In the Sherlock Holmes series, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle managed to create one of the most famous fictional characters in the whole of English literature. So engaging and evocative was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing, that many people believed that Sherlock Holmes actually existed and wrote to him to ask him to solve their cases. Even after Conan Doyle killed off the character in the Hounds of Baskerville, the public insisted that Sherlock Holmes wasn’t allowed to die and Conan Doyle was compelled to bring him back to life. Today, well over a century after the first Sherlock Holmes story appeared, his London “address”, 221b Baker Street, remains a shrine for Sherlock Holmes’ devotees.
Why did the public adore this character so much? It was all down to the writing skills of Conan Doyle and to three principal areas which I will examine in this essay. Firstly, Conan Doyle’s use of highly structured plotlines, which provided the reader with a reassuring familiarity, but also freed up Conan Doyle to concentrate on making the books hard to figure out, leaving the reader pondering on what would happen next. Secondly, his characterisation – particularly of Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant, analytical detective whom Conan Doyle managed to make very engaging: balancing his emotional detachment with obvious traits of loyalty, honour, and friendship whilst also giving him a number of character flaws which make him a more complex and attractively eccentric personality and quite dissimilar to any other fictional detective. Finally, Conan Doyle managed to enhance both plot and character through his clever use of imagery and language.
The Strand magazine played an important part in making Sherlock Holmes series of stories so effective. The stories first began to be published in the Strand magazine in 1891 and immediately the circulation of the magazine rose. The fact that the stories were published in the Strand meant that they were easily accessible, since one didn’t have to go to a book store to buy them, and this appealed to the public. The technique was very similar to the one Charles Dickens used when he published snippets of his stories in magazines, such as the Monthly Magazine, always finishing on a cliff-hanger which meant that the reader would want to continue buying the journal to find out what happened. In Conan Doyle’s case the regular publication of the magazine enabled the public to become familiar with the characters and start to identify with them. The serial nature of the adventures was enhanced by publishing each one as a complete short story.
Beginning with his first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet, published in the Beeton Christmas Annual in 1887, Conan Doyle employed a highly formulaic ten step approach to structuring his stories, which enabled him to write the stories quickly and effectively, but which also was highly effective in engaging the reader. The Speckled Band was published in the Strand magazine in 1892 and Conan Doyle later described this story as the best Sherlock Holmes adventure he ever wrote. This story provides a classic example of how the ten step story line worked and is worth examining in detail.
Step One provided the element of scene setting and story orientation, as well as generating an atmosphere of expectation, and typically involved Dr Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick who acts as the narrator for almost all of the stories, in discussion with Sherlock Holmes’ rooms in Baker Street. In this case, the story starts with Watson introducing “the well-known Surrey family of the Roylotts of Stole Moran”. The date of the story is also established as being early in April 1883. Step Two in the story typically involved a client coming to see Sherlock Holmes and setting out the underlying problem. In this case the client is Helen Stoner who makes a dramatic entrance : “It is fear, Mr Holmes. It is terror.”
These are the words which come out of her mouth when asked why she is shivering: it is obvious that the event which she had experienced was mortifying. The event in question is exactly what is explained next in Step Three. Here Helen describes the events preceding and surrounding the death of her sister, Julia, who had been engaged to be married and, had she lived, would have received an annual £250 annuity from her late mother's income. Now Helen is engaged to be married and she fears for her own life. The detailed background explanation allows Conan Doyle to fill in much of the underlying story and introduce the characters who will feature heavily in the ensuing drama, providing false and genuine clues to the reader of potential motives and solutions. In this case, Helen introduces the reader to her malevolent stepfather, Dr Roylott: “Violence of temper approaching to mania has been hereditary in the men of the family, and in my stepfather’s case it had, I believe, been intensified by his long residence in the tropics”.
