Monday, 25 April 2011

On Being Reviewed by a Person in Publishing!

An American reviewer recently said of  'The Sign of Fear':  "Molly Carr's Adventures with Mrs Watson are great fun, and especially so if you know Holmes and many of his stories. A second read of the book is even more enjoyable as you realise more of what the writer is really doing in this book. She obviously is  a person with a great sense of humor and clever mind which shows in her book and makes it a great read."
As Sidney Smith once said about something completely different: definitely "a sight for sore eyes." And even sore hearts. 

Thursday, 21 April 2011


Olga Katsin-Miller writing as 'Sagittarius' has this to say about John H. Watson:

Holmes left one unsolved mystery,
The case of the strange M.D.
Was he ever qualified?
Had he anything to hide?
And why was he always free?
Facts of his previous history
Researchers fail to trace.
But there's something queer in his medical career,
For he never had a single case!

This may be poetic license, of course. Or it may not. We think we know from the canon that Watson treated Vincent Hatherley for a severed thumb, and a railway official for 'itch-mite' or scabies. But it's interesting that his credentials were being called into question over sixty years ago.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

On Hearing the First Sherlock in Spring

    "I hear of Sherlock everywhere," says Mycroft Holmes [GREE]. And so do I, from F. E. Benson to John Buchan –and even P.G. Wodehouse in Do Butlers Burgle Banks as well
as a number of his other hilarious books. For example Cocktail Time and Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. But then Wodehouse was a cricketing friend of Conan Doyle, and if you can't give a friend a leg-up… 
   There are references to Holmes in Ngaio Marsh's detective novels, as well as those of G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers and many others including, somewhat surprisingly, the now almost unknown Osbert Sitwell, who says the Adventures have "that sense of truth to an epoch that memorably distinguishes several books." And any character, whatever his name, who keeps company with a fictional detective for any length of time is likely to be called 'a Watson' or 'my Watson' at least once during the proceedings.  
   It all began with Conan Doyle's brother-in-law E. W. ('Willie') Hornung, who created Raffles the gentleman burglar. He made one joke which delighted Doyle, about a runner who was said by a newspaper to have completed a 100 yard race in ten seconds: "It must be a sprinter's error." But he said of Sherlock, "Though he might be more humble, there is no police like Holmes."
   Or it could have been Doyle's friend J. M. Barrie who started the ball rolling by sending Doyle a Sherlockian Christmas card. Michael Cox, in Victorian Detective Stories, says "Throughout the 1890s and into the early twentieth century the short detective story could not rid itself of Baker Street. In many cases, at least to begin with, it had no wish to do so: public appetite appeared to be insatiable and there was no shortage of publishers to supply it."
   In The Real World of Sherlock Holmes Peter Costello says about Agatha Christie, "She owed him [Conan Doyle] a great deal. After all, Poirot and Hastings are based on Holmes and Watson; her use of detail owes much to Watson; and both had written books on and about Dartmoor." 
   Hastings (called by the detective writer Emma Lathen "An all-purpose stooge") has, like Watson, been invalided out of the services. He is given a war pension for a short time and spent a few "depressing months" in a convalescent home. At a loose end, he tells a friend (in The Mysterious Affair at Styles) "I've always had a hankering to be a detective." The friend asks if he means the real thing, Scotland Yard, or Sherlock Holmes? Hastings' reply to this is "Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I'm awfully drawn to it."  
   However, my favourite reference of all comes from a character in Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth, who says of her detective Maud Silver, like Miss Jane Marple a compulsive knitter, "She has old Sherlock boiled!"

   This article first appeared in 'The Baker Street Bugle'


