Posts Tagged ‘The Sign of Four’

The Norwood Author

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 Holmesis “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“.

Baker Street Irregulars

The Baker Street Irregulars were recruited by Holmes to perform various missions, generally to search London following clues and to go places where Holmes himself could not.

I first encountered them in A Study in Scarlet as six dirty little scoundrels who stood in a line like so many dispreputable statuettes. Their chief was the energetic and inventive Wiggins. Holmes explained to me that there was more work to be got out one of these little beggars than a dozen of the police force.

The mere sight of an official looking person seals men’s lips. These youngsters went everywhere, however, and heard everything. They were as sharp as needles too and all they wanted was organisation.

Holmes paid them a shilling (five new pence, I understand, in current coinage) plus expenses with a guinea (one pound and one shilling in old money and therefore 105p in new money) bonus to the one who found the object of their search.

Holmes used the Irregulars to hunt down the cab driven by Jefferson Hope in A Study In Scarlet, to find the ship Aurora in The Sign of Four, and to watch over Henry Wood at Aldershot in The Crooked Man.

I note that the Irregulars have appeared in a number of interesting films and productions, including Without A Clue (1990) where they took delight in tormenting the incompetent Holmes played by Michael Caine. The various portayals of Holmes and myself will be the subject of a future discussion – there are few that I could say I approve of!

Most recently they appeared in a television production, Sherlock Holmes & The Baker Street Irregulars, where their sharp wits saved Holmes from an accusation of murder and helped to foil an audacious robbery while rescuing members of their own gang. Jonathan Pryce played Holmes and I was pleased to see a relatively acceptable portrayal of myself by Bill Paterson.

They also appeared in the The Baker Street Boys, a series of eight 30 minute episode broadcast by the BBC in 1983. They were released on video in 1985 but have since been deleted from the BBC catalogue.

The Baker Street Irregulars are also the name of an organisation of Holmes enthusiasts founded in 1934 by Christopher Morley who publish the Baker Street Journal. Although subscriptions to the journal are available membership is by invitation only and to those who have made a significant contribution to the Sherlockian world (as the Americans prefer to call it). Their members have included US Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S Truman who maintained quarters for the Secret Service labelled “The Baker Street Urchins” on a map of what is now known as Camp David.

Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, tasked by him to “set Europe ablaze” during the Second World were often referred to as the Baker Street Irregulars.

The Richard Lancelyn Green Collection

The Richard Lancelyn Green Collection is an extraordinary collection of Conan Doyle and Holmes related material housed in the Portsmouth City Museum.

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:

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.

Richard Lancelyn Green was born in 1953 and died in tragic circumstances in 2004.

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.”

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