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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Man Who Would Be Sherlock

The Real-Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle

Christopher Sandford

Thomas Dunne Books




Who was Sherlock Holmes?

One of the paradoxes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s indestructible sleuth is that he seems both to embody the past and belong to the present. Although there’s a generous amount of period detail to the Holmes stories, with their soupy miles of cobblestone streets, he’s also a thoroughly modern, even futuristic human calculating machine, who takes full advantage of such emerging disciplines as psychiatry, forensics, toxicology, ballistics, analytical chemistry and anthropometrics – the use of precise body measurements to ‘profile’ criminals – to complement his legendary powers of observation. Although Conan Doyle, like most authors, deplored the habit of identifying ‘real-life’ models for his characters, he also took the opportunity to pay Dr Joseph Bell (1837–1911) the compliment of calling him the ‘true Holmes’.

The frock-coated Bell was 39 years old when Doyle, an impoverished medical student, first attended one of his lectures at Edinburgh University. Described as a ‘thin, white-haired Scot with the look of a prematurely hatched bird, whose Adam’s apple danced up and down his narrow neck’, the doctor spoke in a piping voice and is said to have walked with a jerky, scuttling gait ‘suggestive of his considerable reserves of nervous energy’. Bell was a keen observer of his patients’ mental and physical characteristics – ‘The Method’, as he called it – which he used as an aid to diagnosis. A lecture in the university’s gaslit amphitheatre might, for example, open with Bell informing his audience that the subject standing beside him in the well of the auditorium had obviously served, at some time, as a non-commissioned officer in a Highland regiment in the West Indies – an inference based on the man’s failure to remove his hat (a Scots military custom) and telltale signs of tropical illness, among other minutiae. Added to his impressive powers of deduction, Bell also liked to bring an element of drama to his lectures, for instance by once swallowing a phial of malodorous liquid in front of his students, the better to determine whether or not it was a deadly poison. (He survived the test.) For much of the last century, Bell has been the individual most popularly associated with the ‘real Holmes’.

That notwithstanding, there would be several other ingredients in what Conan Doyle called ‘the rather complex chain’ leading to his detective’s creation. Pinning down Doyle’s real-life models should be a straightforward matter of checking the known facts of his life in the years prior to March 1886, when he put pen to paper on the first Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet. We know that he read voraciously, and that he drew heavily on the analytical-detective fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Emile Gaboriau. It’s also known that Doyle was concerned with finding a narrative way to show the potential of forensic science for solving crime. And it can be safely said that he brought a moral dimension to the stories, at the end of which, however outlandish their plots, affairs were successfully restored to their rightful, late Victorian order. Many of these strands came together in the person of Joe Bell, who in 1878 picked Doyle out to serve as his outpatient clerk, the beginning of a relationship between the brilliant man of reason and his somewhat stolid accomplice that would foreshadow that between Holmes and Dr Watson. As we’ll see, there are also various other candidates whose individual talents and eccentricities mirrored those of the fictional inhabitants of 221b Baker Street.

At this point, one begins to see why so many readers are convinced that the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was really one Dr John Watson, and that Conan Doyle was merely a kind of glorified literary agent behind the scenes. (There are many more strange theories about the series than that.) But writing, to Doyle, was very much an imaginative or moral exercise, and not just a parlour game where the intellectual elite would try to identify the models for his best-known characters. Sherlock Holmes, it seems fair to say, was a composite of several historical, living or invented figures. We’ll touch on some of these in later pages. But, critically, Holmes also reflected the personality of his creator, a man who combined a lifelong passion for scientific inquiry with a finely honed sense of honour and justice and, just as important, an absolute willingness to offend the political or religious orthodoxy of the day.

This, then, is a tale of two detectives. The first one is the mythological figure of Sherlock Homes, a combination of several pioneering Victorian professionals, and of his author’s imagination. The result is a character who has endured for some 130 years, and whom we still associate today with wearing an Inverness cape, smoking a calabash pipe and uttering the immortal line, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’, none of which appear in any of his sixty originally published appearances. Along the way, Holmes has survived everything from his creator’s periodic attempts to kill him, to being hijacked for countless literary sequels and knockoffs – including one, with the title A Samba for Sherlock, in which a nearly blind detective gropes his way around the barrios of Rio de Janeiro, and another, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which outs him as a feminist.

Part of Holmes’s appeal, surely, lies in Conan Doyle’s skilful creation not just of a memorable leading man, but also a dramatis personae that helps sustain our interest in the series as a whole. The characters ‘ring well’, as the author Saul Bellow (something of a closeted gothic-crime fan) once told me. ‘They may not be realistic, but they feel real and they feel right … If it isn’t what the Victorian underworld was like, it’s what we like to think it was like.’

