Authors: Michael Dibdin
‘When William Gillette, the American actor, asked the author if he might introduce a love interest in the
Holmes play … Sir Arthur briskly cabled: “Marry him, murder him, do what you like with him.” It should be recorded that some enthusiasts regarded even this high canonical (Conanical?) authority with disfavour.’
JAMES EDWARD HOLROYD
Seventeen Steps to
On the 16th of February 1926, John Herbert Watson, M.D. – better known to millions as the ‘Dr Watson’ of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – died of injuries sustained in a fall at his home near Lyndhurst in Hampshire. He was seventy-three. When his will came to be read it was found that in a codicil he had provided for a box of papers to be left on deposit with his bankers for a period of not less than fifty years, at the end of which time it was to be opened and the contents made public.
The world in which Watson grew up had already been swept away by the Great War, in which he himself played a small but honourable role. Soon the brash unstable world that replaced it was in turn weighed in the balances and found wanting. From its smouldering ashes, after forty years of labour pains, the twentieth century was finally born. The new age grew to adolescence and then to manhood. It overran the earth, changing whatever it touched out of all recognition. This infant prodigy was celebrating its thirtieth birthday when, in the summer of 1976, a dented metal dispatch-box was duly brought up – like treasure from some fabled wreck – out of the vaults where it had lain silently for half a century. No one had any idea what it contained. The consensus of opinion was that the papers represented the unpublished notes of those cases on which Watson had collaborated with Sherlock Holmes, and which for various reasons had not previously been made public. Interest therefore ran high in the sombre panelled office where the manager
of the bank, in the presence of Watson’s great-nephew, raised the battered lid bearing the words ‘John H. Watson, M.D., Late Army Medical Department’. The box was found to contain, together with various items of purely personal interest, a wax-sealed package of 164 typed foolscap pages, signed, and dated October 1922.
One thing was immediately evident: the document left by Dr Watson was not a collection of notes but one continuous narrative. After some discussion it was decided that the best course would be to read this aloud to the assembled company, so that its import could be judged. Thus it came about that what one of the stunned audience later termed ‘a criminological time-bomb’ made its public debut in the punctilious tones of an elderly man of finance. The force of the explosion was in no way diminished thereby. Within a few days of that momentous reading, rumours began to circulate about the exact nature of the revelations contained in ‘the Watson papers’. At about the same time, a powerful and energetic lobby was formed by various parties united only in their determination that the papers should never be published. Their methods were both cunning and resourceful, ranging from personal persuasion to attempted arson. One of our better-known Holmesians submitted a long letter in which he successively disclosed what he called the ‘
fact’ that Watson was ‘practically a delusional psychotic from 1919 onwards’, pleaded that ‘a veil of discretion be drawn over his pathetic ravings’, protested that publication ‘would be as preposterous as the BBC interviewing some maniac who claims to be Napoleon’, and finally threatened us with ‘the very real possibility of prolonged and costly litigation if this lunatic libel ever sees the light of day’. Fortunately not all the correspondence we received was this strident. We particularly cherish a letter from one S. Holmes of Sussex, who vehemently denied reports of his death while extolling
the virtues of a ‘miracle diet’ based on royal jelly, his monograph on which he was prepared to let us publish at a mutually acceptable fee!
There can be no question that the contents of this book will prove extremely controversial. Many people will be deeply shocked by the nature of Watson’s statement. Many will no doubt prefer to reject it rather than surrender the beliefs of a lifetime. Others will at least regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution. It is true that Watson’s claims can no longer be substantiated. But every one of his references to a known event has been checked by our research team against the facts – many of which were not publicly available in 1922 – and we can certify that no obvious anomalies exist. The detractors may say what they like, but they cannot deny that the present version fits the evidence. That it is true is at the very least possible. We believe that on mature consideration many readers may come to share our conviction that it is in fact extremely probable.
The preparation of the typescript for the press has not been onerous. Editorial intervention has been restricted to the silent correction of a few solecisms, the division of the original into chapters, and the provision of some indispensable footnotes. Apart from these gentle ministrations the work has been left to speak for itself – as, despite the author’s protests, it so very effectively does.
