Alice Dunn

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Walk­ing Through Lon­don with Sher­lock Holmes

If we could fly out of that win­dow hand in hand, hover over this great city, gen­tly re­move the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are go­ing on […] it would make all fic­tion with its con­ven­tion­al­i­ties and fore­seen con­clu­sions most stale and un­prof­itable.

The con­cept of stale and un­prof­itable fic­tion must have been an un­fa­mil­iar one to Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle when Sher­lock Holmes ut­tered these words to Dr Wat­son in his short story, ‘A Case of Iden­tity’. Hot on the trail of A Study in Scar­let, the novel that first in­tro­duced Holmes to read­ers in Bee­ton’s Christ­mas An­nual in 1887 and proved so pop­u­lar it was re­leased in book form just six months later, the Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries were in high de­mand. Co­nan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four next in 1890, un­der com­mis­sion and in se­rial form. It was pub­lished as a sin­gle vol­ume later that year.

Co­nan Doyle drew more con­vinc­ing ob­ser­va­tions from real life in his as­tute de­scrip­tions of Lon­don. He needed to demon­strate Holmes’s ‘ex­act knowl­edge’ of the city, after all. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Sher­lock Holmes and the cap­i­tal is a com­pelling one. Co­nan Doyle had just moved to Lon­don when he con­ceived the idea of Sher­lock Holmes as a short story. The Ad­ven­tures of Sher­lock Holmes, which cel­e­brates the one hun­dred and twenty-fifth an­niver­sary of its pub­li­ca­tion as a col­lec­tion in Oc­to­ber this year, was writ­ten en­tirely in Lon­don. The first five sto­ries were writ­ten while he lived near the Bri­tish Museum and the fol­low­ing seven were penned from his newly pur­chased home in South Nor­wood.

Co­nan Doyle de­scribed his Lon­don with ad­mirable ac­cu­racy. For the most vivid im­ages of busy and smoke-filled Lon­don streets we should, iron­i­cally,

turn to ‘The Blue Car­bun­cle’, a story about the re­cov­ery of a beau­ti­ful blue stone ‘of such pu­rity and ra­di­ance.’ Holmes ini­tially dis­misses the case as a sim­ple in­ci­dent that is bound to hap­pen ‘when you have four mil­lion hu­man be­ings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles.’ He was al­most right. Be­tween 1890 and 1940 the pop­u­la­tion of Greater Lon­don is said to have in­creased by three mil­lion, from over 5.5 mil­lion to over 8.5 mil­lion. Lon­don re­sem­bled a tu­mul­tuous build­ing site that strug­gled to ac­com­mo­date its in­hab­i­tants and had to cre­ate space for mod­ern trans­port.

In or­der to make way for new train tracks, rail­way com­pa­nies pur­chased the prop­er­ties of the poor (they could not af­ford to buy from the rich). His­to­rian Peter Ack­royd es­ti­mates that 100,000 peo­ple were dis­placed in the process. At every turn, Lon­don was chang­ing, and al­ways chaot­i­cally. The Build­ing News and En­gi­neer­ing Jour­nal of 1881 de­scribes the lack of uni­fied vi­sion that re­sulted in clashes of ar­chi­tec­tural styles:

After try­ing to use the high­est types of beauty ev­ery­where, after putting Greek-tem­ple de­tails into Lon­don shop-fronts, and Goth­ic­church de­tails into Lon­don houses, it has sim­ply nau­se­ated it­self with both Greek and Gothic. Its search for beauty, just at present, is over.

Lon­don was ill-equipped for ar­chi­tec­ture de­signed to let in sun­light. Build­ing News adds that it needed build­ings for ‘the dirt and filth in­grained by a Lon­don at­mos­phere.’ Con­di­tions surely bet­ter suited to lit­er­a­ture than re­al­ity.

In­deed, walk­ing through Lon­don with Sher­lock Holmes does in­volve go­ing ‘through a zigzag of slums’ and cross­ing a ‘labyrinth of small streets’. Crowds pop­u­late the streets and so fill the sto­ries. Holmes finds him­self ‘cut short by a loud hub­bub,’ and tack­ling ‘knots of peo­ple’. In such claus­tro­pho­bic and con­gested con­di­tions, one can­not blame Holmes when, in pur­suit of some­one with the name of Henry Baker, he de­spairs that, ‘There are some thou­sands of Bak­ers, and some hun­dreds of Henry Bak­ers

in this city of ours.’ The hope of find­ing a par­tic­u­lar person in Lon­don would dis­solve into the mass of peo­ple. An in­hab­i­tant might feel part of a col­lec­tive swarm, rather than an in­di­vid­ual.

