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Conan Doyle Had No Clue of Holmes’ Popularity : Mystery: The author killed off the master detective, accusing him of “tak(ing) my mind from better things.” But the sleuth’s fans refused to accept his demise.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

If you want to, you can celebrate the 100th anniversary this year of the start of construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

But the really important centennial for thousands of Sherlock Holmes fans is “The Fall,” the demise of their hero during an epic struggle with archrival Moriarty.

Note, however, that the True Sherlockian mourns in good cheer.

For though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his creation to a watery death in 1891, the public refused to let the Great Sleuth die. Popular demand--and a fat publishing contract--resurrected Holmes eight years later.

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Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr. John H. Watson, enjoyed enormous popularity from the moment they debuted in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in December, 1887, in “A Study in Scarlet.”

So popular was the sleuth that eventually his creator became jealous of his creation. After 24 stories and two novels, Conan Doyle sent Holmes off a Swiss precipice and planned to be done with him. “He takes my mind from better things,” he explained to his mother.

“The Final Problem” detailed the death of Holmes on May 4, 1891, during the battle with Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, at the edge of Reichenbach Falls in the romantic community of Meiringen, Switzerland.

Joined in an epic contest of Good versus Evil, they reeled over the edge of the falls “locked in each other’s arms” and plunged to a watery tomb. The reaction was instantaneous.

“You brute!” one woman wrote to Conan Doyle after reading the story in the December, 1893, issue of The Strand Magazine.

The publisher of The Strand told stockholders that the death of Holmes was a “dreadful event.” Young city men in London went about with black crepe in their hats and mourning bands on their arms.

Readers repeatedly asked Conan Doyle if he could not bring Holmes back. The author was said always to reply: “He’s at the foot of Reichenbach Falls and there he stays.”

There he would stay because Conan Doyle feared that Holmes would overshadow what he considered his more important work, his historical novels. He did not want to be identified with what he regarded as “a lower stratum of literary achievement,” and therefore, he wrote, he was determined to “end the life of my hero.”

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Conan Doyle, whom True Sherlockians call the Literary Agent, stuck with his resolve for eight years, even though he wrote a Holmes play and gave American actor William Gillette the right to do another.

Conan Doyle’s attitude toward the Great Detective was disclosed when Gillette asked if he could have Holmes marry in his play.

“You may marry or murder or do what you like with him,” Conan Doyle replied.

The Great Detective returned in 1901 only because Conan Doyle wanted to do a story about the legend of a great hound on the moody moors of Dartmoor and felt it easier to use Holmes than to create an entirely new character.

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“The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Conan Doyle emphasized to eager fans, was a reminiscence, not a resurrection.

But the resurrection came two years later in October, 1903, when a lucrative offer from American and British publishers persuaded the reluctant Conan Doyle that there was just no way to keep a good detective down.

Conan Doyle had Holmes attribute his survival at Reichenbach to his skill at “baritsu , the Japanese system of wrestling” and to a great ability to climb muddy mountains. (Moriarty apparently lacked such skills, for he remained dead.)

In Holmesian time, Holmes was gone only three years, which True Sherlockians call the Great Hiatus: 1891 to 1894. Once revived, he lived on through 32 more stories and two more novels.

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Conan Doyle never tried to explain why Holmes let his best friend Watson mourn him for three years. Sherlockians have evolved their own theories to try to fill the vacuum, none too successfully.

Conan Doyle wrote that the revived Holmes had traveled in the Far East in those years, given up his longtime cocaine use and generally mellowed. True Sherlockians say those changes account for never-ending inconsistencies in the stories. (Conan Doyle didn’t care to be consistent--but don’t tell a True Sherlockian that; it would wreak havoc with the bulk of True scholarship.)

Such scholarship has become a cottage industry for the hundreds of True Sherlockians who belong to one or more of the 300-plus organizations worldwide devoted to the study of Holmes, known as The Master, and the 56 stories and four novels, known as the Sacred Writings, or the Canon.

True Sherlockians, for example, know very well that Holmes never said: “Elementary, my dear Watson,” even though actor Basil Rathbone did in films based on the stories.

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The films, stage plays and endless books have turned the deerstalker-clad, pipe-smoking Englishman into an icon of fiction, placing him in a unique position for a literary character.

People still write letters to Holmes at 221B Baker St., even though True Sherlockians will tell you the 137-year-old sleuth now lives in Sussex, tending bees. A secretary for Holmes does answer the Baker Street mail.

This year, Meiringen, the home of Reichenbach, is finally opening a Sherlock Holmes museum and naming a square after Conan Doyle to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Fall.

This is also the year the Baker Street Irregulars, the American Sherlockian group that had limited membership to men only, admitted six women.

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“The time had come,” said Thomas Stix, the head of the group, which takes its name from the street urchins Holmes used in his investigations.

Since Christopher Morley founded the group in 1934 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York, societies devoted to the study of Holmes and his adventures have proliferated.

They include The Afghanistan Perceivers, the Bimetallic Question, the Amateur Mendicant’s Society, Dr. Watson’s Neglected Patients (they had to be neglected if Watson was able to troop off with Holmes so regularly) and the Cornish Horrors, just to name a few.

The Baker Street Irregulars’ male-only dictum prompted a group of college women in 1968 to mount a formal protest at the group’s winter meeting and to create a women’s group, the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. The name derives from a description of Hoboken songstress Irene Adler--the only woman who ever bested Holmes--in the story “Scandal in Bohemia.”

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This is how True Sherlockians prove Holmes is still alive:

There has never been an obituary in the Times of London, and certainly such a notable personage would warrant one. That the Times did not do one when he was supposed to be dead in the 1890s is just proof that the Times knew better.

Illogic does not faze the True.

“Holmes had the answer to everything,” says Jean Upton, a Philadelphia True Sherlockian who maintains that she took up with Holmes as a precocious 6-year-old. “I was very much alone as a child and I thought it would be great to have a friend like Holmes.”

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Watson, the person who did have Holmes as a buddy, suffers in his light. He has the reputation for being a bit of a bungler, or at least lacking the acute powers of Holmes.

Conan Doyle did not help that reputation by having Watson be inconsistent about where he was wounded during an Afghan battle--he refers to one wound, but puts it in different places in different stories--and unable to figure out how many wives he had.

One wife even calls him James instead of John.

“Everyone is Watson,” Upton says. “The reader is the person waiting for the explanation.”

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The True Sherlockian keeps his faith alive by recalling a classic poem, “221B” by writer Vincent Starrett, who described Holmes and Watson as “two men of note who never lived and so can never die” in a world where it is always 1895.


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