About this Recording
NA330112 - DOYLE, A.C.: Return of Sherlock Holmes (The), Vol. 1 (Unabridged)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Return of Sherlock Holmes I


In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle made a terse entry into his diary: ‘Killed Holmes’.

With The Final Problem Conan Doyle had rid himself of ‘an old man of the sea’ that had hung around his neck. He said later many times that writing the Holmes stories was killing him, and his decision to kill off his greatest creation by plunging him into the Reichenbach Falls was ‘justifiable homicide’. There certainly seems to be evidence that Conan Doyle was on the edge of a nervous breakdown in 1893. The strain of the punishing work schedule he had set himself to produce the Holmes stories was taking its toll. He became moody and short-tempered, and suffered from insomnia; so, despite the worldwide furore that met the news of the death of one of literature’s most popular characters, Conan Doyle, having cleared the decks, set about living to the full his life without Holmes. But fate decreed otherwise; shortly after Conan Doyle’s decision to free himself from Holmes, his wife Louisa was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. Conan Doyle at once made his wife’s health his first priority and embarked on trips abroad in search of a conducive climate.

In 1894, as if to distance himself once and for all from being identified with Sherlock Holmes, he displayed a lack of rational thinking which would have shocked his hero, by joining the Society for Psychical Research, which would change his way of looking at the world forever. But even a new interest in the paranormal would not lay the ghost of Sherlock Holmes. On a lecture tour of America in 1894, where he had prepared lectures on George Meredith, Kipling, Hardy and Stevenson, all the public wanted to hear about was Holmes.

Conan Doyle himself had had lapses in his resolve never to write about Holmes again. In 1899 he had collaborated on a play about the detective with the American actor William Gillette, but as this was simply a reworking of material already published as Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem it was not strictly fresh material. Then in 1901, when asked for a story and at a loss for a subject, the Hound of the Baskervilles bounded out of the gloom, with Sherlock Holmes in pursuit. Conan Doyle insisted this was an old case carefully filed away by Watson and definitely not heralding the resurrection of his bete noir.

But the publication of The Hound was the thin end of the wedge. In the spring of 1903, the American magazine Collier’s made Doyle an offer he could not refuse. If he would bring back his hero from his watery grave, they would pay $25,000 for 6 stories, or $30,000 for 8, or $45,000 for 13. These sums were for the American rights only, and The Strand joining forces, offered him a further £100 for every 1,000 words for the English rights. With some cynicism, and a terseness that echoed his diary entry of ten years earlier, Conan Doyle sent a postcard to his agent: ‘Very Well. A.C.D.’

The Adventure of the Empty House

Poor Dr Watson! Grieving for the death of his friend Holmes for three years, when all the time he was so very much alive. How could Holmes be so callously cruel not to give him a hint at least that he had not perished in Switzerland, but this is the Holmes of old, not quite trusting Watson, who might inadvertently let the truth slip out. As if the loss of his friend was not enough, we also learn that Watson has sustained an even closer loss, that of his wife. It is perhaps no wonder that the good Doctor’s constitution had been weakened to such an extent by these trials, that he fainted dead away upon the sight of Holmes. It would seem that the whirlwind romance with Mary Morstan, whom he had met in Sign of Four, had ended in tragedy. The details are not given, but if Mary had died in 1893, the year before Holmes’ return, it is perhaps significant that that was the year Conan Doyle’s own wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Conan Doyle patiently nursed his invalid wife until her death in 1906, whilst maintaining a platonic relationship with a young woman named Jean Leckie. It was Jean, he wrote later, that had given him the idea for the plot of The Empty House.

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

If Sherlock Holmes had displayed some of his old nature in his lack of concern for Watson’s feelings during his absence, in The Norwood Builder he shows care and consideration, not always qualities we associate with the great detective. His sympathetic response in The Empty House to Watson’s loss of his wife: ‘Work is the best antidote to grief, my dear Watson’ is matched by practicality. He arranges (secretly) to buy Watson’s practice, thus making him financially secure, and free to participate in further adventures. Holmes has come to recognise the significant contribution that Watson has made in their cases, and a closer partnership now ensues, with Watson treated more as an equal. It is also true however that Holmes may have been reflecting that with Watson bound up in his Kensington practice, life would be very lonely at Baker Street; for it was in 1887, in the case of The Five Orange Pips that Holmes categorically states, when Watson suggests that a ring at the bell might be a friend of Holmes’ calling: ‘Except yourself I have none’. Perhaps it took a near-fatal encounter for Holmes to realise the value of his only friend.