It was the autumn of 1888, and the day one of that class that Sherlock Holmes used to describe as ‘unhealthy’. The sky was a dreary grey presaging the rain that fell limply in intermittent showers. There was hardly a breath of wind. At that time I was still sharing rooms in Baker Street with Holmes, and on the morning of which I speak we had just concluded breakfast. Now I stood smoking a cigarette and staring down from the
at the street below. Holmes lay sprawled in his armchair before the empty grate, a newspaper open on his knees and a pipe clenched between his teeth. Though gloomy, the weather was too close for us to light a fire and bring some cheer to our dismal chambers. At length the silence was broken by Holmes’s exclamation of disgust. He tossed the paper aside, and his long bloodless fingers snaked up towards the cocaine-bottle and the needles. At that very moment the bell rang. There was a muttered exchange below and then a rush of footsteps on the stairs. Our door flew open and –
No, this really won’t do. I thought it might give my story a little more conviction if I tried at least to echo A.C.D., but I cannot even manage that. Ah, what a thing he would make of it! Gripping the reader with his opening words and sweeping him off on a brisk guided tour of the plot; getting the dates wrong, falling over the facts, confusing the names, and all with such sheer panache that no one would dream of asking awkward questions, or of doubting for a moment that what they were hearing was the whole truth and nothing but. Whereas I will probably
be dismissed as a senile dreamer and a bungling purveyor of ill-told tales. But then it is none of my business to try and convince anyone. I leave that to the men of letters. I am a doctor and a soldier; all I can do is make my report.
But at once I run up against a problem which A.C.D. never dreamed of – I cannot know who is reading this. These words will not see print before 1972, at the earliest. What manner of men will walk the earth at that fabulous date? Will any of this matter to you? Perhaps no one then will even have heard of Jack the Ripper, or of Sherlock Holmes either. How can I know? Nevertheless, I must go on, and if I say too much or too little for your understanding, you will no doubt pardon an old man living out his days in a barbarous age – an age of darkness. For my part, I will try not to take too much for granted. No one now seems to read Clark Russell;
in fifty years A.C.D.’s work may likewise have passed into oblivion. But no doubt some energetic editor can exhume the Holmes stories from one of our larger libraries, and append to this text such sections as may be necessary to complete the sense. What even the energetic editor will not be able to discover, and what I must therefore explain before going any further, is the connection between the stories and the reality, and the circumstances under which they came to be written.
I had been living with Sherlock Holmes for almost four years when I was first introduced to A.C.D. through a mutual acquaintance in the medical world. He was then just setting up in practice at Southsea, near Portsmouth, and we met during one of his all-too-infrequent trips to
town. We got on at once. For one thing we shared a common medical interest, but there was more to it than that. Perhaps Holmes summed it up best, with the mordant wit so characteristic of him, when he remarked that A.C.D. was something more than just a general practitioner, while I was something less. A bond was formed between us at all events, and during Holmes’s absence some time later I invited A.C.D. to dine at Baker Street. It proved to be a splendid evening, and the first of many others. A.C.D. regaled me with a succession of interesting anecdotes (I particularly recall a humorous account of his misadventures in a joint practice at Plymouth) and I in my turn related some pretty hair-raising experiences from my time in Afghanistan. Surrounded as we were on every side by the evidence of my fellow-lodger’s eccentric pursuits, it was inevitable that the talk should at last come round to him. Sherlock Holmes was at that time virtually unknown outside the closed circles frequented by the police force and the criminal class. The public at large had hardly heard of him, for he took care that his name did not appear in the reports of the cases he undertook. I was thus in the happy position of having virgin territory up my conversational sleeve, so to speak. I recounted my adventures in Holmes’s company, I recalled examples of his almost uncanny powers of deduction and inference, I posed impenetrable mysteries and then effortlessly demonstrated how Holmes had solved them. A.C.D. was visibly impressed by all this, but I naturally had no inkling that the man who kept me up into the small hours with his questions and comments was to be the author of Holmes’s present international fame.
