Text size

On August 30, 1889, 112 years ago yesterday, a most extraordinary literary dinner took place in London. Joseph Marshall Stoddart, an American who had recently been appointed as the editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (published simultaneously in London and Philadelphia), was searching for fresh talent. He invited two guests to dinner: Oscar Wilde, at that time nearing the end of his term as editor of Woman's World magazine, and Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor and aspiring writer.

Stoddart commissioned both his guests to write novels for him. Wilde eventually wrote "The Picture of Dorian Grey." Stoddart's offer to Conan Doyle was not for anything along the historical line - as Doyle may have hoped, for he saw himself as an author of historical novels, an endeavor that demanded a lot of research - but for "another Sherlock Holmes story." Which resulted in "The Sign of Four."

The dinner should, therefore, be remembered as "the first resurrection of Sherlock Holmes." In 1886, Conan Doyle, unsuccessful at both his medical practice and his literary career, decided to try his hand at writing a detective story. Following Poe, Lecoq, Gaborieau and Wilkie Collins, he "gave birth" to two of his heroes: the narrator, Dr. John H. Watson MD, and the detective, the human reasoning-and-deduction machine, Sherlock Holmes. In "A Study in Scarlet," they meet, take rooms together (at the famous address of 221B Baker Street), and embark on a trail of detection.

Conan Doyle was amused and satisfied with this result of his literary efforts - but he was the only one. The little novel was rejected by several publishers, who praised it, but were not willing to print it. When it eventually appeared in "Beeton's Christmas Annual" in November 1887, dominating the front cover, it got some good reviews, but there were no sales to speak of, not even when it was published in book form by Lippincott in Philadelphia, in March 1890.

Conan Doyle forgot Sherlock Holmes, and concentrated on a story of the English Civil War, which became "Micah Clarke." When he was asked, however, to produce another Sherlock Holmes story he could not afford to refuse. He went back to his detective and his amanuensis, but did not bother to check the facts and characterization details he had established in the first book. He did not mean "The Sign of Four" to be a sequel.

But in writing it, and in its heroes' subsequent success, Conan Doyle laid the groundwork for the definition of a "series": A "series" starts with the second sequel, in which the author has to embellish things he established in the first sequel, which was not actually the first until there was a second. In "The Sign of Four" (in which the action starts in 1888), Watson's injury, which was in his shoulder in "A Study in Scarlet" (set in 1881) moves to his leg.

But that may have been an oversight (much commented by scholars of the Holmesian Canon - or should we say Conan). On other matters, such as Holmes' literary education - Conan Doyle had to do something in order to develop a well-rounded character. In "A Study in Scarlet," Watson makes a list of his newly acquired friend's assets and deficiencies. According to him, Holmes' knowledge of literature and philosophy amounts to "nil."

In "The Sign of Four," however, Holmes quotes freely from Goethe, Schiller and Jean Paul Richter, and recommends that Watson read Winwood Reade's novel. Not bad for a literary illiterate. And, being bored by mental inactivity (until there were crimes and the action really started), Holmes injects a 7 percent solution of cocaine into his veins. And he resorts to the drug again after the action is over. Watson disapproves, of course.

But when the action in "The Sign of Four" was over, it looked like it was really over for Holmes, Watson and Conan Doyle. Some good reviews, again, but no readers and no remarkable sales. Conan Doyle gave up on his detective again, wrote a historical novel ("The White Company") and, as before, nothing happened.

Then there was a slight change in the editorial policy of The Strand Magazine, and they offered authors good money for short stories. Always on the lookout for income that would enable him to work on research for his historical novels (he no longer had any illusions about living off his medical practice), Conan Doyle had an idea: "It had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine. Looking around for my central character, I felt that Sherlock Holmes, whom I had already handled in two little books, would easily lend himself to a succession of short stories."

And quite a successful succession it was: "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Red Headed League," "A Case of Identity." The readers' attention was definitely engaged. The author's attention was as well, and he did not like it.

For the first six stories, he asked for 200 pounds. He got them. For the next six, he asked for 300, hoping he would be refused. The acceptance of his price came by return post, with a request for speedy delivery. He wrote to his mother: "I think of slaying Holmes in the last and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things." His mother answered: "You won't! You can't! You mustn't."

But he did. At the end of "The Final Problem," the 24th story, published in December 1893, Holmes falls into the Reichenbach Falls, in the clutches of his arch-enemy, Prof. Moriarty. One of his many readers gave voice to many, and protested, starting her letter with the words, "You Brute!"

Doyle was an established writer by now, and he steadfastly refused to write another Holmes story. Until 1901, when he gave in, partly: He had an idea for a real thriller, full of surprises, and he wanted to write it with a friend, Fletcher Robinson, who conceived the idea of the story of a "gigantic hound," set in the Dartmoor swamps.

The result was "The Hound of the Baskervilles," the best known of all Holmes stories and novels, whose publication, in August of 1901, was celebrated in Dartmoor this month. Its plot is set before the tragic fall, so one cannot really claim that "Holmes was back." He was, but not yet. But sales were definitely up.

In 1903, Conan Doyle (by now knighted) gave in, and not reluctantly. In "The Empty House," Holmes was resurrected again, for the third and final time - although there are Holmesian scholars who claim that he was not the same man again. Thirty-two more stories and another novel followed.

And Holmes, Watson and millions of their readers lived happily ever after.