Sherlock Holmes - A Criticism, article in The Academy 1897
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“MY point is that the character, the theories the position, and the methods, always, and the incidents and phrases often, which have made Sherlock Holmes a household word, are taken directly from Dupin and from Lecoq." This is the clinching sentence of a four column article on Dr. Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” series of stories, with which Mr. Robert Blatchford has just surprised the readers of the Clarion. Mr. Blatchford, like the rest of us, heartily enjoyed Dr. Doyle's stories when they appeared in the Strand Magazine; but he had his own opinion about Holmes as compared with such detectives as Poe’s Dupin or Gaboriau’s Lecoq. It will be remembered that Dr. Doyle had his too. In “A Study in Scarlet" he makes Sherlock Holmes say:
“No doubt you think you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin. Now, in my opIimon, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. . .he had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine.
Lecoq was a miserable bungler; he had only one thing to recommend him, an that was his energy. That book made me positively ill. The question was how to identify an unknown prisoner. I could have done it in twenty-four hours. Lecoq took six months or so. It might be made a text-book for detectives to teach them what to avoid.”
It is clear that this passage has rankled in Mr. Blatchford's mind; indeed, he admits it, and when an attack of influenza suddenly widened his leisure, he began to look into the matter. With this result: “Let us see," says Mr. Blatchford, “how far Mr. Sherlock Holmes’s contempt for his masters is justified by the facts”; and he proceeds to give an example of the work of that “very inferior fellow,” Dupin:
“A girl was murdered near New York. The case created a great sensation, all the leading papers suggested theories of the crime, and the police were completely baffled.
Then Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story called ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’ in which he set his imaginary detective, Dupin, to work to explain how the murder had been committed. Poe wrote at a distance from the scene of the crime, and with no other data than those found in the Press. He kept closely to the facts of the murder, changing only the names of places and persons, and he made Dupin unravel the whole mystery by a process of pure inductive reason.
Some years afterwards two persons at different places and at different times confessed, and in their confessions confirmed in full ‘not only the general conclusion, but absolutely all the chief by hypothetical details by which that conclusion was attained.’
That is to say, that Dupin, the trifler, the ‘inferior fellow’ actually applied to a real case the methods supposed to be peculiar to Sherlock Holmes, and discovered not only the murderer but all the steps taken in perpetration of the crime.
Should we be justified now in calling Sherlock Holmes is trifler or an inferior fellow if in any one of Conan Doyle's stories he had actually explained, and truly explained all the mystery of the crimes of Jack the Ripper?”
Mr. Blatchford, who is evidently extremely well versed in Poe and Gaboriau, goes on to give extracts and instances tending to show that Sherlock Holmes’s methods of criminal investigation have been anticipated by these writers. The following passage will show Mr. Blatchford’s line of criticism:
“Dr. Doyle's second book, ‘The Sign of Four,’ absorbs a good deal of Poe’s ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue.’
Thus, in Poe's tale the murders are done by an ape, which has escaped from a sailor. In Conan Doyle's tale the murder is done by a small savage from the Andaman Isles, who is with a sailor. In both cases the murder is done against the sailor's wish. In the one case Dupin deduces the ape from a handprint, in the other Holmes deduces the savage from a footprint.
‘I wish you particularly to notice these footmarks,’ he said; ‘do you observe anything noteworthy about them?’
‘They belong,’ I said, ‘to a child or a small woman.’
‘Apart from their size, though, is there nothing else?’
‘They appear to be much as other footmarks.’
‘Not at all. Look here! This is the print of the right foot in the dust. Now I make one with my naked foot beside it. What is the chief difference?’
‘Your toes are all cramped together. The other print has each toe distinctively divided.’”
Now compare Dupin and his hand-print:
“‘You will perceive,’ continued my friend, spreading out the paper upon the table before us. ‘that this drawing gives the idea of a firm and fixed hold. There is no slipping apparent. Each finger has retained— possibly until the death of the victim—the fearful grasp by which it originally imbedded itself. Attempt now to place all your fingers, at the same time, in the respective impressions as you see them.’
I made the attempt in vain.
‘We are possibly not giving this matter a fair trial,’ he said. ‘the paper’s spread out upon a plain surface; but the human throat is cylindrical. Here is a billet of wood, the circumference of which is about that of the throat. Wrap the drawing around it and try the experiment again.’
I did so, but the difficulty was even more obvious than before. ‘This,’ I said, ‘is the mark of no human hand.’
But the resemblance between the methods of Holmes and those of the ‘very inferior fellow,’ Dupin, does not end there, for in the ‘Rue Morgue’ Dupin takes up a volume of Cuvier, and shows his friend an account of a large and fierce outrang-outang, with special allusion to his hands, and in ‘The Sign of Four’ Holmes shows Watson in an encyclopaedia an account of the savage races of the Andaman Islands, with special allusion to their feet. See ‘Sign of Four,’ pp. 158-9 and ‘Rue Morgue,’ p. 213-14.
In ‘The Sign of Four’ the description of the sailor, Jonathan Small, is very like the description of the Maltese sailor in ‘The Rue Morgue.’ In ‘The Sign of Four’ Holmes says:
‘I argued that the launch must be no great way off in spite of its invisibility. I then put myself in the place of Small, and looked at it as a man of his capacity would.’
Compare the words in italics with Poe's statement in ‘The Purloined Letter.’
‘Now this mode of reasoning in the schoolboy, whom his fellows termed “lucky,” what, in its last analysis, is it?’
‘It is merely,’ said I, ‘an identification of the reasoner’s intellect with that of his opponent.’
One cannot read ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’ and ‘The Purloined Letter’ together without being struck by the analogy. In one story the thin to be recovered is a letter stolen from the Queen of France. In the other it is a portrait given to a lady by the King of Bohemia. In both cases the detective enters the room of the person holding the desired object; in both cases an emeute is organized by the detective outside the house. In both cases the method of attack and the process of thought employed are identical.
Let anyone with a good knowledge of Sherlock Holmes study the three stories by Poe, and he cannot fail to perceive the indebtedness of Conan Doyle to the American author.”
It must not be supposed that Mr. Blatchford is not an admirer and a great admirer, of Dr. Conan Doyle's most famous creation.
After examining many other instances of Mr. Sherlock Holmes's feats of detection, and finding in them, as he thinks, traces of indebtedness to the creators of the heroes of Poe's and Gaboriau’s stories, Mr. Blatchford says:
“Is there, then, nothing new in the new detective? There is. One of the most fascinating and ingenius characteristics of Sherlock Holmes is his faculty for reading the men and women he meets as though they were books. His deductions from a soiled hat, a scratched watch, a splashed trouser, or a scarred hand, are peculiar to him, and always come upon the reader as a surprise. Mycroft Holmes, also, is a fine character, and I, for one, wish that Dr. Doyle would give us more of him. . . Dr. Doyle is more ‘readable’ than Gaboriau or Edgar Allan Poe. His language is simpler, his stories are shorter, his mode of telling is clearer; he uses short sentences, and he judiciously waters down Poe's abstruse philosophy, and avoids Gaboriau's labored sentiment. But, after all, he is only an industrious and skillful mechanic: Edgar Allan Poe was a genius and an inventor.”
We do not know that the keenly scrutinizing Sherlock Holmes has been so scrutinized before. But we fancy that the range of invention possible to a writer of detective stories is smaller than is commonly imagined— The Academy.
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