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Did Sherlock Holmes really exist?

“So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle,

The doll and its maker are never identical.”

“To An Undiscerning Critic”,

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912

The question posed in the title of this article may strike you as absurd. No, I hope you will answer: Sherlock Holmes was the fictional creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If you do say this, I can tell you on good authority that you are right. But I would be prepared to bet you £100 in whatever is your choice of currency that not everyone reading this believes you are correct. Millions around the world are sure Holmes was a real person. I suspect the vast majority have never heard of Doyle and have assumed that all the stories about Holmes are merely embellishments of the life of a real British detective who existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Fair enough. But there is a significant minority who know who Doyle was and have read the original stories either in English or in translation but who still either insist that Holmes existed or want to believe that he did. It is this belief of the last group of people – those who want him to have lived in order to have solved all those crimes in the way that he did – which has intrigued me down the years.

Think of other famous fictional characters. Does anybody think that Agatha Christie’s

Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple were real people? Unlike Doyle, Christie is probably still more well known than her creations. That can’t be said of Ian Fleming. James Bond must be better known than his creator. But does anyone really believe Mr Bond existed (or exists and is spending his retirement tending bees in Sussex)?

Doyle himself despaired that so many thought his creation was real. Letters poured in to him and his publishers from people convinced that the detective could solve their problems. After Doyle’s death in 1930 his widow continued to receive such letters. They did not stop at her death in 1940 (by which time how old would Sherlock Holmes have been?). The British building society Abbey had moved into its new head office at 219-229 Baker Street in 1932 and immediately found it had to employ a secretary full-time to answer letters addressed to Holmes at 221B (where he could not, in fact, have lived; the numbers did not go higher than

85 in the much shorter Baker Street that existed at the time of the Holmes stories). Abbey merged with National in 1944 but the letters continued to arrive from all over the world long into the second half of the last century.

Doyle was especially irked by those who, knowing full well that Holmes was fictional, still assumed that Holmes was Doyle’s alter ago and thought as he did. Arthur Guiterman, an American writer of humorous poems, was one. In 1912 his poem “To Sir Arthur Conan Doyle” was published in Life magazine. In it he praised Doyle’s work but attacked him for not acknowledging that he had borrowed Holmes’ methods and his stories’ plots from Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories of the 1840s, featuring C. Auguste Dupin. Guiterman wrote:

“Sherlock your sleuthhound, with motives ulterior:

Sneers at Poe’s Dupin as ‘very inferior’”

Doyle had indeed put such words into Holmes’ mouth in his first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. But Doyle had also many times acknowledged his debt to Poe, writing in 1907, for example, that “Poe is the master of all.” He skewered Guiterman with a poem, “To An Undiscerning Critic”, published in London Opinion on 28 December 1912:

“Have you not learned, my esteemed commentator,

That the created is not the creator?

As the creator I’ve praised to satiety

Poe’s Monsieur Dupin, his skill and variety.

He, the created, the puppet of fiction,

Would not brook rivals nor stand contradiction.

He, the created, would scoff and would sneer,

Where I, the Creator, would bow and revere.”

Note that Doyle uses the capital C when he refers to himself as the Creator of the “puppet of fiction” Sherlock Holmes. His frustration is palpable.

Time for me to declare an interest. My step-grandmother was Dame Jean Conan Doyle, the fifth and last of Doyle’s children and the only one who was successful in her own right (retiring as head of the UK's Women's Royal Air Force). I also run the Conan Doyle Estate, which manages the literary, merchandising, and advertising rights in Doyle’s works and all his characters. The question I get asked most frequently, other than a host of abusive ‘questions’ in social media, is: “How do you account for the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes?”

My answer usually goes something like this: Holmes is the cold, rational problem-solver who thinks laterally and remembers only what is useful to him. Watson is the warm, intelligent Everyman who thinks linearly and unimaginatively. We are astonished by Holmes' powers, intrigued by his observational methodology and infuriated by his arrogance, but glad that he is around to put the world to rights. He is beholden to no one and dismissive of authority, yet a patriot. He is incorruptible. He brings order to muddle. He is the cerebral hero of the nerds and schoolboy swots who wish brainpower could always overcome muscle power.