With the background facts established, Step Four in the story line was usually given over to Sherlock Holmes setting forth his preliminary ideas or solutions based on what he has heard. In The Speckled Band one of his early ideas is that Julia Stoner might have been poisoned since there was no mark of physical abuse. Later he brings together a number of different elements of Helen’s story to suggest a possible line of inquiry: “When you combine the ideas of whistles at night, the presence of a band of gipsies…, the fact that we have every reason to believe that the doctor has an interest in preventing his stepdaughters’ marriage, the dying allusion to a band, and, finally, the fact that Miss Helen Stoner heard a metallic clang….I think that there is good ground to think that the mystery may be cleared along those lines”. In The Speckled Band Conan Doyle then ramps up the tension in Step Five by bringing into the scene Dr Roylott himself, already described by his stepdaughter as having a history of violence, which he immediately demonstrates when he tries to intimidate Holmes by bending an iron poker, and his position as the prime suspect is soon further established when Holmes, after his investigation of Helen and Julia’s mother's estate, reveals that its value has decreased significantly, and if both daughters had married, Dr. Roylott would have been left with very little. In this way, motive is clearly established.
The action now moves, in Step Six, to the crime scene and Holmes, supported by Watson, gathers evidence from a review of the crime scene which obviously leads Holmes to the right solution, although that solution remains obscure and un-revealed to Dr Watson and the reader. In The Speckled Band, Holmes and Watson examine Julia Stoner’s and Dr Roylott’s rooms to seek possible leads: a false bell pull, a ventilator, a safe, and a saucer of milk providing the main clues. From the clues presented Holmes makes it apparent that he has already got a solution but the others, including of course the reader, are kept in suspense: “I should prefer to have clearer proofs before I speak.” Step Seven usually involved the police or others making wrong conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. Here Watson says: “You can at least tell me whether my own thought is correct, and if she died from some sudden fright”. “No, I do not think so. I think that there was probably some more tangible cause”. Holmes responds. Step Eight is where Conan Doyle’s dramatic writing skills really come to the fore; usually here he builds up tension prior to the denouement. In this case Holmes and Watson return to the crime scene at night, encountering exotic animals in the grounds, and prepare to spend the night in Julia Stoner’s old bedroom. The expectation of a dramatic denouement is skilfully built up: “The least sound would be fatal to our plans” and “Do not go asleep: your very life may depend upon it. Have your pistol ready in case we should need it”.
In Step Nine the case comes to its dramatic climax, frequently with Holmes interrupting a crime attempt by the villain. Here the climax involves the death of Dr Roylott from a bite from his own Swamp Adder, brought back from his travels abroad. Much is left obscure and in Step Ten we finally get to Holmes’s solution in which he provides an analysis of the facts and explains how the denouement emerges out of them. In The Speckled Band he explains how the evil doctor had trained the snake to go through the vent into the girl’s bedroom via the bell pull and to return again at the sound of a whistle. This explained why Julia had mentioned a ‘speckled band’ before she died. Helen, now she was engaged to be married, was the next to be killed by this method. By striking the snake when it was still on the bell pull, Holmes sent it back through the vent into Dr Roylott’s room where, enraged, he bites and kills his master. All is finally and unexpectedly revealed.
It is not hard to see the crucial role Conan Doyle’s use of the ten step story line plays in making the stories so effective and engaging. It enables Conan Doyle to set out the background quickly and efficiently, developing characters, motives, and laying down clues as he does so. It provides the perfect structure for building up suspense until the climax with its inevitable twist at the end, followed by Holmes’ cool analysis. The formula means that it’s easier to write because there is a plan set out, giving the author more time to concentrate on the characters and storyline instead of worrying about the structure. It’s also easier for the readers to read and this comfortable familiarity is engaging. However it also gives the stories a sense of repetition, because of the novels becoming predictable. It therefore was very important that Conan Doyle made the characters, and particularly Sherlock Holmes , seem new and engaging to keep his stories interesting.