Though that evening’s entertainment had sparked an idea in A.C.D.’s mind, nothing was to come of it for another two years. Holmes remained a topic of conversation whenever we got together, but it was not until the
summer of 1887 – a date that now seems as remote and unreal as 1972 – that I realised that A.C.D.’s interest was anything more than conversational. I had been invited to spend a few days at Southsea, and had readily accepted, for London was like an oven. One afternoon, as the three of us (A.C.D. was by then married) were taking tea in the garden, A.C.D. made me a proposal. It seemed that he had already tried his hand at writing, and had met with moderate success. He now thought it might be possible to do something based on one of Holmes’s cases. What he had in mind was an entirely new type of story that would combine both fact and fiction. The basis of the piece would be fact, drawn from the notes I kept of Holmes’s most interesting cases, but the manner would be that of fiction, employing all the resources of dialogue and narrative art. A.C.D. wished me to approach Holmes and sound out his willingness to sanction this scheme. This I very gladly agreed to do. I had long regretted Holmes’s lack of the fame and fortune I felt to be his due. Here, surely, was a capital means to supply it. I raised the matter immediately upon my return to Baker Street. Holmes listened in silence while I explained A.C.D.’s proposition. When I had done, he took up his cherry-wood pipe and smoked quietly for several minutes more. Finally he spoke.
‘Is he able, this friend of yours?’
‘His name is not yet upon everybody’s lips,’ I replied, ‘but his work has found ready acceptance in a wide range of periodicals. When the
printed a story of his incognito, one critic took it to be the work of Stevenson!’
Holmes snorted. ‘Pooh! It is not of the slightest interest to me whether the man can sell ten thousand magazines with some fictional frippery. What I need to know is whether he can set down ten plain facts without tricking them out in some guise more attractive than that in which they actually appeared.’
‘I have every confidence in his ability to do justice to whichever case you see fit to offer him,’ I returned a trifle stiffly.
Holmes seemed not to have heard. ‘Will he be content to let the story tell itself?’ he mused. ‘Does he have the humility to follow in my footsteps, telling each link of the iron chain of cause and effect by which I force the truth to reveal itself? In a word, can he leave well enough alone?’
I was silent. Holmes glanced at me, and then looked back into the blazing fire, as though the answers to his questions were to be sought there.
‘Do you have some particular case in mind?’ said he at last.
‘Well I naturally wished to consult you before coming to any decision. But I confess my first thought was of the Roylott affair, or possibly the Hope case.’
‘The former is out of the question, I fear. I gave Miss Stoner quite explicit assurances that her privacy would be respected.’
‘Then the other, if you agree. No one’s interests can be at stake there.’
‘Except my own, of course. Well, you have my
. Send all the details we possess concerning Mr Jefferson Hope down to Southsea, and let us see what comes of it.’
I did so the very next day, with results that are known to the world. What is not known is Holmes’s response to A.C.D.’s ‘A Study in Scarlet’. I must admit that I felt at once that the title was not going to meet with my friend’s approval. His own suggestion, duly passed on by me, had been ‘Towards a Definitive Praxis of Applied Criminal Anthropology: Some Notes on the Stangerson–
Drebber Murders of 1881’. Apart from this detail, however, I felt that even Holmes could find nothing of which to complain. A.C.D. had presented the case in the form of an extract from my (non-existent, of course)
– thereby creating for me a literary reputation upon which I was to dine out modestly in later years. But within this fictional shell the yolk of fact had been preserved unbroken. Of course, A.C.D. had not been pedantic about it. He had altered various circumstantial details in the interests of dramatic tension, and had also added a long section of his own invention to provide a suitably grim motive for Hope’s revenge. But I felt that all his improvements were well within the bounds of artistic licence, and I looked forward to Holmes’s approbation of our joint venture.
I myself was completely entranced by the piece. I purchased my copy in Oxford Street, and started reading it on the way home. Having twice narrowly escaped being knocked down by indignant pedestrians, I took refuge in a nearby public garden and finished the piece just as the light was failing. I had been reading for over three hours without the slightest awareness of the passage of time. I hurried home to Baker Street, eager to share my satisfaction with Holmes. To my great surprise, I found him already clutching a copy of the very publication in which I had been immersed all afternoon.
