By JOHN J. MILLER
DECEMBER 23, 2009
For Sherlock Holmes, the most important date on the calendar is Christmas—and not just because the latest film to feature him comes out on Dec. 25.
In a sense, literature's most famous detective was born on that day: The first story Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote about Holmes, an 1887 novel called "A Study in Scarlet," appeared in Beeton's Christmas Annual. Another entry in the Holmes canon, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," is a Christmas tale. Doyle's devotees often cite it as a personal favourite.
Later, when Doyle tired of Holmes, he killed off his character during the yuletide. In "The Final Problem," the fatal encounter between Holmes and his archnemesis, Moriarty, takes place in the spring, but the story itself appeared in the December 1893 issue of the Strand Magazine.
How will Holmes fare this holiday season? The answer isn't so elementary. Judging from a movie trailer full of fisticuffs, explosions and sexual innuendo, the big-budget action film will thrill fanboys who don't realize that the Baker Street Irregulars appeared on the printed page before the silver screen. Anguished purists, meanwhile, may choose to cover their faces with deerstalker hats.
Except that the most faithful followers of Holmes know that his legacy is already a mishmash of invention and reinvention. Take those deerstalker hats. Almost nothing is more associated with Holmes than the checkered twill cap with brims in front and back and a pair of ear flaps on the sides. In Doyle's stories, however, there is precious little evidence that Holmes ever wore such a thing. It entered the popular imagination because of Sidney Paget, a magazine illustrator whose work accompanied Doyle's fiction.
Doyle himself would have had mixed feelings about the rebooted Holmes. He suffered from a love-hate relationship with the character whose name has eclipsed his own. A market-minded author, Doyle certainly appreciated the goal of putting Holmes in front of large audiences. Yet he almost resented the runaway success that made him the most celebrated writer of his time.
Doyle was born in Scotland in 1859. He earned a medical degree in Edinburgh, traveled as a ship's doctor to Africa and the Arctic, and finally settled down to a private practice on the English coast. Money was always tight: Starting as a student, he wrote fiction to boost his income. His works encompassed a wide range of subjects, from mummies ("Lot No. 249") to man-eating plants ("The American's Tale").
For a while, Doyle balanced his dual career. The first two novels about Holmes, "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of Four," attracted some attention but not enough for him to quit doctoring. In fact, he saw his detective fiction as hackwork and strongly preferred to write historical novels. Doyle regarded "The White Company," set in the 14th century, as his finest achievement.
In the early 1890s, Doyle moved Holmes out of novels and into short stories. It was a commercial decision. In London, the number of magazines was booming. Doyle believed that stories with a recurring character would enjoy an advantage over serialized novels, which turned off readers who missed installments. Moreover, Holmes and his puzzles were a better fit for a shorter form. "Sherlock Holmes was a sprinter, not a distance runner," wrote Daniel Stashower in "Teller of Tales," his biography of Doyle.
The stories were an immediate and astonishing success. Readers lined up at newsstands for each new episode. For two years, Doyle dedicated himself to his brilliant and insufferable hero, receiving ever-higher payments for his efforts. Yet the relentless deadlines soon became a burden. Although each story could be read in a single sitting, Doyle complained that the intricate plots demanded the mental work of novels. He also continued to think they were lowbrow achievements.
By 1893, Doyle had resolved to kill Holmes—"even if I buried my bank account with him," he wrote in his autobiography. He set the scene at Reichenbach Falls, an Alpine cascade in Switzerland. Doyle's editors despaired, but the author felt only relief: "I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defense, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me."
Finishing off Holmes had the paradoxical effect of breathing life into the franchise. Had Doyle kept churning out mysteries throughout the 1890s, their quality inevitably would have declined—a common fate of series from Doyle's day to now, on both the page and the tube. Instead he observed the showbiz dictum: Always leave 'em wanting more.
His subsequent writings failed to recapture the magic—until he decided to bring back Holmes. The detective made his reappearance in a 1902 novel, "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Doyle emphasized that the story took place before Holmes had met his grim fate. The next year, however, the author relented. In "The Adventure of the Empty House," he proclaimed that the reports of Holmes's death had been greatly exaggerated. The detective had faked it, and the stories—56 in total, plus four novels—continued. Doyle wrote the last one in 1926 and died in 1930.
To the end, Doyle remained ambivalent about his spectacular success. "If I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one," he once complained.
Doyle would have been wiser to see Holmes for what he was back then and remains today: The best kind of Christmas gift, one that keeps on giving.
—Mr. Miller is the author of "The First Assassin," a historical novel, and he blogs at
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