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Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle

John Simkin

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The Strange Case of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle

This was the best modern play I have seen on television for many years. It reminded me of the BBC Wednesday Play that we had in the 1960s and 1970s. Like those early plays this was a playwright that was interested in ideas. In this play shown last night, the writer, David Pirie, explored the relationship between the author and the character he created.

In the 1880s Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a doctor in Southsea. With very few patients, Doyle attempted to make money by writing detective stories. His main character, Sherlock Holmes, was based on Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon and criminal psychologist, who had taught Conan Doyle while he was a student in Edinburgh.

In 1891 Conan Doyle published six Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine. The following year he was paid £1,000 for a whole series on Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes became the most famous detective in history. He acquired a tremendous fan base and Conan Doyle became extremely rich.

Conan Doyle did not share the literary attitudes of his readers. He wanted to write serious novels. He once said that the “Sherlock Holmes mysteries did not amount to more than a party trick”. In 1893 decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes in the story, The Final Problem. This resulted in him receiving death threats from his previously loyal readers.

Conan Doyle now had the money to write serious historical novels like his hero, Sir Walter Scott. These failed to sell but he refused to be beaten.

Pirie’s play explores the reason why Conan Doyle decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes. He does this by having Conan Doyle agree to having his biography written. The biographer interviews Conan Doyle and his family members. Eventually, the biographer explains to Conan Doyle why he killed off Sherlock Holmes. He points out that Sherlock Holmes character was based on two men, his father and Dr. Joseph Bell.

Conan Doyle’s father was an alcoholic who was committed to a Mental Asylum by his wife and his local doctor. The doctor was in fact having a sexual relationship with Conan Doyle's mother. Although he fully understood why his mother had done this, he felt he had betrayed his father. This situation was made worse by his father sending him notes and drawings asking him to free him from this asylum.

Conan Doyle refused and instead adopted a new father, Dr. Joseph Bell. Sherlock Holmes had the intellect of Bell but the drug taking activity of his own father. Conan Doyle was actually haunted by his own creation. He even used his father’s drawings to illustrate one of his Sherlock Holmes’ stories. As his publisher says in the play, these are not the drawings of a madman, just a poor artist.

In 1893 Conan Doyle’s father died. He now decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle is furious when his biographer reveals that he knows the full story behind the creation and killing of Sherlock Holmes. At this point in the play, it becomes clear that the biographer is a figment of Conan Doyle’s imagination. In fact, it is Sherlock Holmes.

In 1902 Conan Doyle finally accepted that the public would not allow him to become a serious novelist. He returned to writing Sherlock Holmes stories with his best known detective story, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Maybe the playwright will consider writing about another period of Conan Doyle’s career. I am amazed that this topic has never been made into a play or film.

On 2nd September, 1914, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Masterman, the head of the War Propaganda Bureau, organised a secret meeting of Britain's leading writers, to discuss ways of best promoting the country's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells. (George Bernard Shaw was the only leading writer not invited - they felt he could not be trusted)

All the writers present at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. Several of the men who attending the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's view of the war.

In 1914 Conan Doyle wrote the recruiting pamphlet, To Arms!. The WPB arranged for Conan Doyle to go the Western Front and his pamphlet, A Visit to the Three Fronts was published in 1916. During the war Doyle also wrote his six volume history, The British Campaign in France and Flanders. Conan Doyle also wrote on the war for the Daily Chronicle.

The propaganda produced by these men resulted in hundreds of thousands of men joining the British Army. Large numbers of these men were killed, including Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley Conan Doyle. Rudyard Kipling also lost his only son as a result of this propaganda. His response was to write two poems about the War Propaganda Bureau:

Common Form (1918)

If any question why we died.

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

A Dead Statesman (1924)

I could not dig; I dare not rob;

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine young and defrauded young.

Arthur Conan Doyle did not write any poetry about the loss of his son. Instead he became interested in spiritualism. I imagine he was trying to tell his son he was sorry.

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