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How Sherlock Holmes Changed the World

6 January 2016

From the BBC:

In 1893, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shoved detective Sherlock Holmes off a cliff. The cliff was fictionally located in Switzerland, over the Reichenbach Falls. But Conan Doyle did the dirty work from his home in London where he wrote. “It is with a heavy heart that I take up my pen to write these the last words in which I shall ever record the singular gifts by which my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes was distinguished,” narrator Dr John Watson says in Conan Doyle’s story The Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand magazine in December 1893.

Conan Doyle himself seemed a little less emotional in private. “Killed Holmes,” he wrote in his diary. One can imagine Conan Doyle, slicked-back hair shimmering in the candlelight, twirling his ample mustache with glee. He later said of his famous character: “I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards paté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”

Conan Doyle may have thought, at the time of finishing Holmes off in print, that that was that. If he did think this, he did not understand fans – particularly fans of Holmes – very well. The public reaction to the death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events. More than 20,000 Strand readers cancelled their subscriptions, outraged by Holmes’ premature demise. The magazine barely survived. Its staff referred to Holmes’ death as “the dreadful event”.

Legend has it that young men throughout London wore black mourning crêpes on their hats or around their arms for the month of Holmes’ death, though that has recently been questioned. (Some Holmes aficionados have suggested the story could have been an exaggeration perpetuated by Conan Doyle’s son in interviews.) Outraged readers wrote to the magazine in protest: “You brute!” one letter addressed to Conan Doyle began. Americans started “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs. Conan Doyle stuck to his guns in the face of the protests, calling the death “justifiable homicide” – referring, presumably, to his own justifications, not Moriarty’s.

This sounds, of course, like just another day on the internet in 2015. But at the time, Conan Doyle had every reason to be shocked by the torrent of vitriol. Fans simply did not do this before then. (In fact, they weren’t even called “fans” yet. The term, short for “fanatic”, had only recently begun use in reference to American baseball enthusiasts.) Readers typically accepted what went on in their favourite books, then moved on. Now they were beginning to take their popular culture personally, and to expect their favourite works to conform to certain expectations. They seemed to actually expect a reciprocal relationship with the works they loved.

. . . .

Holmes first appeared in 1887, in the novelette A Study in Scarlet. He was popular from the start – so popular that soon Conan Doyle began to regret having created him, since Holmes stories so completely overshadowed what Conan Doyle considered his serious work, such as his historical novel Micah Clarke. Readers lined up at newsstands for The Strand on publication day whenever a new Holmes story was to appear inside. Because of Holmes, Conan Doyle was, one historian wrote, “as well-known as Queen Victoria”.

. . . .

It took eight years, but by 1901, however, public pressure grew so great that Conan Doyle wrote a new story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, featuring Holmes before his fall. In 1903, in The Adventure of the Empty House, he went one step further, resurrecting Holmes with the explanation that only Moriarty had died in the fall, while Holmes had faked his own death. Fans rejoiced.

Link to the rest at the BBC and thanks to J.A. for the tip.

Books in General

4 Comments to “How Sherlock Holmes Changed the World”

  1. The moral of the story seems to be that a writer should have more respect for the fans. I’ll bet Conan Doyle wouldn’t have had such violent reactions if he’d given Holmes a proper swan song instead of shoving him off a cliff. I haven’t heard that anyone complained about Christie ending Poirot; she took the time to give him a fitting finale.

  2. This seems to match quite well with the discussion from a few days ago about what the author does or doesn’t owe to readers (the GRRM post)

    • And these days, in part thanks to the precedent Holmes’ resurrection, it spawns a million theories (Jon Snow surely lives, the only question is how).

  3. I think Cervantes and Homer might want to have a word with the BBC about the history of fan fiction…

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