Thursday, December 1, 2022

Watson's vocation

Tomorrow, December 2, is the anniversary of the first time a Sherlock Holmes story appeared in print. Michael Dirda explained how they came to be written, why Conan Doyle didn't believe they were his most important work, and how, nevertheless, they and the subsequent stories made his characters famous and enduring.
.... A Study in Scarlet was turned down by one publisher after another, until it was finally accepted by Ward, Lock, and Co., who offered to buy the British copyright for a derisory twenty-five pounds. Out of desperation, Conan Doyle took the paltry sum, then still had to wait a year before his short novel came out in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887. Today, that annual may be the most valuable magazine in the world. Only thirty-three copies are known to exist and many are tattered or incomplete. If a truly fine copy were to appear on the market today, it might bring a quarter of a million dollars or more.

The 1887 Beeton’s containing A Study in Scarlet sold moderately well, and the novel was later republished as a book, with rather crude illustrations by Conan Doyle’s artist father. And that was all. There was no great hoopla, no recognition of a new star in the nascent detective story firmament.

Yet from the first page, Conan Doyle’s storytelling mastery—the genial narrative voice, the fast-moving action—sweeps the reader along. In short order we learn that John H. Watson has been an army doctor, was grievously wounded at the battle of Maiwand in the Second Afghan War, and now, broken in health, has wearily returned to England. One day he encounters an old acquaintance who tells him about a chap looking for someone to share digs with in Baker Street.

Watson and Holmes meet at St. Bart’s hospital, where Holmes’ first recorded words are “I’ve found it!”—that is, the English for “Eureka,” exclaimed by Archimedes when he grasped the displacement of liquids as he sat in his bath. A Study in Scarlet also provides the first appearance of the original Baker Street Irregulars, the London street urchins who can go anywhere and overhear anyone, and who serve the detective as a city-wide surveillance system. Most important of all, Watson discovers his own new vocation: Near the story’s end, he tells Holmes, “You should publish an account of the case,” and then adds, “If you won’t, I will for you.” The detective shrugs. “You may do what you like, Doctor.” .... (more)

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