Sherlock Holmes was an interesting character because he was so different to what anybody had seen before in a detective. He had many characteristics that made him very attractive to the reader, particularly because some of the characteristics were eccentric, meaning he doesn’t come over to the reader as just one-sided. His brilliance and rational decisiveness are obvious but he also has strong integrity, trustworthiness, and loyalty particularly to his side-kick, Dr Watson. Holmes' affection for Watson often emerges in the stories, despite Holmes’ normally cold, reserved personality. In The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, for instance Watson is wounded in a confrontation with a villain and Watson is moved by Holmes' reaction: “It was worth a wound; it was worth many wounds; to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation” Sherlock Holmes is also brave with a good sense of humour. When in The Speckled Band Dr Roylott insults him and threatens him with his hunting-crop, he is not scared but amused: “Holmes chuckled heartily. “Your conversation is most entertaining,” said he. “When you go out close the door, for there is a decided draught”. And when Dr Roylott then storms out having twisted the steel poker and hurled it into the fireplace: “He seems a very amiable person,” said Holmes, laughing. These characteristics will have made him much more engaging to the reader. Holmes also appears to have had great physical strength, apparent in where he manages to bend back the steel poker “with sudden effort” showing that it had no physical strain on him. The audience will like this about Holmes because it backs up the idea of him being a superhero, somebody who can use his strength as well as his brain. Similarly, they also liked the fact that Sherlock Holmes always cracked every case and good always seemed to become triumphant over evil . It is Sherlock Holmes’ brilliant, analytical mind which provides his greatest appeal. The Adventure of Abbey Grange is a perfect example of why Sherlock Holmes was liked by everyone. When Sherlock Holmes gets a letter from Inspector Stanley Hopkins, which says a man named Sir Eustace Brakenstall has been killed by three men, he goes to the crime scene. However he returns home quite annoyed that the case was seemingly already cracked. On the way home from Abbey Grange Sherlock Holmes comes up with a conclusion that contradicts the one that had already been made. “But, dear me, how slow- witted I have been, and how nearly I have committed the blunder of my lifetime! Now, I think that, with a few missing links, my chain is almost complete.” This comes at the point where Holmes has just realised that there weren’t three men but only one. The reader will be impressed by the way Holmes figures this out: “It is unusual for burglars to operate at such an early hour, it is unusual for burglars to strike a lady to prevent her screaming, since one would imagine that was the sure way to make her scream, it is unusual for them to commit murder when their numbers are sufficient to overpower one man.” This is just some of the reasoning that Holmes uses to clear the three men’s names. The amount of intelligence needed to work that out cannot fail to have attracted the reader. Holmes combines his intellect with a strong and attractive sense of right and wrong. Perhaps one of the most engaging performances of Holmes is when he has uncovered the man who actually killed Brakenstall, Jack Crocker. “Give him a cigar”
Holmes offers this to Crocker even though he knows he killed Brakenstall. Even when facing a criminal Holmes keeps a decent level of politeness. “I am willing to admit that you acted under the most extreme provocation to which any man could be subjected.” We see in that quote that Holmes thinks it’s not entirely the murderer’s fault; this shows that Holmes isn’t narrow minded and can accept that it may have been a complete accident. “I have so much sympathy for you that, if you choose to disappear in the next twenty- four hours, I will promise that no-one will hinder you.” Holmes shows here that he is sticking to his morals and his sense of justice prevents him from convicting the man because he felt that, though he did the wrong thing, he was driven to do so by Brakenstall. “Not guilty” is the confirmation that Holmes has let the accused go free. The readers will like this sympathetic side of Holmes, it shows another side to him and shows that perhaps that he is deeper and more emotional than one would expect.
Sherlock Holmes quickly became a Victorian hero; according to many people Sherlock Holmes was ideal for the day and age of the Victorians: a very proper man who didn’t follow the cliché of the detective novel “the butler did it”. Sherlock Holmes offered the readers reassurance of English values. This came at a time where England was beginning to lose its self-confidence after controlling the biggest empire known to man. Holmes makes sure that with every case the right man wins, as we have seen for example letting Crocker off the hook because it was Brakenstall who was the drunken tyrant. But in some ways Holmes was far from proper and his eccentricity will only have added to his appeal to the reader. Holmes describes himself as "bohemian" and Watson portrays him as having little regard for convention. In The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual Watson describes Holmes as: “The worst tenant in London...keeps his cigars in the coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe end of a Persian slipper, and his unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece” Holmes’ also seems to have taken drugs, mainly cocaine and occasionally morphine. Although neither were illegal at the time, his use of these drugs make him seem both more flawed and more glamorous - drugs would have been very popular for the upper-class who could afford to pay for these extravagant products - and seem at odds with his cold, rational side. Dr Watson, the solid middle class citizen, obviously disapproves of Holmes drug taking.
