5th November, 1 Comment
By John Watson
This is Alistair Duncan’s second Sherlockian (or Holmesian if you prefer) book and it is my favourite so far of all the books Alistair has written (mainly because I am, by nature, more interested in Holmes than I am in Conan Doyle).
Close to Holmes, as Roger Johnson of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London says in the foreword, is one of the three books on Holmes’ London that he would recommend. The other two being Hot on the Scent (which is now difficult to find) and Finding Sherlock’s London (a new edition of which was published last year).
Throughout the book, Alistair’s research has thrown up some interesting and intriguing facts. To whet your appetite here are a few puzzles for you to solve as you read the book.
- Which of Professor Moriarty’s businesses was put out of action by London Transport?
- In which street, connecting Harley Street with Wimpole Street, did I once have my medical practices?
- The Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company occupied which canonical premises across from 221B?
- Why is the picture of Holmes and I following Stapleton’s cab down Regent Street in The Hound of the Baskervilles usually shown the wrong way round?
- When I bumped into Stamford in the Criterion Bar in 1881, which famous London landmark nearby had not yet been erected?
- Where could you find a meal named after one of Holmes’ adventures?
- Which of my favourite restaurants in still in business on The Strand?
- Which theatre was burnt down twice, was where William Gillette played Holmes for the first time in London,and was where Holmes and I accompanied my future wife on our way to meet Thaddeus Sholto?
- How is the word “bedlam” historically related to Liverpool Street Station?
- The first recorded performance of a Punch and Judy Show in England occurred where?
- William Wallace (Braveheart) was executed near the site of which hospital?
- Which musical legends lived (at different times) in the same street as The Resident Patient?
I hope you will get from this set of questions an idea, literally, of how much ground this book covers and the amount of detail.
Even if you were not interested in Holmes or Conan Doyle (I believe that such people exist) then this is an amazing guide to London and some of the changes that have occured over the last hundred and thirty years. For me this is summed up in the three pictures of Euston Station, two before what Alistair describes as “an act of historical and architectural vandalism” reduced it to what we see in the third picture, complete with sculptures that look like something out of one of my friend, HG Wells’ novels. Fortunately, some have now come to their senses and restored St Pancras Station to more or less its former glory (despite having no documented Holmesian connection).
As usual, Alistair Duncan has been careful and painstaking in his research and his photographs of the old and the new will help you explore London and recognise the Sherlockian and Doylean landmarks.
I found myself picking up my maps of London and the surrounding districts as I was reading this book. I suspect that someone who does not know London as well as I do would struggle to understand where are the places mentioned are in relation to each other. A good A-Z of London or possibly access to Google Maps would help you find your way around.
20th October, No Comments
By John Watson
“A Chronology of the Life or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle May 22nd 1859 to July 7th 1930” is a detailed chronology of the life and times of my literary agent from the date of his birth to the date of his death and beyond.
This is a work of reference, and a magnificent work it is.
I cannot imagine how anyone writing about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could be without this comprehensive reference book. It would be of less use to a Sherlockian, except perhaps in checking the publication dates of the stories in their various forms.
Its over 200 pages of A4 size contain a wealth of information, including:
- a family tree back to Sir Arthur’s Great Grandfather
- a detailed list of events starting in 1794/5 with the birth of Marianne Conan, followed in 1797 by the birth of James Doyle his Great Grandfather up to January 29th 1998 when there was a memorial service for Dame Jean Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur’s daughter from his second marriage
- some family photographs
- a list of residences of Sir Arthur and family
- a list of statues and plaques dedicated to Sir Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and others (including the only plaque dedicated to myself!)
- a list of biographies and semi-biographical works
- a chronological listing of the first and early appearances of Sir Arthur’s works
- a list of prefaces, forewords, etc. by Sir Arthur
- a list of references consulted and referred to by the author in compiling the chronology
- a short note about the author
- a comprehensive index
I would, therefore, recommend to any Doylean scholar for checking for the correct dates when writing about Sir Arthur.