The differences and tensions between Holmes and Watson are crucial to the success of the stories and novels, especially those written between 1887 and the First World War. The death in that war of Doyle's son, Kingsley, and his obsession with Spiritualism in the last decade of his life may have been the causes for the changes in Holmes' character which appear in the last twelve stories, published in the Strand Magazine between 1921 and 1927 and put together in 1927 as The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes becomes softer, more empathetic. As a result the stories are less compelling. Holmes' otherness no longer frightens and fascinates Watson or us. Personally, I believe Doyle had grown so tired of his money-spinning creation that he put little effort into writing these final stories. My step-grandmother, only 17 when Doyle died, used to tell me how Doyle would discuss the later of these stories with her, sometimes even seeking inspiration from her.

Jon Lellenberg was for long the Conan Doyle Estate’s literary agent in the USA and is one of the world’s foremost authorities on Doyle and Sherlock Holmes (do get hold of the award-winning Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters that he co-edited and was a BBC Book of the Week when it came out in September 2007). Jon has this to say:

“What has struck me to explain the unending popularity of Sherlock Holmes are fundamentally two things:

First, most people's desire for justice in the world and in people's lives, and admiration for Holmes's way of bringing it about, not by force like the Mike Hammer sort of detective, but principally by reason, and by applying science (including psychology, the most personal of the sciences) to human and also social problems.

And second, by perhaps the best depiction of a friendship in English literature (and for all I know, anybody's literature). There are two ways of depicting characters in serial fiction, one in which the characters never grow older, staying the same as they were, individually and in relation to each other, from the day they were first created, and the other having the characters grow older as time passes in the stories as well as in their creation.

Conan Doyle's stories stretch chronologically from the beginning of 1881 to the eve of World War I in 1914, with both Holmes and Watson growing older in the process, going through all sorts of life's changes and issues in the stories, with their friendship becoming even deeper in the backward-looking stories Conan Doyle continued to write in the 1920s. This makes Holmes and Watson realer as people than those characters in other fiction who never grow old.”

I think there is one more thing which accounts for Holmes’ enduring popularity and also why so many believe that he really lived. Many authors identify with their creations. They are their alter egos. But Doyle’s alter ago was Watson, not Holmes. Watson is you or me, the ordinary person. This allows readers to imagine themselves accompanying Holmes on his adventures. It also allows them to believe that Watson is really Doyle recording the life of an extraordinary but real person.

I have visited over 55 different countries and lived for at least a year in another 5. I cannot remember meeting anyone who, if I mentioned Sherlock Holmes, had not heard of him. Yet the name Conan Doyle is seldom known. When running my training company's subsidiary in Tokyo in the early 1990s, I deliberately hid my connection to Doyle. I had to sit through many meetings with Japanese clients hearing how wonderful Holmes-san was (or Holmes-sama, indicating his God-like powers). Many clearly believed he had existed. I could not disabuse them or they would have lost face and I would have lost business. When a visiting professor at the Stockholm School of Economics’ campus in Latvia in the last decade, I taught many highly-educated Russian, Belarus, Ukrainian and Baltic businesspeople. Some simply would not accept my assurance that Holmes was the creation of my step-great grandfather. One, a Russian, wanted to know if the street in Riga which stood in for Baker Street in the most popular Holmes television series in Soviet times had borne any resemblance to the one where my step-great grandfather had lived. He was referring to Dr Watson. I don’t think he was joking.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the most famous of the Holmes stories. Doyle located it on Dartmoor. Do you doubt this?

Here is the proof, a postcard of Dartmoor on which Doyle has written to his 9-year old son Adrian Malcolm: “This is where the Hound used to run about in the Story” He signed it D for Daddy. Yet there are Sherlockian “scholars” who still try and prove that the Hound ran about somewhere other than Dartmoor in order, presumably, to deny Doyle’s authorship.

The Conan Doyle Estate’s main purpose these days is to bring Sir Arthur out from under the shadow of his greatest creation and make the world aware not only of his other once-famous creations – e.g. Professor Challenger, Brigadier Gerard – but also of his own considerable achievements outside literature. Have a look at the Conan Doyle Estate website if you want to know more. However, try as we might, my fellow directors (the great niece and great nephew of Doyle) and I come up against this refusal by so many to accept that Sherlock Holmes was the product of Doyle’s superb imagination.

My copy of one of the best biographies of Doyle – Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower – has this quote from T. S. Eliot in its frontispiece:

“Perhaps the greatest of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is this: that when we talk of him we invariably fall into the fancy of his existence...Poe is more real than Dupin; but Sir A. Conan Doyle …, the author of a number of exciting stories which we read years ago and have forgotten, what has he to do with Holmes?”


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1 Comment

Zuleika Henry
Zuleika Henry
Mar 25, 2021

Very interesting

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