Conan Doyle has managed to create characters which every Victorian can relate to, be it the victims, Dr Watson or Sherlock Holmes. Although Sherlock Holmes is the main event, the character of Dr Watson, who narrates the stories, also brought the reader back for more. He provided humanity to Holmes; without him narrating the story and showing Holmes in a good light, Holmes’ lack of emotion might otherwise come off as cold and unappealing. Conan Doyle also portrayed Watson as different from the traditional bumbling sidekick: although not brilliant like Holmes, he is portrayed as smart, capable, and brave and like Conan Doyle was a Doctor. In the Engineer’s Thumb Watson shows his medical capabilities by taking care of a man with a chopped off thumb and receiving praise as a result: “Capital! Between your brandy and your bandage, I feel a new man.” All in all we can see that it was not just Holmes that brought the readers in but also the charm and decisiveness of Watson when put into a difficult situation, for example trying to bandage up a man with no thumb when he is very irritable. “He laughed very heartily, with a high, ringing note leaning back in his chair and shaking his sides. All my (Watson) medical instincts rose up against that laugh. ‘Stop it!’ I cried; ‘pull yourself together!’” And at the same time remaining polite “I (Watson) regret that I have kept you waiting.” The combination of Holmes’ brilliance and eccentricity with Watson’s solid, middle class virtues is extraordinarily effective and the development of the relationship between them is one of the most engaging elements of the Sherlock Holmes stories. The use of language and imagery was another way that Conan Doyle managed to grasp the minds of his readers. The language used would create tension and suspense to keep the audience interested. An example of building tension can be found in The Speckled Band: “I could not sleep that night.” or “A vague feeling of impending misfortune.” Both of those sentences would lead the reader to think that something bad was going to happen, creating an atmosphere of foreboding.
Conan Doyle also uses descriptive language and imagery to create suspense and to make the readers uneasy. For example: “All day the wind had screamed and the rain had beaten against the windows, so that even here in the heart of great, handmade London we were forced to raise our minds for the instant from the routine of life and to recognise the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation, like untamed beasts.” That rather extravagant piece of text taken from The Five Orange Pips suggests that perhaps in these times where science is dominating, we should be more afraid of the “great elemental forces.” Similarly, the expression “like untamed beasts,” shows that the elements are not to be reckoned with. Perhaps it is also gives a more human feel to Sherlock Holmes: finally there is something that our hero can’t beat. Conan Doyle describes the weather like an animal to make it seem more daunting, making the overall feel of the story scarier than it might otherwise have been originally. This piece of text was taken from the beginning of the story and immediately instils a sense of foreboding in the reader, showing the reader that this, perhaps, could be a very frightening story. Conan Doyle also uses vast amounts of descriptive language when writing about a locations and crime scenes, which both helps in providing clues and also in producing the right atmosphere. In the Engineers Thumb we see Dr Watson at the crime scene walking through an “old house”, the house is described as having “low doors and narrow winding staircases.” Immediately one gets the feeling from “winding staircases” that this could be a gothic horror story. “The thresholds of which were hollowed out by generations who had crossed them,” hints that perhaps this house is haunted, by generations who have lived there before. Already this has an effect on the reader as it is implying that something sinister might happen. “The plaster was peeling off the walls, and the damp was breaking through in green, unhealthy blotches.” This also backs up the idea that the house is sinister and unloved and in general gives the reader premonitions that something nasty might happen next.
In conclusion, Conan Doyle used three principal techniques to make the stories appealing and to engage the reader. Conan Doyle’s use of the ten step storyline provided a repeatable structure to deliver the plot and heighten tension. His strong characterisation, particularly of Sherlock Holmes, but also of his faithful side-kick Watson, created characters that every Victorian could relate to and which were very appealing. Finally his strong use of descriptive language and imagery helped to provide the right atmosphere and generate tension. It was the combination of all these elements which made the books so popular.