As well as the pairing of Holmes and Watson that would become the prototype of a whole raft of comically mismatched yet interdependent double acts, from Jeeves and Wooster to Morse and Lewis, we’re perhaps equally drawn, with a shudder midway between joy and revulsion, to that ‘Napoleon of crime’, Professor Moriarty. Like Holmes’s deerstalker hat and signature cape, the notion of Moriarty far exceeds his physical presence in the published stories, where he appears just twice, but even so he’s insinuated himself into our consciousness as the archetypal evil genius. It’s all part of the process of bringing the series closer to real life than Doyle himself might admit.

Today there are thriving clubs and societies and, thanks to the internet, enjoyably spirited long-distance discussions that try and establish such matters as which train, exactly, Holmes might have taken to Baskerville Hall, or the correct location of the wound Watson suffered in the Afghan War. It’s in no way intended as a slight to note again that there may be no other characters in English literature, not excluding those of P.G. Wodehouse, who continue to excite such fanatical and, at times, slightly dotty devotion.

* * *

Sherlock Holmes is an austere masterpiece; a universally recognisable character made up of several true-life or imagined ingredients. But he’s also the literary embodiment of his author. Conan Doyle was eminently well qualified to write about the horrors of Victorian urban life, having worked as a young medical assistant in 1870s Sheffield and Birmingham, among other character-forming experiences. Fifty years later, Doyle could still shock audiences with a variety of macabre tales of his youth, such as the time he was led into an ill-lit back parlour where a ‘grotesquely misshapen form, with pitted complexion, hooded eyes and a face gnawed by pox’ lay pathetically awaiting his care. Nor was his subsequent six-month spell as the ship’s surgeon on an Arctic whaler without its colourful incident, as seen by his 1904 story, ‘Black Peter’.

While this whole period was grist for Conan Doyle’s later career, it also touched off or accelerated his lifelong dread of drunkenness – the ‘great frailty’ that afflicted his own father Charles, who spent several years as an inmate of the Montrose Lunatic Asylum before his premature death in another institution. In short, the man who invented Sherlock Holmes was on terms of more than passing familiarity with the forces of social and criminal darkness.

Joseph Bell may have been the basic template for the character, but Holmes also reflected Doyle’s own mixture of scientific reason and almost monomaniacal pursuit of justice in the face of the blundering and often corrupt Establishment. It’s true that in December 1912 Doyle rebuked a critic with a poem ending in the lines, ‘So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle/The doll and its maker are never identical’. It’s also true that Joseph Bell himself – not a man to unduly shun any available credit – once wrote a letter to Doyle stating, ‘You are yourself Sherlock Homes and well you know it’.

The machine-like impersonality of Holmes’s methods mirrors the impenetrability of Holmes the man. Even to scholars and those countless ordinary fans around the world who devote themselves to a close textual study of the series – the so-called Holmesians or Sherlockians – there are still tantalising gaps and unresolved discrepancies. To this day, apparently well-adjusted and intelligent minds eagerly debate the character’s family background (solidly British, although related to the Vernet dynasty of French painters), or matters such as where he went to university, and whether he was truly a confirmed bachelor or, rather, one of those tragic literary figures who have had their hearts broken earlier in life and turn their backs on romantic love as a result.

Might Holmes have been schizophrenic? Was he a practical joker? Or totally humourless? Did he vote? Enjoy a night out? Could he have suffered the childhood trauma of seeing one or both of his parents killed by street robbers, an event that, as in the case of Batman, served as the motivation for his whole subsequent crime-fighting career? In all likelihood, we’ll never know. Nowhere in the roughly three-quarters of a million words Conan Doyle wrote about Holmes do we ever learn the character’s exact age, his birthplace, or his birthday. In 2015, eighty-eight years after his last official appearance, Holmes seemingly made a comeback in a story that had allegedly lain undisturbed for decades in a Scottish loft. Entitled ‘Sherlock Holmes: Discovering the Border Burghs and, by Deduction, the Brig Bazaar’, the tale in turn became a mystery – a true addition to the canon, or merely a pastiche by a hand that may or may not have been Doyle’s? To review the books, monographs, films, and other, more ad-hoc projects inspired by Holmes today is not to note a revival of interest, but simply to let down a bucket into a bottomless well.

But perhaps the greatest enigma of all is how a morally austere Scotsman who had barely set foot in London before his thirtieth birthday, and who was convinced his true literary calling lay in Napoleonic-historical romance, could have created a thoroughly contemporary dramatic hero, who also happened to be a bipolar drug addict given to shooting up cocaine three times a day to overcome his lassitude, and whom we associate with an intimate working knowledge of the English capital’s underworld and back streets. It’s a tribute to Doyle’s powers of improvisation that London, which he knew largely from the contemporary Post Office Directory, the nearest thing to Google Maps of the day, is often described as another character in the stories.

