by H.B. Lyle
Details at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of The Year of the Gun by HB Lyle, and a link to purchase it.
When we think of Victorian London, one or two writers spring to mind: Charles Dickens, obviously, in particular with A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What is more Victorian, more English indeed, than Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson hot footing it through London on the trail of a dastardly crime? But, what few people know is that, almost from the very beginning of his career writing Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle had a deep fascination with America and continued to put it in the Holmes stories again and again.
From the very beginning, in the first Holmes story A Study in Scarlet, America plays a central role in the plot. In that tale, it’s Mormons gone bad, from Salt Lake City, who are both victims and villains, and the second half of the novel takes place almost entirely in the States. Next up, only a few stories later, Holmes is called upon to help a man being terrorised by the Ku Klux Klan in The Five Orange Pips – surely a candidate for one of the earliest mentions of the KKK in British fiction.
The list goes on. Hatty Doran’s marital problems in The Noble Bachelor, Effie Munro’s backstory in The Yellow Face, Elsie Patrick’s dark past in The Dancing Men, one of Doyle’s favorite Holmes stories. A U.S. Senator also appears as a client in The Problem of Thor Bridge. And the final Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, deals extensively with a backstory involving a group much like the Molly Maguires and a Pinkerton detective. And in The Last Bow, Holmes even admits to going undercover in the U.S. for nearly two years.
But Sherlock Holmes’s links with America go beyond the content of the stories. If it weren’t for one particular American editor, it’s probable that the Sherlock Holmes stories would have numbered just one, rather than the sixty we now have. In 1889, two years after the publication of the first Holmes story, the American editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, JM Stoddart, invited Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde to dinner at the Langham Hotel and persuaded them both to write a novel for him. Wilde eventually produced The Picture of Dorian Grey.
Doyle, whose A Study in Scarlet had received some praise but not the outright adoration he was to know later, decided to give Holmes another crack, especially as Stoddart assured him that it was liable to meet with success in America. And so the second Holmes novel, the timeless classic The Sign of the Four, was written and published and Holmes as a character never looked back. So, thank you, America!
There’s one thing missing. Other than the stray reference to the last two years in The Last Bow, Doyle never sent Holmes to America. When I was writing my Irregular stories – with Holmes’s one-time street urchin apprentice Wiggins now grown up – I was determined at some point to get the great detective to the USA. Finally in The Year of the Gun (book 3 in the Irregular series), I managed to fit Holmes into the story, and I haven’t had as much fun writing a character in years.
At last, I managed to put Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creations into one of the countries he loved most. Doyle, Holmes, and the USA is a love affair that sprung up from the very start – and long may it continue.
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