Posted in Arthur Conan Doyle
25th September, 1 Comment
By John Watson
“Eliminate the Impossible” is the first of two books by Alistair Duncan on Holmes. His second Holmes book, “Close to Holmes” in which he looks at the historical connections between London, Holmes and my literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will be the subject of another review at a later date.
Alistair has also written a book about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Norwood Author“, which I have already reviewed. Currently, he is writing another Doylean book about Undershaw, the house that Sir Arthur had built at Hindhead which remains under threat from developers. This book is not due to be published until next year, by which time the fate of Undershaw will almost certainly have been decided.
“Eliminate the Impossible” runs to 244 pages of which the first three-quarters cover Holmes on the page and the last quarter looks at Holmes on the screen.
I note that he prefers to the term “Sherlockian” which is usually reserved for Holmes fans abroad whilst “Holmesian” is supposedly the term used in the UK. I have always found “Holmesian” a bit cumbersome – “Sherlockian” leaves no-one in doubt who you’re talking about and in the BBC Sherlock series we’re on first name terms with the main protagonists for the first time!
May I also raise a point about our address. It was 221B Baker Street – note the capital “B” after 221. Flats are designated with a capital letter not a lower case letter. So where “221b” has been used “221B” should be used instead. Even the Dummies Guide gets this wrong! But congratulations to the BBC Sherlock props department for getting this right and commiserations to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street for getting it wrong on their unofficial blue plaque.
Part One – Holmes on the page
This covers the origins of the stories, Holmes’s influence on crime fiction, his appearance and character before dealing with the “Heroes and Villains” as Alistair calls them, beginning with me (I assume I am a hero?) His selection is interesting. It includes two women and I will leave you to guess who they are!
Following this is a short discussion about the “timeline” of the stories which has always, and continues to be, a subject of much discussion (and many books)! Alistair picks out D Martin Dakin’s and Leslie Klinger’s chronologies and sets them against the dates found on the Internet. The order of the stories as listed here puts the last three stories from The Case-Book in the order in which they are now usually published (VEIL, SHOS, RETI) rather than the order in which they originally appeared in The Case-Book (RETI, VEIL, SHOS).
For each of the sixty stories, he then gives the date of publication (in The Strand except for the first two stories which were first published elsewhere), the date the story was set in (just the year) and the identity of the client. Following a brief synopsis he then presents some notes about the story, usually about the dates involved, but sometimes about the real identities of the people involved, and some of the puzzles and inconsistencies.
His own inconsistencies are that he leaves “The Adventure of” off all the stories in The Memoirs and again changes the order of the last three stories – this time to SHOS, RETI and VEIL. I think he has the date of publication of SHOS in The Strand incorrectly as January 1927 when it should be April 1927 making it the last to be published.
In the general introduction to the stories he sensibly suggests that you read the story first before reading his notes and doing it the other way round is likely to confuse matters.
Part Two – Holmes on the screen
This looks at Holmes portrayal in film and on television by looking at a selection of actors who have portrayed my good friend. Alistair attempts to classify them as either “good” or “bad” and “remembered” or “forgotten” making the point that some portrayals (“good” or “bad”) might only be remembered by Sherlockians rather than the general public.
He has left out all the comic portrayals presumably on the grounds that they are universally viewed as “bad” and “best forgotten”.
Rathbone and Brett come out best in this analysis with perhaps Douglas Wilmer coming in third. Alistair puts Brett just out in front and probably the favourite for those who would see the Rathbone films as largely set in their own time rather than the time of the original stories.
Alistair recommends David Stuart Davies book, “Starring Sherlock Holmes“, for more detail about Holmes on film and television (and stage and radio for that matter!)
As Alistair’s book was written in 2008, it predates the Robert Downey Jr film “Sherlock Holmes” and more importantly the BBC Sherlock series. It will be interesting to speculate where these two very different portrayals would be in the “good”, “bad”, “remembered” and “forgotten” categories. Cumberbatch’s Holmes has a good chance of being in the category “good and remembered” if they can maintain the standard of the first series (mostly ignoring The Blind Banker) whereas Robert Downey Jr may end up in “bad but remembered” if they cannot raise their game!