He looked up sharply as I entered. ‘Well, Watson, and where have you been? Sitting outside, eh? In Manchester Square garden, unless I’m very much mistaken. Hardly the season for that, I would have thought. Could it be that you were ashamed to come home, having seen how your precious doctor of letters has bungled his work?’
‘Ashamed, Holmes? Certainly not! I must say I hardly expected this! As for the story, I think it’s rather swell.’
It was an unfortunate choice of words, but the American idiom employed by A.C.D. in the latter half of his
tale had told on my vocabulary. Holmes glanced at me keenly, and I felt the iron enter my soul.
‘“Swell”? Hm! Not, I must confess, the first term that occurred to me. But perhaps not inappropriate, if you intend to suggest something swollen and bloated, something puffed up out of all recognition, a hideous perversion of everything I stand for –’
‘But Holmes –’
‘I was quite prepared for some degree of misrepresentation. I had resigned myself to expect a certain lack of fidelity in his reproduction of the finer details. I was not sanguine upon the probability of seeing my methods and principles exemplified in all their full complexity.’
‘But Holmes –’
‘On the other hand, I was by no means ready to see my investigation made the occasion for the most grotesque and least necessary excrescence to have erupted on the literary scene since the invention of the printing-press.’
‘But Holmes –’
‘I wonder if your colleague’s medical prowess partakes of the same genius which guides his pen? If so, I pity his patients. I shall not be in the least surprised to hear that he has amputated a man’s leg because he complained of heartburn. A mere prescription of bicarbonate of soda would naturally be too prosaic to satisfy Mr Doyle’s taste for the sensational.’
‘But Holmes, what has he done to deserve this? He has demonstrated admirably your unparalleled powers of investigation. He has shown you succeeding where the authorities failed. He has celebrated the complete triumph of your methods and techniques. What more can you possibly ask?’
‘Nothing more, Watson, but quite a bit less. For a start, what is this schoolboy yarn about deserts of salt and murderous Mormons doing stuck in the middle of my case, like a putty nose on an antique bust?’
‘Come, he had to dramatise –’
‘Did he, indeed? How long has he suffered from this compulsion, pray? Did it come on suddenly, or did he acquire the habit by degrees? No doubt this same morbid craving explains that truly remarkable scene in which Hope, half-dead of an aneurism by the by, has to be restrained by four men from precipitating himself from our windows?’
‘I see no harm in that,’ I cried hotly. ‘Really, Holmes! If you are going to object to every trifle! He removed the scene of the arrest from the cab-yard to our rooms simply to condense the action, thereby rendering it more effective. The thing is perfectly in order. Why, in classical drama it was a requirement! I believe the device is referred to as Unity of Place.’
Holmes smiled sweetly. ‘How interesting,’ he purred. ‘You never cease to edify, my dear fellow. Perhaps you would be so good as to elucidate for my benefit the device – classical or otherwise, I’m not particular – which induced Jefferson Hope to present himself that evening at an address to which, not twenty-four hours earlier, he had refused to come, rightly suspecting a trap?’
This left me at a loss. To tell the truth, I had fallen under A.C.D.’s spell to such an extent that this fundamental error had wholly escaped me. Holmes observed my confusion wryly. ‘Whoever belittles my opponents, belittles me,’ he concluded, tossing the volume aside. ‘Let us hear no more of this meddler. The association is at an end.’
I was familiar enough with Holmes’s moods to recognise the futility of further argument. The subject was dropped, and I began to consider how I should break the news to A.C.D. In the event I was let off lightly. Holmes’s disillusionment with ‘A Study in Scarlet’ was fully shared, although for very different reasons, by its author. Having had the greatest difficulty in placing it with a publication, he then had to endure an almost complete
lack of interest in the product of his labours – a fate, as he told me, worse than any amount of adverse notice. Having tried out his novelty and seen it fail, he decided to turn his hand once more to a conventional product, where he soon met with considerably greater success. Thus at that time there seemed every reason to believe that the association was indeed at an end.