On Tuesday, August 7, 2018 members of my Reading the Classics Book Club will meet to discuss and compare Edgar Allan Poe’s three C. Auguste Dupin short stories (“The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844)), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes entry, the novel A Study in Scarlet.
I recommended these works to my club members because many detective story aficionados say that they are landmarks in the history of detective fiction. They also claim that there was little of importance happening in the genre between the publication of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” in 1844 and the initial appearance of Sherlock Holmes in Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in 1887.
All three Poe stories are narrated by an unnamed chronicler who serves the same purpose as Dr. John Watson does for Holmes. One might wonder if Conan Doyle borrowed the Watson idea from Poe. That’s a very interesting idea since early in A Study in Scarlet Holmes berates Dupin and Poe in a conversation that takes place shortly after Holmes and Watson have moved into their apartment at 221B Baker Street:
“You remind me of Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin. I had no idea that such individuals did exist outside of stories.”
Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. “No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin,” he observed. “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.”
Immediately after that, Holmes and Watson continue their conversation as follows:
“Have you read [Émile] Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”
Sherlock Holmes sniffed sardonically. “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.”
In fact Monsieur Lecoq, written by Gaboriau in 1869 – 18 years before A Study in Scarlet was published – obviously had a great influence on Conan Doyle despite Holmes’ distaste for Lecoq and his creator. And both books are structured in the same way – in part 1 a crime is committed and essentially solved, while most of part 2 gives us a detailed back story concerning what lead up to the crime.
Both detectives are nearly hyperactive as they search the crime scenes for clues. In fact, I would say that Conan Doyle is almost guilty of plagiarism concerning Holmes’ technique for inspecting a crime scene.
First, notice how Gaboriau writes about Lecoq’s technique in Monsieur Lecoq as he searches for physical evidence:
A bloodhound in pursuit of his prey would have been less alert, less discerning, less agile. He came and went, now turning, now pausing, now retreating, now hurrying on again without any apparent reason; he scrutinized, he questioned every surrounding object: the ground, the logs of wood, the blocks of stone, in a word, nothing escaped his glance. For a moment he would remain standing, then fall upon his knees, and at times lie flat upon his stomach with his face so near the ground that his breath must have melted the snow. He had drawn a tapeline from his pocket, and using it with a carpenter’s dexterity, he measured, measured, and measured. And all his movements were accompanied with the wild gestures of a madman, interspersed with oaths or short laughs, with exclamations of disappointment or delight. After a quarter of an hour of this strange exercise, he turned to Father Absinthe, placed the lantern on a stone, wiped his hands with his pocket handkerchief, and said: “ Now I know everything!”
Then note how Conan Doyle describes Holmes’ technique in A Study in Scarlet:
As he spoke, he whipped a tape measure and a large round magnifying glass from his pocket. With these two implements he trotted noiselessly about the room, sometimes stopping, occasionally kneeling, and once lying flat upon his face. So engrossed was he with his occupation that he appeared to have forgotten our presence for he chattered away to himself under his breath the whole time, keeping up a running fire of exclamations, groans, whistles, and little cries suggestive of encouragement and of hope. As I watched him I was irresistibly reminded of a pure-blooded well-trained foxhound as it dashes backwards and forwards through the covert, whining in its eagerness, until it comes across the lost scent. For twenty minutes or more he continued his researches, measuring with the most exact care the distance between marks which were entirely invisible to me, and occasionally applying his tape to the walls in an equally incomprehensible manner. In one place he gathered up very carefully a little pile of grey dust from the floor, and packed it away in an envelope. Finally, he examined with his glass the word upon the wall, going over every letter of it with the most minute exactness. This done, he appeared to be satisfied, for he replaced his tape and his glass in his pocket.
Very similar, aren’t they? Even in comparing each to a dog: Lecoq is a bloodhound, while Holmes is a foxhound.
Now that I’ve disparaged Conan Doyle, I’ll compliment him. He was a magnificent storyteller. In the realm of detective fiction Poe and Gaboriau didn’t come close to him in ability, and Gaboriau is, unjustly I think, almost forgotten. Conan Doyle develops both Holmes and Watson at the very beginning of A Study in Scarlet, then he moves the plot along at a brisk pace with a story that, while a bit unrealistic, is much more believable than the stories of Poe and Gaboriau. Conan Doyle is so dominant that even today – over 90 years after the final Sherlock Holmes story was published – any book, TV series, or movie featuring Sherlock Holmes is almost guaranteed to be a hit.
So, who invented Sherlock Holmes? At least three authors assembled this wondrous literary character. Poe contributed the basic template for the character of Holmes (including his moodiness) and his unique thought processes. Gaboriau added Holmes’ energy and tenacity as well as his love of disguises. And finally, Conan Doyle gave us the details about Holmes and his world (including his cocaine addiction and use of the Baker Street irregulars) that turned him into a flesh-and-blood human being. Conan Doyle was the equivalent of the lightning that transformed Frankenstein’s creation into a living man. Since story telling began there has never been another character like Sherlock Holmes.