullness. The further out into suburbia he goes, the weaker Conan Doyle's descriptive powers become, although in all fairness it must be said that scene-setting was not a high priority for him. None the less the deft touches which set out the locale in, for example, âThe Red-Headed League' or âThe Man with the Twisted Lip', rather elude Holmes when he gets as far as Dartmoor in âSilver Blaze'; only in longer stories such as
The Hound of the Baskervilles
(1902) does he pay much attention to scenery, and even then the landscape is often conveyed through the characters who inhabit it. Indeed, far more important than physical location in the early short stories is his description of character, which is as much part of Conan Doyle's art as it is of Holmes's, and in a succession of thumbnail portraits he demonstrates an impressive ability to capture personality and types in a minimum of words.
Many of the characters in the stories have been abroad, principally in the Empire. Indeed, it is extraordinary how many of them have at some stage been in Australia (âThe Boscombe Valley Mystery'), America (âThe Five Orange Pips', âThe Noble Bachelor', âThe Yellow Face'), India (âThe Speckled Band', âThe Crooked Man'), Nova Scotia (âThe Copper Beeches'); and how many of the stories involve people who, willingly or not, have travelled widely (âA Scandal in Bohemia', âThe
') or are foreigners (âThe Engineer's Thumb', âThe Greek Interpreter'). More remarkable still is the frequency with which the crimes narrated in the stories are generated abroad and then brought back to play out their consequences in England; much of Holmes's work is to preserve the country from the corruption of foreign places, and that of the Empire in particular: one almost thinks that without this foreign contamination even London would be a remarkably peaceful, law-abiding place.
Aside from that, Conan Doyle specializes in the struggling middle and lower-middle classes, alone in the office waiting for customers and struggling to maintain a position â Holmes himself, as he mentions in
âThe Musgrave Ritual', a doctor in âThe Resident Patient', an engineer in âThe Engineer's Thumb'; or in people forced to extreme measures to preserve appearances â hence the deception in âThe Man with the Twisted Lip'. The desire to hold on to sums of money which later writers would consider almost derisory provides the motives at the heart of âA Case of Identity', âThe Speckled Band' and âThe Copper Beeches', all of which are powered by questions of inheritance and give a more or less orthodox Victorian air to tales which, generally, are remarkably free of such period devices.
Distinctly in the minority in the stories, however, are criminals; even though Conan Doyle refers several times to London as being full of such people, true criminals in fact make only rare appearances. The towering exception, of course, is Professor Moriarty. It may be that I am almost alone in having no time for Moriarty, and regard him as little more than a desperate device by an author exceptionally keen to kill off his hero and bring his enslavement to an end. Conan Doyle's haste, I feel, made him careless in his depiction of the character and Moriarty as a result is a largely unsatisfying invention. Presumably Conan Doyle wanted to kill Holmes off by having this final showdown with his equal but opposite, in a Manichaean struggle between good and evil, dark and light, in which each cancelled out the other. The trouble is that Moriarty is so unconvincing that the contrast does not work. The idea of the master criminal, the âNapoleon of crime', to use Conan Doyle's memorable phrase, has been returned to again and again and never with any success except in espionage stories which are structurally capable of sustaining such figures. In inventing Moriarty, Conan Doyle abandoned almost all of the characteristics that made the earlier stories so successful. Holmes works because he is an outsider who controls nothing, and because the crimes he investigates have an individual, realistic tinge to them that makes them believable and enthralling. In âThe Final Problem' there is no particular crime or event at the centre: we are told of Moriarty's great evil and intelligence, but are never shown these qualities in operation. With Moriarty, Conan Doyle steps from detective story into thriller, drama into melodrama. In earlier tales there are references to Holmes's great cases, saving Scandinavian kings or confounding international swindlers,
but Conan Doyle had too much sense to turn them into stories in their own right: for these he concentrates on the small-scale, almost the domestic incident. Holmes's methods are simply not suited for grand conspiracy, and it is notable that in âThe Final Problem' there is no detection at all.
For in the stories detection is essential, even if it is not always central to the resolution of the tale. What Conan Doyle created was the perfect positivist, the embodiment of Victorian faith in rationality and science, convinced that the right combination of method and reason could overcome all obstacles. Even though our own trust in science is not what it was, and our faith in human rationality has taken a battering since the middle of the twentieth century, Sherlock Holmes still presents an attractive enough figure, although now viewed with a sentimental affection rather than seen as an almost aggressive blueprint for the future. For the methodology which Holmes employs was then radical and novel, even though it has now infiltrated all areas of life to such an extent that it is scarcely even noticed. The essence of the stories is the willingness to ignore the big picture and, instead, to apply reason to an accumulation of apparently insignificant details which then reveal the truth when properly analysed. Indeed, the more insignificant the detail, the more pure and useful it is, hence the importance of dogs that don't bark in the night, footprints, shiny cuffs, and so on.