Nevertheless, Alistair Duncan succeeds, as he sets out in his introduction, “to bring a fresh perspective” to some of the puzzles concerning “the anomalies in the stories and the films”. Whilst he “conceived it as an introduction to the canon” it does, as he hoped, “appeal to long-standing fans as well as novice Sherlockians”.
This book, like its successor “Close to Holmes“, is available on the Kindle although Amazon have not linked the two versions properly on their website so you will need to go to the Kindle store to find it.
29th January, No Comments
By John Watson
Alistair Duncan kindly sent me an advance copy of his third Holmesian book (or maybe this is really his first Doylean book) entitled “The Norwood Author” which covers the four years when my literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, lived in South Norwood, a suburb of London.
Alistair’s first book “Eliminate the Impossible” has been described as “a frank, fascinating and sometimes controversial review” of the Canon on page and screen. This was followed with one of the most popular books on Holmes “Close To Holmes” which reviews the places across London featured in the Sherlock Holmes stories and dear to Arthur Conan Doyle too. Anyone visiting London with a fascination for Holmes will find this book a valuable guide to the metropolis.
He has written on the flyleaf of the copy of his new book that he sent me an appropriate quotation from “The Empty House” to the effect that it “could fill that gap on the second shelf”. This quotation is appropriate for several reasons. Firstly, the story that immediately follows “The Empty House” in “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” is “The Norwood Builder”.
Secondly, it was whilst Conan Doyle was living in South Norwood that the story of Holmes apparent demise came to the knowledge of the public in “The Final Problem” which is included in “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes“. Holmes returned in “The Empty House” to dramatic effect shortly after quoting those words above and causing me to faint with the shock!
Finally, the quotation is apposite to the book itself because it does fill a gap in our knowledge of the life of Conan Doyle. As Alistair points out, Arthur’s autobiography “Memories and Adventures” is often at odds with what we know from his letters (as can be seen in “Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters” and from other biographers (including Russell Miller and Andrew Lycett).
Taking each year in turn, Alistair chronicles Arthur’s activities, and paints a clear picture of the environs nicely supported by contemporary pictures. He brings Arthur’s life “to life”.
We read about Arthur’s membership of the Norwood Cricket Club and the turbulent proceedings of the Upper Norwood Literary and Scientific Society as he begins to develop his interest in psychic research.
During these years, Arthur and Louise’s first son was born, Arthur’s father died and Louise was diagnosed with tuberculosis. However it was a busy and successful time from a literary point of view. A third of Holmes’ cases were published around this time culminating in the sadness of “The Final Problem”. Some of Arthur’s most interesting work was also published, including “The Stark Munro Letters” and “The Refugees“.
At the end of the book, Alistair points out some interesting “coincidences” in South Norwood. There is a Doyle Road, a Baskerville Court and a Priory School!
Finally we learn about Alistair’s own contribution to the literary heritage of South Norwood – a Conan Doyle display in the William Stanley public house. The next time I’m down that way I will call in for a half in memory of Arthur. Norwood, Upper Norwood in fact, has personal memories too of my first wife, Mary, as I recounted in “The Sign of Four“.
15th November, 3 Comments
By John Watson
One of the reasons that I started this series of writings was the threats against the continuing existence of Undershaw, once the home of my dear friend, Arthur Conan Doyle.
I wrote about the current state of the property and the appeal to save it from developers.
Undershaw is built on a 4 acre plot surrounded by National Trust land of outstanding beauty looking down onto the Nutcombe Valley with the South Downs in the distance (maybe as far as Holmes cottage?) The building is in a sad state, rain having poured in through the roof causing extensive damage.
The Undershaw Preservation Trust has been set up by Mr John Gibson, an expert on Sir Arthur, and he can be contacted at [email protected] Lynn Gale has set up a blog to provide the latest on this desperate fight to save this once beautiful building.
Somewhat cynically, the current owners (Fossway Ltd) , aware of the heritage of the building have offered to include a visitor centre in its plans for the Grade II listed building. The developer, Michael Wilson, has suggested an open-sided pavilion where the public would be able to see views of Undershaw and would contain a display board about the history of the house and Sir Arthur.
