2007/Jun/13

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Author of the Sherlock Holmes Stories

The Best Sherlock Holmes Stories - according to the author.

In 1927 The Strand Magazine set a competition for its readers to decide the 12 best Sherlock Holmes stories, and the author was invited to make his own selection known.

How I Made My List by A. Conan Doyle

When this competition was first mooted I went into it in a most light-hearted way, thinking that it would be the easist thing in the world to pick out the twelve best of the Holmes stories. In practice I found that I had engaged myself in a serious task. In the first place I had to read the stories myself with some care. "Step, steep, weary work," as the Scottish landlady remarked.

I began by eliminating altogether the last twelve stories, which are scattered through the Strand for the last five or six years. They are about to come out in a volume form under the title The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, but the public could not easily get at them. Had they been available I should have put two of them in my team - namely, 'The Lion's Mane' and 'The Illustrious Client'. The first of these is hampered by being told by Holmes himself, a method which I employed only twice, as it certainly cramps the narrative. On the other hand, the actual plot is among the very best of the whole series, and for that it deserves its place. 'The Illustrious Client', on the other hand, is not remarkable for plot, but it has a certain dramatic quality and moves adequately in lofty circles, so I should also have found a place for it.

However, these being ruled out, I am now faced with some forty odd candidates to be weighed against each other. There are certainly some few an echo of which has come to me from all parts of the world, and I think this is the final proof of merit of some sort. There is the grim story 'The Speckled Band'. That I am sure will be on every list. Next to that in popular favour and in my own esteem I would place 'The Red-Headed League' and 'The Dancing Men', on account in each case of the originality of the plot. Then we could hardly leave out the story which deals with the only foe who ever really extended Holmes, and which deceived the public (and Watson) into the erroneous inference of his death. Also, I think the first story of all should go in, as it opened the path for the others, and it has more female interest than is usual. Finally, I think the story which esssays the difficult task of explaining away the alleged death of Holmes, and which also introduces such a villain as Colonel Sebastian Moran, should also have a place. This puts 'The Final Problem', 'A Scandal in Bohemia', and 'The Empty House' upon our list, and we have got our first half-dozen.

But now comes the crux. There are a number of stories which really are a little hard to separate. On the whole I think I should find a place for 'The Five Orange Pips', for though it is short it has a certain dramatic quality of its own. So now only five places are left. There are two stories which deal with high diplomacy and intrigue. They are both among the very best of the series. The one is 'The Naval Treaty' and the other 'The Second Stain'. There is no room for both of them in the team, and on the whole I regard the latter as the better story. Therefore we will put it down for the eight place.

And now which? 'The Devil's Foot' has points. It is grim and new. We will give it the ninth place. I think also that 'The Priory School'is worth a place if only for the dramatic moment when Holmes points his finger at the Duke. I have only two places left. I hesitate between 'Silver Blaze', 'The Bruce-Partington Plans', 'The Crooked Man', 'The Man with the Twisted Lip', 'The Gloria Scott', 'The Greek Interpreter', 'The Reigate Squires', 'The Musgrave Ritual', and 'The Resident Patient'. On what principle am I to choose two out of those? The racing detail in 'Silver Blaze' is very faulty, so we must disqualify him. There is little to choose between the others. A small thing would turn the scale. 'The Musgrave Ritual' has a historical touch which gives it a little added distinction. It also has a memory from Holmes' early life. So now we come to the very last. I might as well draw the name out of a bag, for I see no reason to put one before the other. Whatever their merit - and I make no claim for that - they are all as good as I could make them. On the whole, Holmes himself show perhaps the most ingenuity in 'The Reigate Squires', and therefore this shall be twelfth in my team.

It is proverbially a mistake for a judge to give his reasons, but I have analysed mine if only to show any competitors that I really have taken some trouble in the matter.

Dr Conan Doyle as a Lecturer

He Makes His First Appearance in America and Talks of Himself


New York, Oct 10 1894 - Calvary Baptist Church - If Sherlock Holmes had been in the Calvary Baptist Church in this city tonight he would have seen enter a tall, broad-shouldered man, who seated himself behind a reading desk in front of the pulpit. The tall man wore, of course, evening dress, for the church was full of polite women and men to entertain and to whom he had come. The only bits of colour about this broad-shouldered man were his red cheeks, his red ears, and a blood-red silk handkerchief stuck in his pocket.

If Sherlock Holmes wished to deduce this man's character he would have studied him; a low forehead, growing broader because the hair above it is growing thinner; large ears, narrow slits of eyes, a tilted nose, a yellow moustache of vigorous growth, and a weak, receding chin. The moment the man spoke, Sherlock Holmes would have said he was a 'good fellow', a generous man, for he spoke in a hearty welcoming voice; a modest man, too, for he sometimes spoke almost deprecatingly of himself. He used none of the tricks of elocutionists, few, very few gestures, nor had he any stagey tricks, except now and then, involuntarily, he made a motion that fitted the mood or character of which he spoke or read. But much more it would have puzzled even Sherlock Holmes to tell of this big man. He might have been a doctor, a lawyer, a writer, anything but an actor.

The lecture was about himself and his writings and how he came to write them, and he said, very candidly, that he had chosen the subject because the only reason why such a fine audience had came to hear him was that they had read some things he had happened to write. "If I made any development" - this without the slightest affectation - "it has been a slow and painful matter. In 1878 a manuscript of mine was accepted. The small check I received for it was the bounty that enrolled me in the great army of literature. For ten years or so I wrote short stories, yet I did not earn $250 during any one year from my writings".

"Of my first story to appear in the Cornhill Magazine it was said that it would make Thackeray turn in his grave. About this time a gentleman appeared who has been a very great friend to me - Sherlock Holmes. The detective story is a primitive form of literature, but, I think, a good setting for a dramatic idea.I resented the fashion in which authors make detectives arrive at results by chance and tried to set up a semi-scientific system of detection. I derived the formulation of the idea from an old professor of mine in Edinburgh, who, in a few minutes, simply by observing a man, could not only diagnose his disease, but learn his age, his place of birth, his training, and his personal habits."

"Well," he said, almost regretfully, "Mr Holmes came to grief at last. Perhaps it was just as well. He had been imposed long enough upon the public. Twenty-six stories about one man were rough. He was so real to some people that I received letters asking for a lock of his hair, and one letter asked for his photograph at different ages."

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