“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” — from A Case of Identity
Recently I came across a headline—the US Supreme Court rules against the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: no longer able to control the author’s most famous character, Sherlock Holmes is finally free!
As well as the Supreme Court, these days Holmes appears to be ubiquitous: currently undergoing yet another revival in film, on television and even across the pages of Crisis Magazine; but, be warned, on entering the shadow world of 221b Baker Street you may find there is no way out.
That address: 221b Baker Street, as famous as it was unreal, was the residence of Holmes, and occasionally his friend Dr. Watson, and the starting point to many adventures. It was a kind of psychic center to which all the Empire’s evil flooded. Permanently shrouded in late autumnal fog, it was there its occupants heard the inevitable knock upon the door from some unseen hand, followed by Mrs Hudson’s bustle on the stairs, before another door opened and … the game was afoot, then off on a steam enveloped train to the Home Counties, bound for some “sinister” country house that hid its wrongdoing better than London’s slums ever could.
Of course, the “problem” with Holmes was, and is, his personality. It is so beguiling. Like his cocaine habit, however, it can become addictive. The detective’s cold logical machine of a mind has an appeal that can become unhealthy. Some admirers have been known to change from a position of interest to one of preoccupation and then to belief, at this point, referring to his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, merely as “Dr. Watson’s literary agent”—insisting it was all really “true.” Indeed there was a real life model for Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell, and he did help with police enquires, but the rest was only a fiction of sorts. I write ‘of sorts’ because in the presence of Holmes’ mesmerizing personality it is all too easy to lose sight of what is real and what is not. And, for some, the strange inexorable pull of 221b Baker Street has ended with lives twisted by an obsession with the Great Detective and the darkness that collects around him. If this sounds hyperbolic, then the press clippings of a tragic case from ten years ago may give food for thought.
One of those who dwelt in the shadows of that now famous street was the man who created its world: Jesuit educated, Hiberno-Scot, Conan Doyle. Having been brought up a Catholic, he had rejected the faith of his ancestors by young adulthood preferring instead science and, ominously, various aspects of the occult.
As is well known Conan Doyle had had enough of his most famous creation from quite early on. Holmes had first appeared in 1887, but by the early 1890s his creator was finding the churning out of plot twists and devices as tedious as the character he had created. Moreover, he feared that the detective stories were eclipsing his attempts at more serious literary endeavours. He was to spend years researching historical novels, convinced that they would at last earn him the respect of the literary world, only to find all he did obscured by The Great Detective. Try as he might, Conan Doyle just couldn’t escape from the shadow cast by the figure at the window of 221b Baker Street.
It was not only the writer’s art that was suffering, though. Holmes had become more than a character: he had taken on a life of his own. Increasingly, Conan Doyle was dismayed by the seeming paradox of his success: in the minds of readers the more real Holmes became, the less the author seemed to exist. In the end, he realised he had no choice: to live once more he had to kill his creation.
In December 1893, six years after the first Holmes story, The Final Problem was published. It remains unique. Unlike the other stories, there was no problem to be solved, no helpless individual wrongly accused, no clues, no denouement. No, with Conan Doyle’s quarry squarely in his sights, this was something different. More reminiscent of Shelley’s Frankenstein than any detective story, on this occasion, Holmes was the one pursued, ostensibly by Professor Moriarty, but even more so by the man who had given him lifeblood and who now only wanted blood…
As news of Holmes’ extinction at the Reichenbach Falls broke across the world, it was to produce a numbed shock, followed, for some, by mourning. In contrast, Conan Doyle felt only relief, glee even—he was free at last. Or, so he thought.
Because, as we know, Holmes, was not to die, or, shall we say, could not be killed; instead, he was to rise from the Reichenbach Falls, stronger than ever, triumphant even. Within a few years, and more than ever a prisoner to his creation, Conan Doyle was once again writing detective tales and was to do so until the day he died.
There were to be no further attempts at escape. Locked into a reality he detested, Conan Doyle began earnestly to search elsewhere for a release; but, instead of looking to his discarded Catholic faith, he found himself peering into the darkness that hung over Baker Street.
In 1935, G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay entitled, “Sherlock Holmes the God.” In it he stated the following about the cult then surrounding Holmes: “It is getting beyond a joke. The hobby is hardening into a delusion…. The real inference is that Sherlock Holmes really existed and that Conan Doyle never existed. If posterity only reads these latter books, it will certainly suppose them to be serious. It will imagine that Sherlock Holmes as a man. But he was not; he was only a god.”
There is only one God, however, and all others masquerading as such are but demons. Chesterton, right on so many things, and especially on the unforeseen consequences of worshiping other “gods,” of whatever hue, knew that such dalliances could only ever end with insanity, or tragedy, or both.
Was 221b Baker Street really the center of crime solving? A place of refuge from the horrors that stalked the fog filled London streets? Or, was it the seat of something else, much darker and more menacing, someone, or something, slowly driving insane those who came within reach?
When murderous intent is aroused it must find an outlet, but what if the “someone” you are trying to kill doesn’t appear to exist? Unable to finish off his nemesis, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and forced to perpetually pay homage to him, Conan Doyle went off with the fairies, literally. In 1917, two girls declared they had photographs purporting to be of “fairies.” Few believed them, Conan Doyle did; later, he was to publish a book entitled The Coming of the Fairies. As Chesterton had pointed out on an earlier occasion, when one stops believing in God it’s not that one believes in nothing but rather in anything, and it was into this void that Conan Doyle now stepped.
The loss of his son, through illness after fighting in the Great War, greatly affected the author. His turning to Spiritualism, as a source of solace and understanding, was to prove as misguided as ultimately futile. Nevertheless, from 1918 onwards, books & bookshops, lectures & lecture tours were to follow, with Conan Doyle expending more energy on this newfound belief than on anything else. By the time of his death in 1930, his reputation lay in tatters.
In this struggle of two personalities—one human, one “other”—it appeared that, by the end, the detective’s cold-blooded rationalism had triumphed, pushing his creator over the edge into what many considered to be an irrational mania, a darkly sweet revenge for the Reichenbach Falls, with this time Conan Doyle, not Holmes, tumbling head first into “that dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam….”
Just over a century after that fight to the death at Reichenbach, a statue was erected outside Baker Street Underground Station; however, it was not to the man who had made the street famous throughout the world but instead to someone who had never existed. To this day, there is no monument to Conan Doyle in all London, and yet, for those who come and go from Baker Street, the immortal Sherlock Holmes stands sentinel, a perennial watching presence.
Was Sherlock Holmes really what he seemed, or, instead, were those who entered too closely into the twilight world of 221b Baker Street driven to madness by encountering its ‘god’? Those who knew Conan Doyle may well have thought so; so too might his descendants who, in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling, may also conclude that mere mortals are no match for the shadows that to this day still play on Baker Street.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” — from The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet