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 Gothic-church 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 ‘smoke-laden 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.
Alice Dunn is a writer and freelance journalist based in Surrey.