The Sherlock Holmes Society of London has publicised the plight of Undershaw but Sir Arthur still gets less publicity than Holmes!
9th October, No Comments
By John Watson
With one of the Baker Street Irregulars pointing out to me that my literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, has been honoured by appearing on a set of Royal Mail stamps issued this week to celebrate Eminent Britons, I thought it a good idea to mention the set of Sherlock Holmes stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 1993.
This set of five stamps depicted five stories from the Canon: The Reigate Squire, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Six Napoleons, The Greek Interpreter and The Final Problem.
There is a little puzzle hidden within these stamps – my literary agent’s last name “DOYLE” is hidden, one letter on each stamp. Can you find them? To make it easier go to the Philatelic Sherlock Holmes where you’ll find a much larger set of images if you go to the detailed page.
What also may puzzle some people familiar with the stories is that the title of the story on the first stamp is given as “The Reigate Squire” (singular) when “The Reigate Squires” (plural) appears in some collections. The original title I gave it in the Strand was singular but some later collections changed it to the plural, which does make more sense I concede. In the United States, when it was first published, the title was changed to “The Reigate Puzzle”, possibly fearful that the term “squires” might offend (as William S Baring-Gould suggests in the Annotated Sherlock Holmes)
You will also find at the above website many other stamps relating to my good friends Holmes and Doyle.
4th September, No Comments
By John Watson
This collection of over 16,000 items was bequeathed to the City of Portmouth on Richard’s death. Richard was the world’s foremost experts on Conan Doyle. He amassed this collection over 40 years and the items filled 11 vans!
With this number of items, cataloguing the collection has been a mammoth task and only a small proportion of the items are on display at any one time.
The current exhibition is A Study in Sherlock: Uncovering the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. This showcases many more of the fantastic items including unique photographs, production posters and letters from the influential and the famous of Victorian and Edwardian society. The exhibition’s displays explore the life of Arthur Conan Doyle and the creation of Sherlock Holmes. It features a range of interactive displays, a ‘new’ Sherlock Holmes mystery, and narration by Stephen Fry, the Patron of the collection.
Entry to the museum is free and it is open daily except from the 24th to 26th of December. Opening times are 10am and the museum closes at 5.30pm from April to September and 5pm from October to March. Parking is also free. The museum is located on Museum Road, PORTSMOUTH, Hampshire, England PO1 2LJ. Telephone: +44 (0)23 9282 7261 Email: [email protected]
If you are in the area it is worth visiting Bush Villas where Arthur Conan Doyle began his professional career as a GP in the summer of 1882. He had arrived in Portsmouth in the June of that year, from Plymouth, with no job, nowhere to live and little more than £10 to his name. It is from here that he arranged for the publication of the first two Sherlock Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Portsmouth was, in this sense, the birthplace of the Great Detective.
In To Keep the Memory Green, reflections on his life, edited by Steve Rothman and Nicholas Utechin, the bibliography of his work covers 30 books by or edited by him, 56 contributions to books, 55 contributions to periodicals, 33 Christmas cards and postcards, 26 articles about him, 4 books dedicated to him and 4 television appearances.
His own books included The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of stories written to reflect and enhance Holmes great achievements. Conan Doyle was always trying to persuade me to release further stories but others soon began to fill the public’s desire for more stories about the Great Detective. This book contains eleven stories, at least one of which I have mentioned amongst the cases that for various reasons I have not felt able to publish.
He also published a collection of parodies, plays, poems and speeches that really extend the Canon by pulling together all Conan Doyle’s other writings related to Sherlock Holmes. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes includes the original prefaces some of the collections including the one I wrote to His Last Bow.
Year in and year out, letters flood into our address in Baker Street and for a while the nearby Abbey National Building Society used to respond to some of these letters whilst we were away. In 1985 Richard published a selection of the most interesting and entertaining of these letters in Letters to Sherlock Holmes.
When Richard died he bequeathed his collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes memorabilia to the City of Portsmouth because he was helped by the staff at the City’s Central Library when he was researching Conan Doyle. He had plans to produce a definitive three-volume biography of Sir Arthur which of course remains unfinished.