It’s also well known that Doyle, unlike the detective’s millions of diehard fans, soon grew weary of Holmes, once admitting, ‘I feel towards him as I do to pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day’. Having brought the character to life in 1886, he was trying to kill him again as soon as 1890. Holmes’s apparent watery end in ‘The Final Problem’, published in the December 1893 edition of The Strand magazine, scarcely two years after his debut there in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, triggered the perhaps apocryphal story that bereaved readers had walked around the streets of England wearing black armbands. Doyle himself was more stoical, jotting only the words ‘Killed Holmes’ in his notebook.

He took a similarly laconic approach when the American Collier’s Weekly offered him the fabulous sum of $25,000, or roughly £6,000, to revive Holmes in a series of six stories. ‘Very well, ACD’, he scribbled back on a postcard. Even so, Doyle was always shrewd enough to see a long-term future for Holmes. Rather like an iconic 1960s rock band contemplating a reunion, there would be periodic hints of a one-off comeback, if not a full-scale return to public life. Although Holmes the detective remained dead, there was ‘no limit to the number of papers he left behind or the reminiscences in the brain of his biographer,’ Doyle wrote in The Strand’s sister paper Tit-Bits in December 1900. The inevitable followed with the first published instalment of The Hound of the Baskervilles just eight months later. When the American actor William Gillette brought the character of Holmes to the stage at around the same time, Doyle allowed, ‘It’s good to see the old chap again’. The old chap would continue to appear in periodic new adventures until as late as 1927, taking Holmes up to an era when fictional detectives were dealing with pushy leading ladies and fascist spies. By then he had outlived many of the late Victorian conventions and physical trappings (gloaming and gaslight, swirling river fogs) of his heyday, and Doyle himself survived the character he had long felt so conflicted about by just three years.

* * *

Holmes’s own ‘Rules of Evidence’ tell us that, around 1885, Conan Doyle, a modestly successful provincial doctor with literary ambitions, was growing tired of the standard detective yarn which relied more on plot devices such as divine intervention, coincidence or intuition than on systematic thought or scientific analysis to achieve its result. Doyle had the idea to do away with the haphazard and instead to present the whole story as an intellectual challenge to the reader, giving him or her an equal opportunity with the detective to solve the mystery. All that then remained was a leading man who was not only logical but troubled as well, thus allowing us to identify with at least some of his humanising contradictions.

As we’ve seen, Doyle’s old mentor Joseph Bell was the basic prototype, but there were others who clearly influenced the final product. One of the true pioneers of forensic medicine, Dr Henry Littlejohn (1826–1914) was an unmistakable figure around Victorian Edinburgh, where among other duties he advised the police in a number of high-profile criminal cases. In January 1878, for example, he was able to determine that the ‘vomited data’ of a woman found dying in her bed were more in keeping with narcotic poisoning than gas exposure, as the rather cursory official examination had concluded, with the result that the victim’s husband was charged with her murder. (Some years later, Littlejohn’s son Harvey, also a forensic scientist, crossed swords with Conan Doyle in their contrasting interpretations of a sensational Scottish murder case: see Chapters 7 and 8.)

There are those who claim also to see glimpses of Holmes in Jerome Caminada (1844–1914), a legendary figure in the history of the Manchester Police who was known both for his logical faculties and unorthodox methods. Over the years, the burly, luxuriantly bearded Caminada employed a variety of imaginative disguises, including that of a visiting Tanzanian warlord, a drunken, one-legged sailor and various working-class roles, in order to infiltrate the local criminal classes. He even once successfully impersonated a female opera singer. Like Holmes before him, Caminada went on to investigate a seemingly well-educated, aristocratic woman who was actually a consummate forger and crook, before becoming infatuated by her, and in time he found an arch-nemesis with a number of similarities to the academic turned criminal fiend, Professor Moriarty.

There are vocal schools in support of several other names as being the ‘real Holmes’. Some see a touch of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (1877–1947) in the character, although he could only have influenced the later stories, while others confer the mantle on one Francis ‘Tanky’ Smith (1814–88), who bestrode the Leicester CID at the time Conan Doyle was growing up. Also partial to disguises, Smith’s most famous assignment came when as a private detective he solved the disappearance of his county’s high sheriff, whose lifeless body he eventually found floating in the River Moselle in Germany. As well as the above, there are literally dozens of other candidates said to have inspired Doyle from among the ranks of the official or semi-official forces in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Luxemburg, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, Barbados and the United States; the list is far from exhaustive.

Unlike most of these characters, Conan Doyle himself presents a figure of comparatively conventional temper and settled habits, spending long hours each day at his desk, as disciplined in his writing routine as he had been as a doctor, an instinctive Tory, a teetotaller, devoted to his widowed mother, and with little that could be called truly nonconformist or even eccentric about his private life, at least until he started regularly communing with ghosts at around the age of 58.

