We quietly climbed the old staircase to the B Flat at 221 Baker St., but still the stairs creaked.
Upon opening the door, a cloud of bluish smoke engulfed us, and there, through the smoke, he was: the greatest detective who ever lived, quietly smoking a pipe full of Arcadia Mix tobacco and casually holding a pistol in his lap.
We could hardly take it all in, for here we were in the presence of Sherlock Holmes.
He motioned with the pistol for us to sit down, but where? And so we men just stood somewhat dumbfounded while the ladies found a small couch. With a weathered smile, he made us comfortable, saying “You Americans are so noisy; I hope you have brought me a fascinating puzzle!”
To the women he noted distress that they had bought nothing at Harrods, although mentioning that, he deduced one was keen on photography and the other on umbrella art. Then, turning to the male of the balding head, he commented, “The work you are doing in your community and at your university is closely observed over here. Maybe you can help us solve the Brexit Affair.”
And next, he turned to our gray-haired ancient to note “My, my, Dear Dr. Watson reads all your articles; I fear you might be putting the doctor out of a job.”
How he knew so much about us, we never knew. And then, “Where is Mrs. Hudson? We must have some tea.”
Sherlock Holmes is the most famous detective, even surpassing Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, who never lived. The entire world continues to read his stories by Dr. Watson and watch the never-ending series of movies and television shows about him.
Sherlock Holmes was born in 1854, and while at the university, he studied science, particularly chemistry and the science of observation, which he called detection. He wrote some important treatises on tobacco ash, footprint analysis and soil sampling.
His parents were of landed English Gentry; his brother, Mycroft, became an important English government bureaucrat working in intelligence and international diplomacy. Holmes never married but probably fell in love with one of his criminals, the American Irene Adler, and once was engaged as a pretext to solve a case.
His heart was dedicated to science and deduction, not humans. But he could relax with naps, his pipe (cigarettes when anxious), his violin, his pistol and sometimes cocaine, but never opium.
He struggled financially at the beginning of his career as a detective, so when facing eviction, he took in a renter, Dr. John Watson, a general medical practitioner and surgeon just returned from the Boer War, who until his marriage became Sherlock’s constant companion, sounding board, assistant and alter-ego … and most importantly, his biographer.
Dr. Watson’s publications of Holmes’ cases led to fame and fortune, to the consternation of Scotland Yard. Holmes almost died in an 1893 struggle with Dr. Moriarity, a spectacular mathematician, the leader of London’s and some of Europe’s organized crime gangs, falling into Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. But Holmes survived the fall by landing on a ledge and later climbed above the path to watch the investigation of his death, assuming Dr. Moriatriy was in fact dead.
Eight years later, Watson began writing the case studies once again. Holmes died in about 1928 after several years of retirement in the countryside, where he amused himself with some local cases, once helping the UK government with a World War I intrigue, and beekeeping. Only Dr. Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to his funeral; some say Dr. Moriarity stood outside in the shadows.
The creator of Sherlock Holmes was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to knighthood in 1902, himself a naval physician in England’s war in South Africa. He was born on May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and studied medicine and botany at the University of Edinburgh. Starting to write as a medical student, he wrote more earnestly when his Portsmouth general medical practice failed and particularly when his attempts to become an ophthalmologist also failed.
His first Sherlock Holmes novel, “A Study in Scarlet,” was written in 1886 and published in 1887 to complimentary reviews. His second novel, “The Sign of Four,” was very well received when published in the prestigious Lippincott Magazine in 1890, establishing Doyle’s commercial success.
The short stories then followed in the Strand Magazine. Sherlock Holmes became so famous that Sir Doyle was dismayed and came to almost hate him and his fame, and so Doyle tried to kill Holmes off in Switzerland to write more serious literature and to study spiritualism. But the public response was so intense that eight years later Holmes had to reappear. Even Doyle’s mother wrote him to bring back Sherlock Holmes. In all, Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes.
Doyle was a spiritualist from his 20s, developing a private religion that combined clairvoyance, psychic abilities, mental illness, Masonry and Christianity into a peculiar cocktail. His money allowed him to financially support travel, writings and research, befriending a fellow spiritualist and escape artist, the American Harry Houdini, along the way.
But Doyle’s dogmatic personality and stanch belief in spiritualism also left him mostly alone and friendless in the end. Doyle’s scruffy, surly support of the many spiritualism frauds – even after the fraud was acknowledged (see Doyle’s “The History of Spiritualism,” published in 1926), including a feud with Houdini – led to his public decline.
Several historians believe Doyle financed the Piltdown Man hoax in order to belittle traditional scientists.
Doyle died of a heart attack in 1930, and by one account his casket was arranged with a bell, so he could phone home from the afterlife. He was refused a Christian burial but later was reinterred to the grounds of the Minstead Church in Hampshire.
In London, 221 Baker St. now is a private Sherlock Holmes museum.
Sir Doyle’s tombstone now bears the following:
Arthur Conan Doyle
Patriot, Physician, and man of letters
The phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” was never spoken by Sherlock Holmes, but comes from the movies.