To quote from The Bruce-Partington Plans – “His position is unique. He has made it for himself.”
7th August, No Comments
By John Watson
In 1927, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was asked to select what he regarded as his favourite Sherlock Holmes stories.
His list, in descending order of merit, was:
- The Speckled Band
- The Red-Headed League
- The Dancing Men
- The Final Problem
- A Scandal in Bohemia
- The Empty House
- The Five Orange Pips
- The Second Stain
- The Devil’s Foot
- The Priory School
- The Musgrave Ritual
- The Reigate Squires
Later, he considered the stories he wrote after 1927 and added seven more stories, again in descending order of merit:
- Silver Blaze
- The Bruce-Partington Plans
- The Crooked Man
- The Man with the Twisted Lip
- The Greek Interpreter
- The Resident Patient
- The Naval Treaty
The Strand Magazine challenged its readers to guess which of his Sherlock Holmes stories Sir Arthur rated as his very best. He said that when this competition was first mooted, he went into it in a most light-hearted way, thinking that it would be the easiest thing in the world to pick out the twelve best of the Holmes stories. But in practice he found that it was much more serious a task.
A Mr R. T. Newman of Spring Hill, Wellingborough, won £100 for successfully guessing ten of the twelve stories correctly.
Sir Arthur revealed his choice and, in his own inimitable way, explained his reasoning in an article for the magazine which has been published, along with the twelve stories, together for the first time in The Favourite Sherlock Holmes Stories.
This book, with Case Notes by Professor Robert Giddings of Bournemouth University and the twelve stories listed above, is a useful introduction covering Holmes’s cases. There appears to be a misprint in the reproduction of Conan Doyle’s explanation of “How I Made My List” as it refers to the first six of the list being republished in “The Grand Magazine” when it should be “The Strand Magazine”.
The Case Notes by Professor Giddings are bang up to date, covering the latest incarnation of Holmes and myself on the silver screen portrayed by Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law. I think I am more flattered by my portrayal than Holmes!
Perhaps I should consider what my favourite Holmes stories would be?
31st July, No Comments
By John Watson
Undershaw was built by Conan Doyle for his invalid wife Louise in 1897 but despite its history in recent years it has fallen on hard times.
Temporary protection work has been carried out because of vandalism and the theft of the lead roof. The current owners want to convert the original building into three houses and demolish the extension and replace this with a new wing of town houses.
Until 2004 it was a hotel and restaurant. In 2004 the Victorian Society tried unsuccessfully to have the building Grade I listed.
Now the Hindhead Together Appeal is testing the public support for a plan to persuade the National Trust to purchase, repair, restore and maintain the building as a visitor and heritage centre open to the public.
If you want to pledge your support to the campaign then please add your signature to the petition to save Undershaw.
It was, of course, at Undershaw where Arthur and I discussed the publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles.
24th July, No Comments
By John Watson
The 1901 Census was taken on March 31st and the return for that date shows us that my literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, was staying at the Ashdown Forest Hotel in East Grinstead in Sussex. Along with Arthur were his mother, Mary Foley Doyle, and the new lady in his life, Jean Leckie (see right). Arthur’s wife Louise (see left) was very ill and his liaison with Jean seemed to have the approval of his mother.
In Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, edited by John Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower and Charles Foley, Arthur’s letters to Mary talk of his plans to go spend three days at the hotel, ostensibly to play golf with Jean’s brother, Stewart, and asking his mother to invite Jean to join them. Arthur was still fiercely loyal to Louise and had already told Jean that he would not leave nor divorce Louise and he would neither hurt not be unfaithful to her.
Holmes and I were away from Baker Street on the night of the census. I had been a widower for nearly ten years by then and I was abroad with my new lady friend who was soon to become my second wife. Holmes and I had been busy with the case of the Ferrers Documents and the Abergavenny Murder was coming up for trial. I think Holmes had gone to France and he had taken with him the manuscript of The Hound of the Baskervilles which I was hoping Conan Doyle would publish later that year. We were shortly to take up the case of the Duke of Holdernesse that would be later published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes as The Priory School.