Doyle’s appearance seemed thoroughly correct. He was tall, squarely built, heavily moustached, with plastered-down brown hair. He carried his umbrella at the furl; his bearing was military; and for long stretches of his life he lived in a series of suburban villas stuffed with mahogany tables, marble busts and hunting prints. He loved cricket, and once succeeded in dismissing W.G. Grace, the titan of the Victorian game, an achievement he ranked ‘above any prize the literary world could confer’.

When Doyle sat down to work he often prepared sheets of paper with multiple versions of individual scenes, or specific lines of dialogue, intended for whatever story was under construction. One version might show a certain amount of archaic if energetically sustained idiom like ‘quothas’ and ‘windage’, another one favoured a perfectly serviceable, ‘flat’ style devoid of any noticeable technique, and the third draft typically betrayed some modestly experimental touches such as the omission of inverted commas in direct speech. Doyle chose the middle course in almost every case, before going on to neatly write out the manuscript, with minimal further revisions, in a text ‘always as clear as print’, as his editor at The Strand remarked appreciatively.

Doyle’s patient, bricklaying method when it came to his writing reflected his essentially practical, temperate approach to life as a whole. ‘There was nothing lynx-eyed, nothing “detective” about him,’ wrote the American journalist Harry How, who interviewed Doyle in his first flush of fame from the Holmes stories. ‘He [was] just a happy, genial, homely man; tall, broad-shouldered, with a hand that grips you heartily, and, in its sincerity of welcome, hurts.’

That the ‘automatic writing’ view of Conan Doyle and his immortal detective appears something of a simplification the following pages will, perhaps, show. Conversely, there are those who depict Doyle as a classic case of a journeyman author who merely stumbled onto a winning formula and practised it, with little variation, practically throughout his life, repeating the ritual phrases and stock plot devices, while rigorously maintaining his own outward appearance of stuffy moral and social conformity until the last. This, too, is an inadequate picture of the man.

Conan Doyle may not have ‘been’ Sherlock Holmes. But there’s abundant evidence that the detective conformed to a fundamental logic and precision of thought in his maker’s mind. The presentation of the Holmes stories was sometimes clumsy, and the writing wooden. They could be justly criticised for their frequent technical lapses and faulty grip of their subject matter, just as much as they could be praised for their pervasive sense of atmosphere and their many unforgettable individual scenes or bursts of dialogue. The adventure of ‘Silver Blaze’, published in 1892, demonstrates both these extremes. Although Doyle’s all-important grasp of the world of horse-racing is shown as only fair (as he later admitted, if the events had taken place in real life as he described them, half the characters would have been arrested, and the other half ‘warned off’ for life), we continue to quote the deathless exchange between Holmes and the befuddled local police inspector:

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The satisfying thing is not only the neat twist of the line, but the obvious contrast it creates between the subtle, insightful mind of the maverick consulting detective and that of the plodding official investigator. Clichés now, Doyle’s treatment of such matters showed his originality in the 1890s. Any writer who dares to think up and carry off such a persuasively anti-authority theme as embodied by Holmes in his dealings with Scotland Yard would not, in all probability, be a slave to the judicial or governmental orthodoxy when it came to matters of real-life miscarriages of justice.

‘A few of the problems which have come my way have been very similar to some which I had invented for the exhibition of the reasoning of Mr Holmes,’ Conan Doyle wrote in his 1924 Memories and Adventures. ‘I might perhaps quote one in which that gentleman’s method of thought was copied with complete success,’ he added, for once throwing modesty to the winds. Almost all the contemporary accounts show how confident Doyle was in his own powers of calculation and deduction, even if in public he generally chose to play the role of a sort of anonymous medium who had just happened to summon Sherlock Holmes into being.

The case began at London’s Langham Hotel – that great Victorian pile that still ‘sits atop Regent Street like a grand yet faded dowager’, to quote the Smithsonian, and one of those places where Sherlock Holmes and his creator frequently overlap. In August 1889, Doyle went to dinner there with the managing editor of Lippincott’s magazine, and left again with a commission for the second Holmes novella, The Sign of the Four, which itself name-checks the hotel.

One of the perennials of the Holmes canon is the individual who mysteriously vanishes, and the case here had most of the essentials. ‘A gentleman had disappeared,’ Doyle wrote:

He had drawn a bank balance of £40 which was known to be on him. It was feared that he had been murdered for the sake of the money. He had last been heard of stopping at [the Langham], having come from the country that day. In the evening, he went out to a music-hall performance, came out of it about ten o’clock, returned to his hotel, changed his evening clothes, which were found in his room [the] next day, and disappeared utterly. No one saw him leave the hotel, but a man occupying a neighbouring room declared that he had heard him moving during the night. A week had elapsed at the time that I was consulted, but the police had discovered nothing. Where was the man?