Feel­ing anony­mous in a city of such mag­ni­tude may not be un­usual. Al­though, if we were to be­lieve the work of the­o­rist Ce­sare Lom­broso (the man cred­ited as the fa­ther of crim­i­nol­ogy), then no crim­i­nal can be anony­mous. In 1876 Lom­broso wrote L’uomo delin­quente or ‘Crim­i­nal Man’, a re­search study ex­plor­ing what makes a crim­i­nal. In it, he sug­gests that crim­i­nal minds are a re­sult of ge­net­ics and are iden­ti­fi­able in one’s phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance: ‘Nearly all crim­i­nals have jug ears, thick hair, thin beards, pro­nounced si­nuses, pro­trud­ing chins, and broad cheek­bones,’ he writes. Ha­bit­ual mur­der­ers, mean­while, ‘have a cold, glassy stare and eyes that are some­times blood­shot and filmy.’

How does a crime writer solve the prob­lem of the so eas­ily vis­i­ble crim­i­nal? By cast­ing a blan­ket of fog over the city. For­tu­nately for our fic­tional crim­i­nal, Lon­don’s real-life weather of­fered the chance to hide. Fog was an in­trin­sic part of life in Lon­don. Henry May­hew called fog Lon­don’s ‘na­tive el­e­ment’. Even as a sub­ject, foggy weather was enough to war­rant a small vol­ume pub­lished in 1880 by R. Rus­sell, sim­ply ti­tled Lon­don Fogs.

‘Hazi­ness’, Rus­sell writes, ‘if not fog, pre­vails in Lon­don on nearly every day in the year. […] In the day­time, a sight­seer on Prim­rose Hill or Hamp­stead Heath, even if he be a poet, will be for­tu­nate if more than a small number of “dis­tant spires” re­veals it­self to his gaze.’

Co­nan Doyle aptly clouds Holmes’s Lon­don too: fog ob­structs views, im­bues pas­sages with rich smells of the earth and gives Lon­don a ‘smoke­laden and un­con­ge­nial at­mos­phere’. Not all writ­ers en­joyed the po­ten­tial fog had to of­fer, how­ever. Henry James wrote in a let­ter to his mother in 1858, ‘But oh, the foggy Philis­tin­ism, the grimy ug­li­ness, of Lon­don!’ For Henry James, Lon­don was pop­u­lated enough with­out fog to crowd the air as well.

Lon­don, there­fore, could of­ten only be seen in short flashes, much like the Holmes sto­ries them­selves.

In­deed, the short story neatly com­ple­mented late nine­teenth-cen­tury Lon­don. It ful­filled a re­quire­ment for quick reads. Read­ers, like Holmes, fre­quently found them­selves dash­ing for the sta­tion, whether for ‘a train from Padding­ton’ as in ‘The En­gi­neer’s Thumb’ or one ‘due at Winch­ester at 11.30’ (from ‘The Cop­per Beeches’). Peo­ple found their days bro­ken up into episodes. But did so­ci­ety al­ways dic­tate what the au­thor wrote, or did the writer pro­duce and so­ci­ety re­act?

Se­ri­al­i­sa­tions in mag­a­zines cer­tainly changed the shape of fic­tion, au­di­ence and mar­ket. In an in­ter­view with Tit-Bits mag­a­zine on 15 De­cem­ber 1900, Co­nan Doyle ex­plained his care­ful method of con­struct­ing the sto­ries: he wanted to pro­duce a se­rial ‘with­out ap­pear­ing to do so’, so that each story could be read as a stand-alone piece of fic­tion while al­low­ing reg­u­lar con­nec­tions to Holmes’s pre­vi­ous cases. For do­ing so Co­nan Doyle called him­self a ‘rev­o­lu­tion­ist.’ He teases the reader with char­ac­ters they may have missed, thereby only in­creas­ing their al­ready rav­en­ous ap­petite.

The short story rep­re­sented a re­fresh­ing break away from the heady nov­els of the nine­teenth cen­tury, which were fa­mously de­scribed by Henry James as ‘large, loose, baggy mon­sters’. Short fic­tion lends it­self par­tic­u­larly well to crime writ­ing. The for­mal use of a mys­tery en­ables a sense of res­o­lu­tion for read­ers to un­tan­gle.

Co­nan Doyle pays close at­ten­tion to small de­tails through Holmes’s sci­en­tific ob­ser­va­tions. He was able to draw on his train­ing as a physi­cian in his sto­ries. He took the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore the tri­umph and progress of the ma­te­rial science of pos­i­tivism – a sys­tem of phi­los­o­phy rec­og­niz­ing only facts and ob­serv­able phe­nom­ena. Science is wel­come in lit­er­a­ture as it helps to blur the boundary be­tween fact and fic­tion, even if it’s at the cost of con­fus­ing read­ers. It is well doc­u­mented that read­ers have al­ways writ­ten to Sher­lock Holmes and still con­tinue to this day.

After fin­ish­ing The Ad­ven­tures, Doyle said he wanted to stop writ­ing Sher­lock Holmes al­to­gether: ‘I be­lieve it is al­ways bet­ter to give the pub­lic less than it wants rather than more’. Thank­fully he did not act on his wish im­me­di­ately, though I think no tru­ism could be bet­ter at­trib­uted to think­ing about the short story as a whole.

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