The identification of the thumbprints, and Lestrade’s knowledge that no two are alike, is a little premature for this case set in 1894. Fingerprinting was not introduced at Scotland Yard until 1901, though Holmes’ dry comment to Lestrade’s observation: ‘I have heard something of the kind’, leads one to believe he knew about Sir William Herschel’s successful experiments in India in the early 1890s. In The Empty House Holmes demonstrates how far ahead in the field of scientific detection he is when he claims that Col. Moran will be convicted by matching the bullets he has fired with his weapon: ‘The bullets alone are enough to put his head in a noose’, says Holmes, but the science of ballistics was unknown to the Force until 1909. It’s a shame too that the burgeoning forensic science of the late Victorian police force could not in The Norwood Builder differentiate between the charred remains of humans and rabbits!

The Adventure of the Six Napoleons

It is in this case that we first notice a marked change in the official police’s attitude to their ‘amateur’ colleague. In The Norwood Builder Inspector Lestrade shows his usual resentment and hostility towards Holmes, but we are told here that ‘it was no very unusual thing for Mr Lestrade of Scotland Yard to look in upon us of an evening’, and by Lestrade’s almost deferential manner to Holmes—‘it is such an absurd business that I hesitated to bother you about it’—it would seem that the Yard has come to drop its mistrust of Holmes’ methods, and value Holmes’ contribution to its investigations. This case shows Holmes and Lestrade working in harmony, sharing information with none of the petty jealousies previously exhibited by Lestrade, and winds up with a positive eulogy from the official policeman: ‘I’ve seen you handle a good many cases, Mr Holmes, but I don’t know that I ever knew a more workmanlike one than that.’

Holmes helped the police with their enquiries in nine other recorded cases, for which of course, despite being a professional consulting detective, he received no remuneration. It was no doubt worth the effort for the experience, and for the providing of a ready-made audience for his denouement. In The Six Napoleons Holmes, never one to miss a theatrical opportunity, contrives a particularly dramatic denouement, when he smashes the sixth and final bust of Napoleon to smithereens. This may not be just for effect however, as by recovering the ‘famous black pearl of the Borgias’, he is sure to receive a significant payment from the insurance company which would have more than compensated for all nine of the cases he had worked on with the police for nothing.

The Adventure of the Three Students

This case, which takes place in ‘one of our great university towns’ raises, for Sherlockian scholars, the question as to which university Holmes himself attended.

There were of course in 1895, the year of this case, only two possibilities in England, Oxford or Cambridge. Some lean towards Cambridge because Watson refers to a ‘town’ when Oxford was a city; but then Cambridge’s university library was not so well endowed with early English charters, into which Holmes was carrying out ‘laborious researches’, as was the Bodleian in Oxford. The eminent crime-writer Dorothy L Sayers made a case for Cambridge as it was better for scientific research, Holmes’ speciality, but Holmes and Watson refer to the ‘quadrangle’, an Oxford term; in Cambridge it would be called a ‘court’. Holmes refers to his own college days in The Musgrave Ritual but does not give the name of his university. One might assume that the aristocratic Reginald Musgrave would have attended the older university of Oxford. The case is weighted in favour of Oxford, but the arguments continue.

There are no doubts which university Conan Doyle attended: Edinburgh. It was renowned for its medical learning and was obviously the best place for a potential doctor to study. It was whilst at university that he met a man who was to have a significant influence on his future life—Dr Joseph Bell. His unusually acute powers of deduction, and hawk-like nose were to be immortalised in the personality and appearance of Conan Doyle’s greatest creation: Sherlock Holmes.

Notes by David Timson


The music on this recording is taken from the MARCO POLO catalogue

FOOTE String Quartet No. 2 in E major, Op. 32

Da Vinci Quartet, James Barbagallo, piano

FOOTE String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 70

Da Vinci Quartet, James Barbagallo, piano

FOOTE String Quartet No. 1 in G minor, Op. 4

Da Vinci Quartet, James Barbagallo, piano

Music programmed by Sarah Butcher

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