Doyle’s subsequent investigation showed both deductive reasoning of a high order and a degree of something closer to common sense than to true forensic science. The man had evidently meant to disappear, he rapidly concluded. Why else would he draw all his money? More than likely, he had come back to the hotel late that evening, changed his clothes, and then slipped out again unnoticed in the crowd of other returning theatregoers. The police inspector who called Doyle in on the case assured him that he and his men had undertaken the ‘most diligent researches’ into where the man might have gone in London at eleven or twelve o’clock at night.

Their enquiries did not, however, extend to checking the railway timetables for the day in question. Doyle did this, and quickly deduced that the man had departed on the midnight express bound for Edinburgh. The abandonment of his evening suit suggested that he had then intended to adopt a life free of the conventional social niceties. By a similar process of deduction, or perhaps more of a working knowledge of human nature, Doyle further determined that there was a woman involved other than the missing party’s wife. At this point the police belatedly turned their attention to Edinburgh’s less fashionable suburbs, and soon found the man in the circumstances described. The fellow guest who believed he had heard his neighbour moving around his room at night had simply been confused by the normal sounds of a large hotel. Once explained, as in any good Sherlock Holmes story, it was all so simple – if you knew how.

In a broadly similar case, Doyle again demonstrated that what he called the ‘general lines of reasoning advocated by Holmes’ had a practical application to real life. A young woman had become engaged to a French businessman, living in England and known to be reticent about his past life, who had then abandoned her at the altar. On their wedding day, several witnesses had seen the groom set off for the church to meet his bride, but he had never arrived. The police investigated, apparently believing that foul play was involved, possibly touching in some way on the Frenchman’s extensive business interests.

Doyle looked into the matter, and quickly reached a sadly different conclusion. The man had never seriously intended to marry his English fiancée, for the simple reason that he already had a wife waiting for him at home in France. He had ‘disappeared’ by simply stepping in at one door of a hansom cab and out at the other – oddly enough, a plot device identical to one in the 1891 Holmes tale ‘A Case of Identity’. ‘I was able to show the girl very clearly both whither [her fiancé] had gone and how unworthy he was of her affections,’ Doyle wrote, combining his coldly analytical and profoundly moral sides in one neat summary.

Time and again, whether in fiction or real life, Conan Doyle brought this old-fashioned sense of chivalry to bear in his detective exploits, never quite coming to terms with what he deemed the ‘sophisticated decadence’ of the modern age. For the Scotsman born in 1859 and raised in a religious household, the protection of the vulnerable members of society was a matter of ‘honour’, a word that resounded deep within his Victorian soul. To Doyle, the fairer sex conjured up images of the defenceless young girl, the cruelly abused wife, the jilted lover, and the ‘fate worse than death itself’. When investigating such cases, he made up for any shortcomings he may have had as a forensic detective by a fiercely moral sense of the particular iniquities that often befell young women, and how these same victims were failed by the criminal justice system.

Doyle’s reaction to the affair of the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, demonstrated this lifelong propensity to take up the sword on behalf of the young, female or otherwise supposedly weak members of society. In 1848, Margaret Fox, aged 14, and Kate, 12, had apparently begun to hear nocturnal ‘bumps and raps’ in the bedroom of their small farmhouse. The girls’ mother became convinced that an unseen spirit she named ‘Mr Splitfoot’ was communicating with them, and that ‘distinct manifestations of an undead soul’ continued even when she and the children moved home.

Within a year, the sisters and their mother had become a popular music-hall attraction up and down the American east coast, and won over a number of influential backers, including Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who took up their cause in a series of sensational front-page articles. As a result, the young Fox girls effectively launched the modern spiritualist movement. They kept the act going even as grown women, although the abstemious Greeley was left to regret that by then Margaret and Kate had regularly ‘taken a sip’, the beginning of a serious drinking problem in their later days.

In time, Conan Doyle would come to cautiously endorse the Foxes’ ‘apparent mediumship’ and their ‘strong sense within their own minds of communion with worlds unseen’. While on a lecture tour of the USA in 1923, Doyle announced his intention to erect a monument to the sisters, both of whom had died in poverty in the 1890s. The public response to this was only ‘sparing’, he was forced to admit. ‘The reaction to my appeal for some central memorial of our Cause has been so scanty that I cannot bring myself to present it,’ he wrote in the psychic journal Light. ‘I am, therefore, returning the money to the various subscribers, whom I hereby thank.’

Although Conan Doyle evidently had doubts about whether the young Fox sisters had been truly channelling some diabolical agency, or merely engaging in a juvenile prank, he leapt to their defence when the magician Harry Houdini publicly insisted that the girls had done no more than ‘lie abed and crack their own toe-joints … thus producing the unworldly “rapping” … an effect any fool can reproduce by clicking two coins together over the head of a blindfolded person.’ Doyle was incensed at what he called ‘this viciously partisan assault upon virtual infants’, reasoning that ‘at such tender age they could hardly have been such practiced hoaxers’. According to his friend and fellow spiritualist Oliver Lodge, when Doyle subsequently discussed the Foxes with Houdini they fell into a ‘noisy debate’, at which time ‘the iron had entered Sir Arthur’s soul; he swore that he would never stand by while an innocent’s name was besmirched … He would hit at the villifiers and sceptics, and hit hard.’