Refining the Search

   We have been led to believe Watson's first experience of detection began with A Study in Scarlet. So when exactly did the former Sergeant of Marines appear in Baker Street with a letter from Inspector Gregson telling all about the 'bad business' in Lauriston Gardens? We know from internal evidence that the date was March 4th, but what year was it? When exactly did Watson get home from India?' When, precisely, did he land at Portsmouth Jetty? How long did it take him to "gravitate" to London? He stayed for "some time" at the hotel in the Strand, it took him "a day or two" to settle into Baker Street once he'd decided to share lodgings with Holmes, and perhaps was not there long before A Study in Scarlet intervened.
   This might mean that the unfortunate Doctor, if he was sent to the wrong Base Hospital, spent even more time in Peshawar trying to recover his health than we thought. He may not have arrived in England until more than a year after the Battle of Maiwand, which took place on July 27th 1880, between a British Force and one led by Ayub Khan, the Governor of Herat Province and brother of the Amir of Afghanistan. Having unexpectedly won this Battle, and inflicted great losses on British and Indian troops, Ayub and his Army then laid siege to Kandahar.
   So, in the light of the above, can the plaque on a wall near the Pathology Laboratory at Bart's be correct? It reads 'At this place New Year's Day 1881 were spoken these deathless words "You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive," by Mr Sherlock Holmes in greeting to John H. Watson at their first meeting'. There has been some confusion about the actual date on which the battle took place. Tracy and Thomson opt for the twenty-seventh of June, which is obviously a mistake. Other sources mention men returning from hostilities on the morning of July 27th, confusing them with General Burrows' reconnoitring force sent out the day before. The Court Circular published in The Times for August 18th 1882 records the date as 24th July 1880.
   However, General Frederick Roberts' reprisal with Ayub Khan's Army took place on September 1st, after the former had arrived in Kandahar from Kabul with his Relief Force at the end of August. Taking these dates – July 27th and September 1st 1880 – as a starting point, Watson couldn't have made up his mind to change his way of life as early as the commonly accepted date. He says of his stay in hospital that he only rallied enough to walk about the wards and to bask a little on the verandah before being struck down by fever, in which case he was lucky to be alive at all. The area around Peshawar was known to European troops as the valley of death, and those who went there couldn't wait to leave. Either he has exaggerated the length of his illness, his period of recovery and his stays at various venues before being introduced to Holmes, or the supposed date of their meeting should be considerably advanced.
   Even if we accept that he muddled up the names of the base hospitals and was one of the eighteen invalids who left Karachi in the Orontes with Surgeon-Major Alexander Francis Preston (said to be the model for Watson) roughly six weeks after the Kandahar Garrison was relieved by Roberts, and arrived in England in November 1880, he would still have to go some to meet Sherlock on the first of January 1881.
   For example, how long after he docked at Portsmouth Jetty did he stay in Hampshire? 'Gravitating' to London implies a period of doubt about what to do next, and his "comfortless, meaningless existence" in the hotel in the Strand lasted for quite a while. It is only when he realises that he is living beyond his means, and feels the need to retrench, that he uses the word "soon". And even healthy combatants who took part in the Battle of Maiwand didn't get back to barracks in Britain until February 18th, 1881.
   However, it makes for better 'theatre' to fix the famous meeting for New Year's Day. The laboratories were empty, apart from Sherlock, and the streets thronged with people. January 1st didn't become a bank holiday until 1971, and in the nineteenth century most people worked on Saturday mornings, even professionals. Was 'young Stamford' on his way out to lunch after finishing a morning's stint as a newly qualified doctor at Bart's when he met Watson? Were the streets crowded with Saturday afternoon shoppers? For anyone who thinks, in the light of all Watson's difficulties as a soldier and as a civilian, that it's more likely he met Holmes a year later than he said, it is useful to know that in 1882 January 1st fell on a Sunday.
   Sherlock, when the mood for action was on him, wouldn't care what day, or what time of day, it was, and may have obtained permission to conduct his own private enquiries into cadavers and/or bloodstains on Sunday as much as Saturday afternoons. This permission, once Holmes was accepted as a visitor, would not be difficult to get since, in a large hospital such as Bart's, the laboratories were probably nearly always in use by others anyway. Holmes either invites Watson to meet him next on a Sunday or on a Monday.
   Whichever it was, Watson moved out of his hotel "that very evening" and Holmes joined him the following morning. It took a short time for the two men to arrange their possessions. But in Watson's words they gradually adapted to their new life. There were many occasions when Holmes worked hard at something mysterious. But for days on end there were "intervals of torpor", when he lay on the sofa not uttering a word or moving a muscle. Weeks went by as Watson, whose health forbade him venturing out "unless the weather were exceptionally genial", wondered what Sherlock could be doing for a living. Taken with all the other imponderables, the weather's keeping Watson in points to the possibility of the season being autumn or winter; but fixing his meeting with Holmes for the first day of 1881 allows very little flexibility when trying to sort out a timetable for him after Maiwand...

