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ClassicsOnline Home » DOYLE, A.C.: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (The), Vol. 6 (Unabridged)
In ‘The Final Problem’, perhaps the greatest of the short stories of Sherlock Holmes, the English detective encounters his most formidable rival, Professor Moriarty. ‘The Napoleon of Crime’ is how Holmes describes his adversary to his faithful companion, Dr Watson, as they move to the ultimate confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls. Also in this collection is the intriguing mystery of the disappearing bride in ‘The Noble Bachelor’ and two threats from the past in ‘Gloria Scott’ and ‘The Resident Patient’.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES VI
THE ADVENTURE OF THE
Perhaps this case is the most significant of all Holmess cases, for we are told it is his very first one, occurring when he was still a student in the 1870s, and led him, as he said in The Musgrave Ritual, another early case, in the direction of the profession which has become my lifes work.
Doyle tactfully does not specify which college Holmes attended, and Holmes scholars have convincing arguments for both Oxford and Cambridge. Whichever it was, Holmes, never the most sociable of men, appears to have had a lonely and solitary time as a student, for he claims that Victor Trevor was his only
college friend. He had had a slight acquaintance with Reginald Musgrave who was in his college, but Musgraves aristocratic bearing made him generally unpopular among the undergraduates (see The Musgrave Ritual on NA319112). One imagines that Holmes himself was not the easiest of men to get on with, and though not always appreciative, he was most fortunate to find so accommodating, generous and understanding a friend as Watson.
Although in this case we get a glimpse of the embryonic detective at work, it is hardly a detective story at all. There are few deductions beyond the initial one of uncovering old Trevors guilty past, for Holmes to get his teeth into. The whole thrust of the story, in fact, is more in the style of a criminals true confession, or a good old-fashioned seamans yarn packed with thrills. Doyles best writing is often to be found in his vivid descriptions of action. It was a skill he had first honed as a young man in 1880, when he signed on as a surgeon on board a whaling ship. During the long Arctic voyage he listened to the tales of the ships rough crew and, as an exercise, turned them into fiction. It gave him the confidence to be a writer and left him with a taste for writing adventure stories that he was never to lose. Doyle, too, must have felt that he had not entirely done his detectives powers justice in this story, for in The Resident Patient Watson laments the fact that Holmess involvement in the Gloria Scott case has been less pronounced than I,
as his biographer, could wish. Nevertheless the prophetic words of Trevor Senior:
it seems to me that all the detectives of fact and of fancy would be children in your hands, persuaded young Holmes of his destiny. Shortly afterwards, his other college friend Musgrave endorsed Holmess instincts by engaging him
to solve the fascinating puzzle of The Musgrave Ritual, and the profession of consulting detective was born.
THE ADVENTURE OF THE
It is Dr. Percy Trevelyan who brings this curious case to the notice of Holmes. As a brilliant but impoverished medical student he agrees to accept financial help from the enigmatic Blessington in return for his becoming Trevelyans resident patient. As Dr. Trevelyan recounts his early struggles, we are inevitably reminded of the hardships Conan Doyle himself suffered as he endeavoured to establish himself in medicine. How he would have grabbed at the chance to have a wealthy benefactor like Blessington. Dr. Trevelyan, whose ambition was to be a specialist in nervous diseases, states ruefully: a specialist who aims high is compelled to start in one of a dozen streets in the Cavendish Square quarter, all of which entail enormous rents and furnishing expenses. Doyle is no doubt speaking from the heart, as he had in 1891 taken the decision to become an eye specialist after a rudimentary training in the subject in Vienna, and had rashly set up a surgery in fashionable Wimpole Street. It was a moment of psychological struggle for Doyle. He had already had success with the first Sherlock Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet, but he was reluctant to admit to himself that all his medical training had been in vain. To become a fashionable eye-specialist was his last bid to secure for himself a medical reputation. It was an unmitigated failure. He must have known it was a fools errand, for on the very day he moved into his practice, he had begun to write the first of the Holmes short stories,
A Scandal in Bohemia.
When Doyle published this story in book form, he included a set piece of deduction by Holmes of Watsons thoughts, as he sits in a brown study. The section had been lifted from The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, and it would seem that the illicit love affair which is at the centre of that story was too close for comfort for Doyle. He refused to allow the story to be reprinted in book form. His own difficult private life during the 1890s may have prompted his moral conscience. In 1893, his wife Louise showed the first signs of consumption. It was a long and wasting disease, and Doyle loyally nursed his sick wife for the rest of her days, but by 1897 he had formed a platonic liaison with Jean Leckie. Later she would become his second wife. Perhaps
these circumstances explain why The Cardboard Box was not published officially until 1917 in His Last Bow.