Some of these same ingredients were at work in Conan Doyle’s spirited defence of 16-year-old Elsie Wright and her 10-year-old cousin Frances Griffiths, who disappeared with a camera one hot afternoon in July 1917 into the glen behind the Wrights’ home in the village of Cottingley, West Yorkshire, and returned with an image that seemed to show Frances leaning on the side of a small hill on which four fairies were dancing. ‘It is a revelation,’ Doyle wrote to Houdini.

On 24 July 1928, Doyle appeared as a defence witness in the criminal trial of a Miss Mercy Phillimore and Mrs Claire Cantlon, respectively the secretary of the London Spiritualist Alliance and a medium who practised there, whom the police had charged under the 1604 Witchcraft Act. Doyle was so infuriated at the ‘medieval’ proceedings against these ‘honest, cruelly abused English ladies’ that he went on to make an appointment with the Home Secretary in an unsuccessful bid to change the law as it applied in their case.

There seemed to be almost no limit to how far he would go, whether by a gift of money, his time, or some other form of public campaign, when he saw one of these ‘honest gentlewomen’ subjected to the same sort of ‘ill-considered and vindictive attack by our ruling class’. ‘Sir Arthur was mesmerising,’ a sceptical Daily Express journalist admitted, after hearing him speak on the subject to a packed house at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘I felt that if he wanted to sell us a house with the roof missing, he would achieve his purpose by an eloquent and sustained eulogy of the features that remained.’

A few weeks later, while on a speaking tour of South Africa, Conan Doyle was again able to take up the cause of a wronged woman, though ‘wronged’ hardly conveys the fate of 18-year-old Irene Kanthack, who had been raped and stabbed to death while out walking her dog in a park near her family home in a respectable neighbourhood of Johannesburg. The investigating police chief, a Colonel Trigger, seemed to speak in the authentic voice of Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade when he announced that he had swiftly solved the crime by the expedient of arresting a ‘black native’ with a history of petty theft. Some of the circumstantial evidence would seem to have fit the suspect, but rather more of it to completely exonerate him. The man was soon released without charge.

Other white women then came forward to claim that they, too, had been assaulted over the course of the previous weeks or months, close to the spot where Irene Kanthack’s body had been found. Was a serial homicidal rapist on the loose? Could it have been, as Colonel Trigger theorised, ‘some black man in the grip of his unquenchable urges’? On the day Conan Doyle arrived in town, it was apparently learnt that a voodoo cult was in operation only a mile away from the murder scene, and that this was in the habit of holding ‘messianic services’ including a communion ritual involving the use of freshly shed human blood.

That was at least one account; but the accounts are as various and lurid as the scenes they claim to describe, and the only certainty is that at the time Doyle arrived in Johannesburg on his lecture tour there had been a thirty-fold increase in the already impressive daily number of local firearm sales, from approximately seventy to 2,100, and ‘no white women, whether singly or together, were to be seen anywhere on the city streets’ after dark.

By all accounts, Doyle’s investigative antennae were soon alert to the double injustice he saw in Johannesburg. Not only had a helpless young woman been viciously assaulted; the police had clearly concluded that a black man had done it. ‘What confronted one was this rank determination to equate skin colour with criminality,’ he wrote. Doyle and a local journalist named Stephen Black set out to investigate, and soon turned up at least one lead that ‘should have rung loudly, even in the seemingly deaf ears of Col. Trigger’, Doyle remarked. This followed their interview of a janitor at an apartment block near the scene of Irene Kanthack’s murder who had witnessed a white man with a distinctive facial scar wringing out a bloodstained shirt in a washroom there on the evening of the attack. Doyle and his colleague went to the building and persuaded the janitor to show them the room where the mysterious scarred man had lived. It was empty, but not entirely free of evidence. According to Black, ‘Sir Arthur was shocked … The walls were covered by indecent drawings, more or less life size … women in the most clinical and obstetric attitudes.’ Doyle recovered his poise sufficiently to then arrange to pay the rent on the room for a month, apparently hoping that Colonel Trigger might be interested in visiting it.

We’ll return to the outcome of the case; but for now it again illustrates the lengths to which Doyle would go on behalf of a wronged party, particularly if some form of officially tolerated prejudice or bigotry was involved. As the local Weekend Argus wrote of a speech he gave at the time:

Sir Arthur’s talk was familiar, often dry, but his more inspired passages throbbed with the heady moral rhetoric of a great avenger, and grew shrill and staccato in their impassioned climaxes, crashing down together in a peal of continuous thunder and lightning.

