Case in hand

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 27

Case in hand

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 27

Case in hand

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 27

Not even his creator could kill Sherlock Holmes – though he tried several times. John Sutherland unlocks the mystery of Sherlock's enduring appeal

Arthur Conan Doyle was a firm believer in the afterlife (he also believed in fairies, but let that pass). If he is looking at 2016 from 'behind the veil', Sir Arthur would, for a certainty, be dumbstruck. Sherlock here, Sherlock there, Sherlock everywhere. The consulting detective is a franchise that generates billions. On page, stage and screen, from Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch, the unofficial detective has gone global (the People's Republic of China, one is told, has a particularly warm spot for Mr Holmes). Sir Arthur would not be amused. "He keeps me from better things," he once grumbled. "There are no better things," Sherlock's army of fans retort.

There are two big questions. The first is why did Doyle's sleuth become all the rage in the 1890s? The second (less easy to answer) is why are we still so fascinated by Sherlock Holmes? Holmes was born in two novels by a young Scottish doctor turned hopeful writer: A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of Four (1890). They did well, but they did not set the Thames on fire. Doyle needed mentoring to perfect the Holmesian concept. Luckily he tried his hand with The Strand Magazine. A sixpenny-weekly devised by George Newnes in 1891, The Strand was that beloved Victorian thing – a cheap luxury. Finely illustrated on coated paper, it attracted top-rate Victorian contributors, including Queen Victoria herself.

The editor, H. Greenhough Smith, hated serialized novels. He preferred punchy, self-contained short stories with a carry-over element. The series hero and formula narrative was what The Strand specialized in. No 'to be continued'. Doyle duly produced the stories for the magazine, then reprinted them as 'casebook' volumes. In both formats, they were super-sellers. A new Holmes could raise The Strand's circulation to half a million.

Among a collection of items by Conan Doyle, to be auctioned by Bonhams in New York in April, are manuscripts of Sherlock short stories, and a rare single sheet from the classic novel The Hound
of the Baskervilles.

In a stroke of genius, Smith had assigned the illustration of the Sherlock Holmes stories to Sidney Paget. It was Paget who created the aquiline, hatchet-faced look and (another masterstroke) the deerstalker hat and Inverness cape. The meerschaum pipe is credited to the first popularizer of Holmes on the American stage, William Gillette.

Doyle, said Greenhough Smith, was "the greatest short-story writer since Edgar Allan Poe". His achievement was to correct the great defect in current detective fiction: its lack of logic. Poe called it "ratiocination" – thinking your way to the solution of crimes.

While Smith and Paget are the godparents of the Holmes phenomenon, Doyle can claim sole parentage for Dr John Watson: Afghan hero, chronicler and "idiot friend" (as crime writer Julian Symons called the detective's string-along, to whom things must be explained).0

Why did Holmes strike such a resonant chord in the 1890s? Recall that John Watson, like his creator, is a doctor. Doyle credited his eagle-eyed tutor, Dr Joseph Bell, at Edinburgh University's medical school, as the original for Holmes. And it seems that Bell's forensic methods made a great impression on the young student.

Medicine, generally, had made giant leaps by the 1890s, particularly in symptomatology: the interpretation of clues. Deduction had become a vital diagnostic tool. Go to your physician today with a worrying pain in your chest and, before the MRI scan, she may ask to look at your fingernails. They could be to a clue to the condition of your heart. Doctors, at least the smartest of them, had become forensic detectives.

Another explanation for the perennial appeal of Holmes is his amateurism. He is an incarnation of the Anglo-American love of the oddball genius. Steve Jobs, the 'Billion Dollar Hippy', is a modern example of our reverence for the amateur, not the company man.

The legion of Sherlock lovers, cultists and scholars who have dedicated their careers to the corpus will be excited by the rich trove to be auctioned by Bonhams. It comprises a bundle of late and mid-period Doyleiana – all classic items. Most enticing for Sherlockians is the manuscript of The Problem of Thor Bridge. It was first published in 1922, in The Strand (of course). Despite his creator's regular desire to kill him off, Holmes had been delighting readers for 30 years (he has not aged; like Poirot, he evidently has a hidden supply of the elixir of youth).

A man comes to 221B Baker Street for assistance – the usual opening. Neil Gibson is a fabulously rich American robber baron. And a brute. His wife was shot dead on an isolated bridge. In her hand was a letter, from the governess in the household, arranging a solitary meeting on Thor Bridge. The pistol that killed the wife is found in the governess's wardrobe. It is the husband's weapon. Prompted by Holmes, Gibson confesses to have not loved his wife for years. He does love the governess, whom he 'knows' to be innocent. A jury will think differently.

The spoiler-alert barrier prevents one going further. Enough to say the solution to the Thor Bridge problem is sufficiently elegant to have delighted that mathematician, Professor Moriarty – had Holmes not killed his great rival 20 years earlier at the Reichenbach Falls.

Tantalisingly, the story opens with a passing reference by Watson to a tin box containing such unfinished tales as "that of Mr James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world".

One hopes they may see the light of print one day. Another item in the trove is a single sheet of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It contains a fascinating crossed-out plot change. Baskerville is the acid-test Holmes story. If you love it, you will love everything Holmesian. The plot has more holes in it than a colander. But Sherlockians love the story of the baronet-killing hound. This manuscript page is a sacred relic.

The fourth item in the trove is what Henry James would call an amusette – a short short story, with a plot mechanism as precise as a Swiss watch. The Prisoner's Defense was published in 1916, at a time when it was uncertain the Allies would win the war. A highly decorated soldier has killed the glamorous French woman he was in love with. Captain John Fowler refuses to explain until, in court and facing the rope, he gives his plain-soldier's account of why he did it. Most readers will think they would have pulled the trigger themselves, having read his moving defence.

The manuscript of Rodney Stone is one of those "better things" that Doyle hoped posterity would associate with his name. The novel was published in 1896. It has a Regency romance plot but – unlike the products of the queens of the genre, Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland – is ostentatiously manly.

Doyle loved skiing (a sport he popularized) and cricket but, above all, boxing. Bare-knuckle heroes of the early ring (and the Marquess of Queensberry) cross the pages of Rodney Stone's life story. It's a fine novel, which should not, in my view, be overshadowed by Doyle's more popular work.

I've been privileged to examine these literary remains. Unlike the proverbial doctor's script, Doyle's handwriting is as legible as print. And his thought, as he puts his creations on paper, is extraordinarily confident, with minimal correction or afterthought. One comes away from the manuscripts with an even higher regard for the creator of the all-conquering Sherlock Holmes.

John Sutherland is Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London.

Related auctions