But the professional writer in Doyle could not waste so excellent a piece as the mind-reading sequence, so it was imported into The Resident Patient when it appeared in book form. Naxos Audiobooks follows the original Strand Magazine versions for these recordings as expressing Doyles first thoughts and original intentions, so the deduction sequence does not appear in this story. However, if the listener refers to the recording of The Cardboard Box on Naxos Audiobooks NA319112, it can be heard in its original context.
There is more than a whiff of radicalism in this story. Lord Robert Walsingham de Vere St. Simon, second son of the Duke of Balmoral, consults Holmes about the mysterious disappearance of his wife
on their wedding day, but a more unsympathetic client Holmes seldom had the misfortune to encounter.
Stiff and bristling with aristocratic privilege, Doyle tells us he had a touch of petulance about the mouth
a man whose pleasant lot it had ever been to command and to be obeyed.
To complete the picture of an upper-class neer do well St. Simons dress is described as careful to the verge of foppishness. To emphasise his distaste with the habits of the rich, Doyle brings a contemporary element into his story: aristocratic liaisons with chorus girls and American heiresses. The list of girls who appeared at the Gaiety Theatre, for instance, and charmed the titled young men across the footlights, was endless in this period, so much so that the press called them the actressocracy.
When Doyle wrote this story in 1892, the most recent in the line, Connie Gilchrist, the beautiful daughter of a
civil engineer, had married the seventh Earl of Orkney. Their marriage proved successful, lasting 54 years, but many such ended in the divorce courts, or
in the ruined reputation of the actress. Doyle implies that St. Simons former flirtation, Miss Flora Miller, a danseuse at the Allegro, is likely to suffer such a
fate. Weddings between the daughters of wealthy Americans and English aristocrats, such as St. Simons to Hatty Doran, were also increasing, the most famous being that of Jenny Jerome to Lord Randolph Churchill, Sir Winstons parents. It is certain that such arrangements provided much-needed American dollars for the impoverished coffers of Englands jaded aristocracy; in exchange the heiress got a title. If Doyle in this story displays his radicalism by being less than supportive of the establishment as represented by St. Simon, his solution to the problem is nothing short of revolutionary! Doyle had long had a love-affair with anything American. He loved the frankness of
the people, their literature and their championing of liberty and he puts into Holmess mouth his belief that civilisation depended on the union of Britain and America, and its peoples becoming citizens of the same worldwide country under a flag which shall be a quartering of the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes. When Doyle wrote that, with the British Empire at its height, he no doubt envisaged Britain being the dominant partner, today he might not be so sure.
Without doubt this is the most controversial Sherlock Holmes story Doyle ever wrote. For it is in this tale that Doyle ruthlessly kills off the great detective. The shock on the unsuspecting reading public was profound; young men besieged the offices of The Strand magazine wearing black armbands, the Americans thought the story must be a fake, even Doyles mother thought it a beastly thing to do. So why did he do it? It seems that Doyle never took his Holmes stories seriously. They had been a means of keeping body and soul together whilst he struggled to be a doctor but, as he said himself of Holmes, he takes my mind from better things. The better things were what he termed his serious literary efforts, his carefully researched historical novels, such as The White Company, a tale of medieval chivalry, and Rodney Stone, set in the Regency period. He complained that Holmes was killing him as a serious writer and no one, publishers or friends, could persuade him to relent.
A trip to Switzerland in 1893, for his wife Louises health, had given him a suitably impressive scene for Holmess demise, the Reichenbach Falls a worthy tomb for poor Sherlock, even if I buried my banking account along with him. To kill off the detective that feeds you shows how strongly Doyle felt about his serious writing. Angry at the outcry Holmess death produced he said: I feel towards him as I do towards 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. But the final problem turned out to be Doyles. For eight years, the public showed no signs of letting Sherlock Holmes lie down and die, and most reluctantly Doyle was forced to turn away from the literature he considered to be his lifes work and,
as he saw it, trivialise his talents on potboilers. Posterity is grateful for his artistic sacrifice: the Sherlock Holmes canon is read again and again worldwide; the historical novels are read today by only the most loyal of aficionados.
Notes by David Timson
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