Conan Doyle was sometimes content to let the natural crusader in him do the work of the coldly reasoning detective. In some ways, too, he was more of a Dr Watson than a Sherlock Holmes. ‘I am the man in the street,’ Doyle insisted, which surely sums up Watson himself, whatever one makes of his later interpretations by everyone from Nigel Bruce to Jude Law. Attributing all the Holmesian virtues to his author would be to stretch what was only a fair working knowledge on Conan Doyle’s part of matters such as toxicology, ballistics and handwriting analysis.

Doyle’s 6,000-word investigation in 1907 of a series of anonymous letters that accompanied the George Edalji cattle-maiming case (see Chapters 4 and 5) perhaps owed more to his sense of indignation at the wrongful imprisonment of the young Parsee convicted of the crime than it did to a close textual study of the letters. His subsequent presentation of his findings to a committee at the Home Office was not only unwisely long, but so oblivious to some of the established facts of the case that at least one of the officials present used the opportunity to discreetly take a nap. Doyle’s legendary self-confidence was not, however, impaired: he recorded in his case notes, ‘I trust that I have convinced every impartial man that the balance of evidence is enormously against Edalji having had anything to do with the letters’. Perhaps, at heart, he enjoyed sparring with the Establishment as much as he did fighting for victims of injustice.

Those who love such sport know that the best place to look for a fight in the late Victorian or early Edwardian literary worlds is on the occasions when Conan Doyle felt that honour – sometimes his own, more often someone else’s – was at stake. Returning by sea from the Boer War in July 1900, he fell into a quarrel with Roger Raoul-Duval, a French novelist temporarily serving as an army observer, over the latter’s claim that the British troops had been in the habit of using the particularly destructive ‘dumdum’ bullets of the kind that tore apart the internal organs on striking a body. According to his first biographer, ‘Sir Arthur turned beetroot-red and called him a liar. The [Frenchman] tendered a written apology.’

Several other such cases followed over the years. George Bernard Shaw’s public questioning of the bravery of the captain and crew of the Titanic after it went down in 1912 had Doyle figuratively spitting his teeth into his hand and saying that he was distressed to see that such an intelligent man as Shaw lacked ‘that quality – call it good taste, humanity, or what you will – which prevents one from needlessly hurting the feelings of others’. When H.G. Wells later went into print describing a certain medium and her ‘spirit guide’ as ‘wrought of self-deception, [as] pathetic as a rag doll which some lonely child has made for its own comfort’, Doyle again leapt to the defence. The individual circumstances varied, but as a rule the feuds show how Doyle saw himself: a responsible intellectual of rigid moral probity, who if necessary could quietly demolish an adversary.

If Conan Doyle had the right moral stuff to invest in what he once called his ‘monster’ of Sherlock Holmes, he was also lucky enough to have a vast and receptive market waiting for him. The 1890s saw the birth or rapid growth of a number of British retail businesses like John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Boots that remain familiar today. Appealing to broadly the same, increasingly urbanised middle class, it was also a golden era of mass circulation family periodicals like the new Strand magazine, at sixpence, half the price of most monthlies of the day, where Holmes found an immediately appreciative audience.

‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ appeared in The Strand’s July 1891 issue, which enjoyed a total subscription of 485,000 copies, meaning perhaps 2 million readers out of a literate English population of some 17 million men, women and children: a story today would have to be read by roughly 7 million people, which is more than the combined circulation of The Times,The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, the Daily Express, the Daily Star, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, to claim a similar hold on the public. Doyle may have been frustrated that it was his detective fiction, not his ‘lasting work’, that the public craved, but the increasingly lucrative commissions and healthy royalty cheques proved a palliative silver lining.

Doyle was also fortunate in his timing on another level. The turn of the twentieth century was uniquely ripe for the arrival of a moral avenger like Holmes, and it’s no surprise that so many readers came to think of him as a living person. The truly grisly murder mystery was then a staple of British life. Compared to the farrago of horrors that Doyle and his generation read about or personally experienced on a daily basis, much of today’s high-profile crime seems as innocuous and bloodless as a case of a purloined cow-creamer out of the pages of P.G. Wodehouse.

Doyle’s London was a soiled, sad place whose inhabitants habitually murdered, stole, lied and cheated as they slithered around in a sea of immorality. It seemed the various outrages were all absurdly and graphically bloody and gory, the motivations behind them often ghoulish, and the cast of characters uniformly macabre and grotesque. This was the world that Conan Doyle knew was ready for the introduction of a contemporary moral equaliser like Holmes. It was also the one that provided Doyle himself with a wealth of bizarre and often outlandishly gothic adventures to rival anything in his fiction.

