SHERLOCKHOLMITOS by David Leslie Murray (1932)



[Originally published unsigned]

The Times Literary Supplement, (October 27, 1932), 782.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND DOCTOR WASTON. A Chronology of their Adventures. By H. W. Bell. (Constable. 15s. net.)


DOCTOR WATSON. By S. C. ROBERTS. (Faber and Faber. 1s. net)

The discovery of the Mendelian principle is the glory of an abbé; and to another abbé, Fr. Ronald Knox, belongs the glory of founding (as long ago as 1911) that important branch of scientific studies for which South America has coined the needed word Sherlockholmitos. Last year saw the publication of the first full-length biography of Dr. Watson; and now we receive simultaneously two works of profound scholarship—Mr. H. W. Bell’s painstaking chronology of all the cases, nearly 130 in number, in which Mr. Sherlock Holmes is recorded to have been involved (a book which, among other sensational theories, argues that Dr. Watson made three marriages); and Mr. Thomas Blakeney’s more general study, comprising a less detailed chronology, a review of Sherlockholmitos literature, a character-sketch of Mr. Holmes and an analysis of his relations with Scotland Yard. To both these writers, as to Dr. Watson’s biographer, Mr. S. C. Roberts, who first publicly demonstrated that he had married twice, our debt remains incalculable.
But the difficulties experienced by these scholars in establishing a consistent chronology of the “cases” force us to ask whether the preliminary textual problems have been adequately explored. Is the “Case-book” more than a palpable late forgery—and on the case-book alone “Watson’s” alleged second as well as third marriage exclusively depends. “His Last Bow” is highly suspect, though it incorporates a leaf from the original Codex Maritimus A, 1891-1893 [“Adventures” and “Memoirs”], and one story at least, “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” recommends itself on internal evidence, apart from the curious blunder whereby the name of a street, Cadogan Place, W., has been made into the name of a man “Cadogan West.” “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” (Codex Maritimus B, 1903-1904) is a complicated riddle containing such “doublets” as “The Six Napoleons,” duplicating “The Blue Carbuncle,” and “The Second Stain,” duplicating “The Naval Treaty.” Yet “The Golden Pince-Nez” may well be the first form of a story in C.M.a.
Seeing that the (so-called) “Study in Scarlet,” the “Sign of Four” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” have never had serious doubts thrown on their authenticity, we have with them and the contents of C.M.a a homogeneous Redaction of the Holmes Saga. But this only opens the way to “higher critical” problems of peculiarly baffling sort. Let us take up that document which we never handle without the thrilling feeling of being near the primal sources of inspiration, that “Reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army Medical Department,” which opens the (so-called) “Study in Scarlet.” Here we have a plain, straightforward narrative that imposes itself by its inherent naturalness and credibility. Yet into the midst of this tale of sordid gang-warfare—inappropriately entitled by some later hand “A Study in Scarlet,” though the central murder is bloodless and bloodstains play no serious part in tracking down the perpetrator—there is pitchforked, without attempt at connexion, a romantic narrative of love and vengeance in primitive Utah. We perceive at once that U. comes from another source, the author of which we will call A., denoting not an “American” but an “Americanizer,” for we do not think that he a was a genuine Transatlantic writer. The (so-called) “Study in Scarlet” appeared in 1887; in 1885 had appeared Stevenson’s “Dynamiter.” There, in the “Story of the Destroying Angel,” we find a remarkable similarity to U. In both there is the opening with the rescue of a girl in the great alkali desert, and she has actually in both the same name “Lucy.” In both there is the settlement in of the travellers in Salt Lake City, their falling under the suspicion of the terrible Mormon hierarchy, the flight, the pursuit by the “Destroying” (U. calls them “Avenging”) Angels, the murder of the father. The differences (it is axiomatic in higher criticism) do but accentuate the resemblances (and vice versa). U. is a skilful adaptation of elements in “D.A.” A. is also the author of the Vermissa episode in “The Valley of Fear” (which is, again, nothing but a retelling of the historic exposure of the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania by a Pinkerton agent); and A., yet once more, appears to be responsible for the Ku Klux Klan tale, “The Five Orange Pips” in C.M.a. That this tale is a manipulation is shown by the fact that its opening (storm scene) is but a slightly varied repetition of the opening of “The Golden Pince-Nez”; while it is incredible that “Sherlock Holmes” or the rawest plain-clothes policeman should have allowed Mr. Openshaw to go out unguarded to his doom on a night of black tempest just because it was too much bother for “Holmes” to change his slippers and dressing-gown.
But the problem of A. leads us straight into the heart of the great Moriarty myth. Briefly there is no way in which the alleged activities of Professor Moriarty can be fitted into any conceivable chronology of the cases of “Sherlock Holmes.” In “The Valley of Fear” (a case that cannot be, on the evidence of the learned works before us, dated later than 1890), Moriarty figures as the arch-criminal organizer well know to “Holmes” and “Watson”; yet in “The Final Problem” (1891) “Holmes” discloses his name to “Watson” as a surprise, and “Watson” has never heard of him. “Holmes,” moreover, claims to have known of Moriarty’s activities “for years past”: yet he has never once mentioned him in all the range of cases filling C.M.a. Moriarty is clearly a myth, and may proceed from A., since the prosperous and respectable organizer of a network of gangs is an American type of criminal. Moriarty is always victorious whenever he appears. At the end of “The Valley” he defies “Holmes” by bumping off Douglas-Edwards after all; in “The Final Problem” he hunts “Holmes” like a wounded hare out of England, escapes arrest and (as we cannot doubt was the original version of the tale) flings him into the Reichenbach Falls before escaping—why should “Holmes” seek to escape?—up the cliff into Tibet, presumably to organize brigandage and kidnapping in the Far East.
The impossibility of fitting Moriarty into any rational scheme of Sherlockholmitos has driven one commentator to the desperate device of identifying Moriarty with Holmes: Mr. Blakeney deals faithfully with this hypothesis in an appendix. And yet it may contain a grain of truth, as we will try to show. When we are reading the “Reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D.,” we get a straightforward picture both of the Doctor and of Mr. Sherlock Holmes. John Watson is a retired Army man of sedentary and incurably bachelor habits, with a bullet wound disabling his shoulder. Holmes is a medico-chemical student, turned private consulting-detective, with an exclusive and absorbing interest in his work. His knowledge of literature and philosophy is nil, and he resents being told elementary facts of astronomy as a useless burdening of his mind. As his dangerous profession requires, he is an athlete in fine training. When we turn to the “Sign of Four” and its sequels what do we meet with? First, a certain James Watson with an injury to his leg; then a “Sherlock Holmes,” who is a dope-fiend, a gourmet always giving expensive little suppers, a literary aesthete readily quoting Hafiz, Horace, Petrarch, Goethe, Flaubert, and a student of medieval manuscripts. This personage has a highly placed butler [sic!] in the Civil Service, a certain Mr. Mycroft (to whom the Redactor has tacked on the surname “Holmes”; but Mycroft is no first-name for a Christian). This “Holmes” is apparently a shady kind of secret agent, and if we could accept “His Last Bow” as containing a historical substratum we might think his real name, if not Mycroft, was “Altamont.” (But that may have been one of his many aliases.) His companion can have no connexion with the excellent Dr. John Watson. Limpfoot Jim is clearly a hired gunman always in attendance of “Altamont,” with a revolver always in his pocket. The attempts of R. to assign to him a medical practice which he never attends to are farcical. Limpfoot Jim, we should conjecture, was married once and (characteristically) to the presumed heiress of the Agra treasure. Disappointed in his rapacious hopes, there is but too much reason to fear that he did her to death within a few years of the wedding. If this be thought too terrible for belief consider the criminal record of “Altamont” himself. In the pay of the scandalous King of Bohemia, he tried to steal from the wronged Irene Adler a valuable photograph, while Limpfoot flung a smoke-bomb into her house. To preserve the blemished reputation of a society beauty he and Limpfoot broke into the house of Mr. Charles Augustus Milverton, rifled his safe of important documents and put him “on the spot.” (Their own account of a mysterious woman of high rank entering and shooting him as a blackmailer is too flimsy to be examined.) Further, “Altamont” made illicit betting gains by running a disguised race-horse (“Silver Blaze”); he blackmailed—if C.M.b is authentic—the Duke of Holdernesse to the tune of £6,000 (or, it may have been, £12,000) as the price of his silence over the Duke’s position as accessory to the murder of the school master Heidegger; and, unless we assume that he was an imbecile, he can have had none but a criminal motive for hurrying the stockbroker’s clerk off to Birmingham when he must have known that the robbery was to take place at Mawson’s, in London, on that very day.
So cunningly, nevertheless, has R. interwoven the exploits of “Altamont” and “Limpfoot Jim” into the honest chronicles of Dr. John Watson and Mr. Sherlock Holmes that, except for the “Reminiscences,” we may doubt of we have a single uncontaminated case of the real Sherlock Holmes. (Even into the “Reminiscences” a forged passage representing Holmes as a purchaser of rare first edition has been interpolated.) Enough has been said to show the complexity of Sherlockholmitos. It is now for research to continue to pierce the labyrinth.


