The hounding of Arthur Conan Doyle


I hate Sherlock Holmes. The pipe. Those grotty tweeds: ugh. Worst of all, the man himself; an appalling mix of camp and clever-dick, pompous, patronising, never - ever - afflicted by the slightest shadow of self-doubt. His own mother couldn't like him. In fact, his own mother (in a manner of speaking) didn't. Because in 1893, when his famous fictional detective had been on the bookshelves of Victorian England for a mere six years, Arthur Conan Doyle shoved Holmes off the edge of a Swiss Alp and into a bottomless abyss, never to be seen again.

At least, so Conan Doyle - who wanted to be remembered not for his Baker Street conundrums but for his historical fiction and military history books - hoped. Victorian England, however, felt otherwise. In London, clerks wore black mourning bands to work. Members of the royal family were said to be distraught. Angry letters poured in ("You Brute!", one of them, addressed to the author, began) and shareholders in The Strand magazine, in which many of the Holmes adventures had appeared, kept a nervous eye on their investment as 20,000 people cancelled their subscriptions.

Within a decade, Holmes was back. Maybe Conan Doyle succumbed to the zeitgeist - more likely, he needed the money. For the dozen stories which comprised The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, and which closed with Holmes's plunge to oblivion in The Final Problem, he had received £1,000, an unprecedented sum at the time. But when, in the summer of 1901, The Strand published the new, novella-length Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles, its author pocketed a cool £100 per thousand words.

The tale of the horrible hound was to become one of the best-known of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Even now, the centenary of its publication is at the centre of a major Holmes fest. Penguin Books is bringing out a series of five Holmes stories, complete with new introductions by such literary luminaries as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, along with a new biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. There will be - you have been warned - enactments on Dartmoor.

But the shadow of the supernatural is not the only shadow which hangs over The Hound of the Baskervilles. Arguments have long raged over the book's authorship, and have surfaced again in the English papers this month. Did Conan Doyle write it himself, or was it a collaboration with another writer who was, following its enormous success, simply elbowed out of the way?

There's no doubt that the idea for the story came from Fletcher Robinson, a journalist with the Daily Express, whom Conan Doyle had got to know on a voyage back from South Africa. In March 1901, the two men went on a golfing holiday to Norfolk - and when bad weather kept them indoors for much of the time, Robinson entertained Conan Doyle with folk legends from his native Devonshire, one of which involved a ghostly hound. The story was further researched at Robinson's home on Dartmoor; and when Conan Doyle suggested it to his editor at The Strand, he wrote: "I must do it with my friend Fletcher Robinson, and his name must appear with mine."

As evidence of literary foul play, this is pretty slight stuff. Robinson got his credit and a generous royalty payment. Besides, you wouldn't need to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that the style of the story - particularly that of the disputed opening chapters - is vintage Conan Doyle. A client arrives at Baker Street with a problem: a body has been found on the moor in mysterious circumstances. But Dr James Mortimer has sought the advice of the detective because of what he observed on the muddy ground surrounding the dead man:

"Footprints?" "Footprints." "A man's or a woman's?" Dr Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

ONLY mad dogs and Englishmen would doubt that this came from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle. Why Englishmen? Well, as Daniel Stashower's entertaining and beautifully written biography makes clear, in his later years the darling of the Victorian establishment fell foul of his peers in a pretty major way. Not only did the creator of literature's most logical detective become an advocate of spiritualism and write almost daily letters to the papers pushing the case of one dodgy sΘance merchant after another, but he went a step further and publicly declared, in December 1920, that he believed in fairies.

He might have got away with the airy-fairy stuff, but coming as it did on top of his attempts to prevent the execution of Roger Casement in 1916 (Conan Doyle had campaigned with Casement against human rights abuses in the Belgian Congo and South Africa, and believed the diplomat to have lost his reason rather than his morals), it was all too much for the prim and proper powers-that-were.

There were mutterings about the Irish ancestry and the alcoholic father who had been locked away for years - and despite his extraordinary record of service to her Majesty's cause during the first World War, and his level of personal loss (not only his son, but also his brother, two brothers-in-law and two nephews were all killed in the conflict), Conan Doyle was unceremoniously relegated to the status of doddery old duffer.

From where, of course, it's but a small step to the insinuation that he wasn't even capable of writing his own books.

He was, though. When an American critic took exception, in verse, to Sherlock Holmes's disparagement of his sleuthing predecessors, especially C. August Dupin, the detective created by Edgar Allen Poe, Conan Doyle - who had always acknowledged his debt to Poe - responded in kind. Effortlessly elegant, deftly witty, the verses might serve as his epitaph. Hating Sherlock Holmes is one thing - but how could you hate a man who could write:

"But is it not on the verge of insanity

To put down to me my creation's crude vanity?

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.

So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle,

The doll and its maker are never identical."

A Study in Scarlet, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Adventures and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Valley of Fear and The Sign of Four are published by Penguin Classics (£4.99 and £5.99 in UK). Teller of Tales: the Life of Arthur Conan Doyle by Daniel Stashower (Penguin paperback, £8.99 in UK)