The list that follows is far from exhaustive, but in just the decade from 1904 leading to the outbreak of the First World War there was the case of ‘George Chapman’ (actually a Pole named Klosowski) who joined the long list of London’s notable lady-killers when he was convicted of poisoning three successive wives. A year later a chemist’s assistant named Arthur Devereux murdered his young bride and their twin sons, placed the bodies in a trunk, calmly deposited this at a nearby warehouse and was going about his life as usual until his suspicious mother-in-law investigated; Devereux was tried and hung for his crimes in August 1905. Meanwhile, having been released from custody after murdering his father by bludgeoning him with a chamber pot, a journalist named William Benn would see his wife Florence commit suicide by hanging herself from a tree in their garden. The Benns’ young daughter would go on to become the actress Margaret Rutherford.

Shortly afterwards there was the doubly poignant case of 13-year-old Thomas Polmear, described as a ‘village idiot’, who drowned and decapitated an infant in the belief that this was a normal thing to do, and then spent the remaining twenty-eight years of his life in a lunatic asylum. In 1909 George Joseph Smith, a Londoner, began his practice of marrying and deserting an unspecified number of women before deciding to drown three of them in quick succession; the ‘Brides in the Bath’ murderer was in turn executed in 1915.

Meanwhile, a relatively rare case where the woman was the perpetrator, not the victim, came when 23-year-old Kittie Byron stabbed her lover Reginald Baker to death in the doorway of a London post office; although sentenced to hang, she was reprieved and eventually spent nine years in jail. Framing these various events was the brief but sensational reign of Jack the Ripper in 1888, and the infamous case of Dr Hawley Crippen, who after murdering his wife at their London home in January 1910 fled with a female companion disguised as his son and boarded an Atlantic liner in order to start a new life together in Canada. Crippen became the first criminal to be captured with the aid of wireless telegraphy, and was hanged at Pentonville.

The cases of George Edalji and Oscar Slater, which follow, were among the most notorious of an era when each successive ‘crime of the century’ appeared to be followed by a greater and even more hideous one with each passing year. It sometimes seems almost surprising that anyone got out of early Edwardian London in one piece, given the prevalence of violent offences, quite apart from the era’s other set-piece tragedies, such as the loss of the Titanic and the discovery seven months later of the frozen bodies of Captain Robert Scott and his companions in the Antarctic ice.

As a whole, Britons were expected to be phlegmatic about death, and they often were. At the same time, people were clearly ready for someone who could make sense of the spectacular series of stabbings, shootings, poisonings, strangulations, assaults and petty betrayals that seemed to take place on such a regular basis, and so many of which involved a female or (so it was then thought) equally helpless member of society. It was Conan Doyle’s unique genius to provide this service on two levels: as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and as a detective of formidable skills in his own right.

‘A writer is a maker, not a man of action’, W.H. Auden once claimed, but even he went on to admit that all fiction is, in a sense, autobiographical. In the case of Conan Doyle, this is more than usually true. It’s difficult to study any individual major crime in Great Britain between around 1890 and 1925 without encountering Doyle in one form or another. His name was either being bandied about as a surrogate for the detective most needed to help redress a grievance, or failing that, Doyle was personally on the miscreant’s trail. He even found time to join a small group of senior policemen, lawyers, pathologists, academics, writers and other invited parties to discuss particularly controversial cases, past or present, where the justice system seemed to have failed.

Called, simply, the Crimes Club, it met roughly six times annually from its inception in July 1904. It was a prestigious line-up: Doyle himself; Sir Arthur Pearson, founder of the Daily Express; Samuel Ingleby Oddie, soon to be one of the prosecutors in the Crippen case and later the Coroner of Westminster; Fletcher Robinson, the Express journalist who first came up with the basic plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles; and George Sims, a writer who had campaigned successfully for the release of Adolf Beck, a Norwegian engineer twice wrongfully convicted in British courts because of mistaken identity.

As a rule, the club met in a private dining room of one of the great London hotels like the Langham, but there were occasional field trips: Doyle and his fellow members took at least one tour of Jack the Ripper sites in Whitechapel, where he was said to have inspected the various crime scenes through his magnifying glass – if true, a pleasingly Holmesian touch. Several years earlier, Doyle had visited Scotland Yard and been shown a letter supposedly written by the Ripper, remarking that Holmes would surely have made a facsimile of the signature and published it far and wide in the press in the hope someone would recognise it, an initiative that had escaped the official police force.

As Sir Basil Thomson, the long-time Assistant Chief Commissioner at the Yard and a widely quoted authority on crime and criminology (until an arrest for public indecency with young girls put an end to his career) noted, ‘Conan Doyle would have made an outstanding detective had he devoted himself to crime detection rather than authorship. There was much of Sherlock Holmes in him.’ It was perhaps the singular tragedy of Doyle’s life that he saw himself as a ‘serious’ author, that with certain notable exceptions the reading public looked on the results with disdain, and that there was also a part of him drawn irresistibly, like Holmes himself, to the ghoulish or macabre. When you add a powerful moral compulsion to see justice served and a later unshakable belief that the living could communicate with the dead, the stage is set for high drama.

Copyright © 2017 by Christopher Sandford