Read on in In Search of Doctor Watson by Molly Carr, MX Publishing 2010

A longer version of this article first appeared in The School Report, the journal of "The Priory Scholars of Leicester"

Refs. The Encyclopedia Sherlockiana by Jack Tracy, NEL 1977
         The Secret Journals of Sherlock Holmes by June Thomson,
         Constable  1993


Tuesday, 12 April 2011

An Interview with Mr. Conan Doyle

First of all we would like to thank you for consenting to be interviewed by us. In your circumstances...

Think nothing of it, my dears

How do you feel about two women setting up a detective agency?

You have my blessing, but as I wrote somewhere no man likes to come home after a day's work to a wife proud of her independence -and spouting about it. I remember calling Mrs St. Clair 'a dear little woman'. Now I find she's anything but dear, and certainly not little!

But you are happy about it?

It's been going on for years. Ever since Holmes became famous. I even wrote a pastiche myself for the Edinburgh students' rag. Called it 'The Field Bazaar'. And the number of stories being found in Watson's battered old tin despatch box! It would have to be as big as a removal van. But, as I remember, it was the standard army issue. The whole thing's getting out of hand and some of his supposed tales bear very little resemblance to what I asked him to write, apart from the names.

Come now, Mr. Doyle, some of it can pass muster and, with respect, it certainly keeps your name before the public. But we would like to hear what you really think of our work.

Well you certainly get around. Rome, Lausanne, Baden-Barden, the west coast of Scotland, and there are  some sharp exchanges between you. Which I for one find very entertaining. But if there's nothing else you want to ask me...

Oh but there is. Were you ever in Beverley Minster?

That would be telling. But now I must...

"That's the trouble with ghosts," said Emily crossly, putting away her writing materials. "Liable to disappear at any moment."

Friday, 8 April 2011

The Carvery Cartoon

This was on the wall of a well-known chain of restaurants. Who is it, and why is it? Anyone who can give information...

The Northumberland Fusiliers

   This regiment was formed in 1674 to help the Dutch fight the French and given  a succession of names through the years. Originally known as the 'Irish Regiment' under Lord Clare, command was later taken over by a Northumbrian, Sir John Fenwick, a fervent Jacobite who was eventually executed for treason during the reign of William 111. Sir John introduced so many  North Country officers to his new command that the character of  The Fifth Regiment of Foot, 'The Fighting Fifth' or 'The Old and Bold', ceased to be Irish and later asked to be known informally as 'The Northumberland Regiment',  after its Colonel the 2nd Duke of Northumberland. This was some years before all regiments lost their numbers and became geographically oriented. The Fifth was sent to Boston in 1774 and fired some of the first shots at Lexington. The men took part in the battles of Brandywine and Germantown and General Bourgoyne said of them that they "behaved the best and suffered the most."
   The Regiment saw service in India and took part in the Relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59, when Sergeant Grant and Privates McHale and McManus (the last two names strangely reminiscent of the long-gone Irish Brigade) were awarded Victoria Crosses. Doctor Watson's assertion, in A Study in Scarlet,  that he joined The Northumberland Fusiliers in 1878 (the name given to the Regiment after it was issued with muskets) by travelling up from India to Kandahar is highly unlikely.  The Fusiliers fought on the North West Frontier so he obvously meant to write 'Kabul'. Which meant, of course, an enforced removal to another regiment (The 66th Foot, later known as The Berkshires) if he was to be at The Battle of Maiwand. H.M. Walker in her book The History of the  Northumberland Fusiliers 1674-1902, published by John Murray in 1919, says that instead of taking part in an organised military engagement in Afghanistan the 5th was split up into companies "to hold the forts, guard the road, and bear with cheerfulness the trials of hill warfare with none of the compensations of a good fight."
   During the 20th Century, after serving in Kenya, Borneo, Aden and Suez, the Regiment was merged with two others and became The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The muskets had long since gone, to be replaced by more modern weapons of war. But the name lives on.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Formulary

I'm very pleased to see my fellow Friend, Philip K. Jones, has mentioned 'The Sign of Fear' in a long and interesting article for the March 2011 issue of  'The Formulary', the Journal of  'The Friends of Doctor Watson'. He says "It clears up much of the confusion about timing and events in the Canon, as well as the source of many of the Untold Tales." Thankyou for that, Philip, and for your very encouraging review of the book in 2010.