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'


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