Being the author of Sherlock Holmes must have been exhausting for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It seems it didn’t matter how many Sherlock Holmes stories he wrote, his readers always wanted more, and to begin with he kept up with demand, writing The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes within weeks. But by the time he got to writing the stories that would eventually become part of The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes and His Last Bow, readers had to wait months or often a year between stories and there was not always any telling when Doyle would write the next installment. This was partly due to the fact that Holmes’ popularity gave Doyle the monopoly on the decisions regarding when he wrote and how much he was paid for his writing. Despite his middle class beginnings, Doyle, soon after Holmes’ publication in The Strand Magazine, began living the high life: his writings were hugely popular and all the magazines were fighting over being the publisher, which meant he could demand a very competitive price. He also had enough of an income from his Holmes stories to enable him to write other things, including historical fiction and letters to newspapers, participating in very public debates over issues like divorce reform, Spiritualism, women’s vote, and the Boer war, to name a few.
You would think that with this level of popularity and autonomy Doyle would have nothing to complain about his lot in life. Yet there were many who felt that Sherlock Holmes represented everything bad about popular fiction and this included Doyle himself. In the 1890s there was a fierce debate going on between two groups: first there were the traditionalists who believed poetry and high art were the defining features of a good author. This included authors of high literature and especially applied to those whose works were seen to be ‘art for art’s sake’, i.e. they wrote to add to an artistic canon, not to be appreciated. In the wake of patronage, where a rich person would employ their own poet or writer, most of these authors were of a higher social class because they were the only ones who could afford to publish and not be paid. On the other side of the traditionalists were the up and coming, predominantly middle class, authors who were writing for money and therefore were writing for a popular audience. The traditionalists did not like this. These new writers were undermining good, healthy literature and were infecting the minds of the helpless, idiotic public. This is not really a surprising argument because for as long as entertainment has been capitalized upon, there have been debates over what is good for people; the levels of quality; and it seems that traditionalists have always claimed that what is ‘popular’ cannot be ‘high class’. When people went to see plays they claimed the opera was art but the melodrama was populist; when it was fiction, the historical novel was high class but the detective novel was populist; and now we’re having the same debates of TV programmes.
Doyle sat very uncomfortably in the populist category mainly because he had firm beliefs in art, class and gentlemanly ways; but he also had a middle class background and had a desire to write for money. The conflicting states of mind meant nothing to the traditionalists who claimed he was an unscrupulous profiteer who had purposefully chosen populist genres to write in. He had defined the Detective genre and this was unforgivable. Yet, Doyle was also uncomfortable with his claim to fame. He once wrote to Herbert Greenhough Smith (editor of The Strand) ‘You will be amused to hear that I am at work upon a Sherlock Holmes story. So the old dog returns to his vomit.’ His sardonic comment reveals much of his attitude towards his Holmes writings: he wanted to be known for a better class of writing and Holmes was ‘vomit’ compared to the real stuff he wanted to be writing. His ambition was to be the modern Sir Walter Scott, writer of historical novels, which is what he spent a lot of his time doing, but these stories were never very well received critically or with the reading public. He felt the demand for Holmes drew him back and, as he said to his mother, ‘he takes my mind off better things’. So, on that fateful day, Doyle sent Holmes on a dive down the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem – Doyle’s intention was to make, as the title suggests, this story the final problem and to never revive Holmes again.
Fortunately for us, Doyle decided to unofficially revive Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, which offers an unpublished story about Holmes, occurring before his death. Yet, soon after that Doyle was tempted by the staggering amount of money The Strand offered him and revived Holmes properly in The Empty House for more stories. He was paid £100 per thousand words and became, for a short time, the highest paid author. This was despite the fact that (many argue) the quality of Holmes stories after Hound of the Baskervilles dropped considerably. Doyle made more continuity errors (which is why the Baker Street Babes have nicknamed him Arthur ‘Continuity’ Doyle) and the number of actual crimes also drops as Doyle preferred to write stories of moral ‘crimes’ or accidents that look like crimes to fit in with his gentlemanly sensibilities. For example, Doyle famously hated the story The Adventure of the Cardboard Box because he felt it was too gruesome (it involves two cut off ears being sent in a box to an unlucky woman). He regretted writing such a grizzly and populist tale so much that he asked The Strand to remove it from further publication and used a section of the introduction (the part involving only Holmes and Watson) in another story. He may have been populist, but he still had his own standards of writing to keep to and he did the best he could.