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The enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes

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By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

The biggest blockbuster of the holiday season has surely been Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Given the film’s reignition of interest in the fictional detective, I had a look at OUP’s edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the collection of short stories by Arthur Conan Doyle that made the fortunes of the Strand magazine in which they were first published. Below is an excerpt from the late Holmes expert Richard Lancelyn Green‘s fascinating introduction to the text, which shows that Sherlock Holmes was as popular when it was first published at the end of the nineteenth century as it is today.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was well received by the critics. Joseph Bell, to whom it was dedicated and by whom it was said to have been inspired, reviewed it in the Bookman for December 1892 (an essay afterwards used by the publishers Ward, Lock in a slightly shortened form as a preface to A Study in Scarlet, of which they owned the copyright, having bought it from the inexperienced author for £25). He began by dismissing much of the current journalism as intellectually barren, but found hope in the books which encouraged thought and stimulated observation. Among these he put the detective stories by Conan Doyle: ‘He created a shrewd, quick-sighted, inquisitive man, half doctor, half virtuoso, with plenty of spare time, a retentive memory, and perhaps the best gift of all – the power of unloading the mind of all the burden of trying to remember unnecessary details… to him the petty results of environment, the sign-manuals of labour, the strains of trade, the incidents of travel, have living interest, as they tend to satisfy an insatiable, almost inhuman, because impersonal curiosity.’

9536955_Doyle_advenSherlockHolms.inddBell was impressed by the character of Sherlock Holmes, but also praised Doyle as a ‘born story teller': ‘He has had the wit to devise excellent plots, interesting complications; he tells them in honest Saxon-English with directness and pith; and, above all his other merits, his stories are absolutely free from padding.’ Doyle, he said, ‘knows how delicious brevity is, how everything tends to be too long, and he has given us stories that we can read at a sitting between dinner and coffee, and we have not a chance to forget the beginning before we reach the end.’ Of the stories themselves, he said: ‘One man will enjoy “The Red-Headed League”; another “The Blue Carbuncle”; for the average reader “The Speckled Band” has special charms. The story of “The Five Orange Pips” will probably come home to the American, and “The Noble Bachelor” will interest Mayfair. In “The Engineer’s Thumb” Mr Holmes has less to do, but he does is done with his usual directness of action, guided by simplicity of method. Not one of the twelve is a failure, and the handsome volume in which they have been collected will be a prize to all those young and old who are not ashamed to read good stories.’

Praise also came from another person who had been an influence on the book (and who had known Joseph Bell in Edinburgh). Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Doyle on 5 April 1893 thanking him for the many occasions on which he had made himself agreeable: ‘It is now my turn; and I hope you will allow me to offer you my compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. That is the class of literature that I like when I have the toothache. As a matter of fact, it was a pleurisy I was enjoying when I took the volume up; and it will interest you as a medical man to know that the cure was for the moment effectual. Only one thing troubles me: can this be my old friend Joe Bell?’ (The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1899)

Other critics were equally generous, and a review in the Speaker for 26 November 1892 may serve as an example. It spoke of the ‘inimitable Sherlock Holmes’ and said the stories were ‘in the very first rank of their class’ and proof that France was not the only country that could produce a Gaboriau: ‘And then Mr Doyle, unlike Gaboriau, is never tedious. He does not prolong the agonies either of his reader or of the victimes of the plots it is his business to unravel. The result is a volume which may be safely commended to all who like sensational stories of the best class, ingenious in plot, graceful in narration, and absorbing in interest.’

A less conventional review, though one which has had a prodigious progeny, was entitled ‘The Real Sherlock Holmes; and appeared on 29 October 1892 in the National Observer (previously the Scots Observer, and in both identities edited by the crippled poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1902)). It was by ‘Our Special Correspondent’ who in view of the recent publication of some of his more celebrated cases had called upon the famous scientific detective ‘for the purpose of elucidating if possible some of the more eventful and thrilling episodes in his adventures.’ Sherlock Holmes was quoted as saying that he was less than happy with Mr Doyle’s plagiarism, and he complained that the book was ‘a garbled version of some very inferior incidents’ in his professional career: ‘I have been grossly misrepresented by him,’ he said. ‘Do you think I really made that blunder in “A Scandal of Bohemia”? Do you imagine I really had as little a finger in “The Engineer’s Thumb” and “The Copper Beeches” as he makes out? “And do you suppose I interfered as ineffectually in the “Five Pips” as he represents?’ Obviously Doyle had heard of him through Dr Watson: ‘With my name, and fairly accurate account of those interesting cases of mine, “The Blue Carbuncle” and “The Speckled Band”, he made a good start; and after that anything would sell[,] even stuff like “The Engineer’s Thumb” or the “The Noble Husband” [sic].’

The reality of Sherlock Holmes was a quality which struck readers and critics alike. It was evident from the start and the stories seemed to lend themselves naturally to parody and pastiche. One of the first, ‘My Evening with Sherlock Holmes’, appeared in the Speaker on 28 November 1891; and the correspondence columns of Tit-Bits (which published letters addressed to the Strand) were inclined to treat him as a real person. On 23 January 1892 it replied to a letter from ‘Buttons’ who wished to know whether Sherlock Holmes ‘is or is not an actual living person’. The editors were unable to say: ‘As a matter of fact we have not made the personal acquaintance of Mr Sherlock Holmes, but we have read so much of his doings that we have made up our minds that if there is a mystery in connection with this office we shall endeavour to find out the whereabouts of Mr Sherlock Holmes and employ him to investigate it, and if when that time comes we should find that no such person is in existence we shall then be very much disappointed.’

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    It really is amazing how some iconic characters can stand the tests of time. Especially considering that this is one that comes from an era of social practices that people probably wouldn’t understand today. However, I just recently saw the movie and thought that it was fantastic. It was exciting, but it had the intelligence and wit needed.

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