·    Codex Maritimus A or “C.M.a”: “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes”

·    Codex Maritimus B or “C.M.b”: “The Return of Sherlock Holmes”

·    U.: the Utah episode in “A Study in Scarlet”

·    A.: “Americanizer” (author of U., the Vermissa Valley episode in VALL, FIVE, and could be Moriarty’s myth inventor)

·    “D.A.”: “Story of the Destroying Angel” by R. L. Stevenson.

·    R.: “Redactor” (ACD?)
The Times Literary Supplement (3 November 1932)

To the Editor

SIR, —One curious piece of evidence seems to have escaped the notice of all students of Sherlockholmitos. In The Valley of Fear Holmes convinces a more than usually imbecile C.I.D man that Moriarty really is a criminal by pointing out that is expenditure is great and his official stipend small. He has, says Holmes, no relation but a brother, a railway porter in a country station in the West. In “The Final Problem”, his brother, Colonel James Moriarty, is described as trying to clear his late brother’s reputation.
Has any scholar explored the evidence supplied by the way in which people are represented as dressing in the various stories? Do colonels wear gaiters with a frock coat? The description of Colonel Ross in “Silver Blaze” suggests a gas inspector. Do colonels wear long light beards? Colonel Valentine Walter, in “The Bruce-Partington Plans”, does. There is a vast sphere of learned research open to any well-equipped student in this matter

PETER GREEN, Canon of Manchester.
The Cathedral, Manchester.


The Times (5 November 1932)

To the Editor

Conan Doyle himself acknowledged indebtedness to Fletcher Robinson for the story of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was based upon a Dartmoor legend of a spectral dog. No doubt a number of interesting affinities might be traced between Conan Doyle’s stories and those of other writers; Fr. Knox has already indicated this line of research, and your reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement last week proposes a connection between A Study in Scarlet and Stevenson’s Dynamiter. I would suggest that “The Man with the Twisted Lip” owes its inception to Thackeray’s tale of Mr. Altamont (a name with a strong Holmesian flavour) in his Yellowplush Papers.

67 St. George’s Road, S.W.1.

(Letters from GREEN and BLAKENEY are reproduced in The Sherlock Holmes Letters edited by R. L. Green, Secker & Warburg, London, 1986, 156-157)

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