19 March 2013

Doyle When He Nodded

by Terence Faherty

First I'd like to echo Brian Thornton by thanking the other contributors to SleuthSayers for their warm welcome. I'd especially like to thank Robert Lopresti for inviting me to give this a try and Dale Andrews, who's alternating with me on Tuesdays, for the generous plug he gave me in his most recent post.

For my first post, I thought I'd write about one of my mystery writing heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and about one of his most interesting characteristics (from a writer's point of view): his carelessness.

Even casual readers of Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes stories have probably noted one egregious example of this carelessness, namely Watson's mobile bullet wound, which unaccountably shifts from his shoulder to his leg. Well, you might be thinking, in a long series of stories (there are fifty-six Holmes short stories and four longer ones), a writer is apt to get a detail of a character's backstory wrong. But Watson's wound made its famous migration sometime between the first tale, A Study in Scarlet, and the second, The Sign of Four. Not a good omen for the future, though a telling one.

I'll cite just a couple more examples I've come across recently. In "The Copper Beeches," a young governess arrives at 221B for a morning meeting, stays about twenty minutes, and bids Holmes and Watson "good-night" as she leaves. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife refers to him as James, though his given name was John. Speaking of the doctor's wife, the reports of her death seem to have been greatly exaggerated, as she returns from the grave from time to time. Or was there a second Mrs. Watson? Or half a dozen?

Dorothy L. Sayers, another of my favorites, once wrote a scholarly essay that attempted to straighten out the date problems in "The Red-Headed League." She focused on four issues, one of which might be called "The Mystery of the Missing Summer." The story is set in October of 1890 but a character refers to an April newspaper article as having appeared "just two months ago." What, as current scholars might phrase the question, is up with that?

I find two features of Doyle's carelessness particularly intriguing. The first is its endurance. Okay, so Doyle wrote quickly and didn't get much help from his editors at the Strand Magazine. But who was minding the store when the stories were collected in book form? Buy any new edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes today and in "The Man with the Twisted Lip," Watson's wife will still get his first name wrong. October 9, 1890 will still be called a Saturday in "The Red-Headed League" when it was in fact a Thursday. It's as though Doyle carved his first drafts in stone.
Even late in his long life, by which time Sir Arthur must have known that the tossed-off Holmes tales were going to outlive his more serious literary efforts, he didn't clean up after himself, though by then he must have received hundreds of letters from helpful or confused readers. By then, too, pioneering Sherlockian scholars had published essays on all aspects of the Holmes tales, including the puzzling problems.

Doyle might have recognized in this correspondence and in the critical literature an unlooked-for benefit from his mistakes. I find this benefit to be the second intriguing characteristic of Doyle's carelessness: its appeal. Far from turning readers off, it draws them in. It makes the Sherlock Holmes stories a particularly interactive form of fiction.

All fair play mysteries are interactive to the extent that readers are invited to solve the crime along with the detective, but the Sherlock Holmes stories take interaction to a whole new level. Like Dorothy Sayers, generations of writers, who presumably had better things to do (like dogs to walk and lawns to mow), have taken up their pens to try to reconcile or explain away Watson's two wives and the "long interview" in "The Copper Beeches" and so on. (One of Sayers' explanations for the date problems in "the Red-Headed League" was transcription errors caused by Watson's poor handwriting, perhaps the earliest argument against cursive.)

In the process, the Sherlockians scholars have created hours of enjoyment for readers who love the stories and maybe even helped the stories live on. It's enough to make an author cast a jaundiced eye on writing-manual advice of the "revise endlessly" variety. A little carelessness might actually be good for the soul of a work. To paraphrase Holmes himself, once you have eliminated actual spelling errors, whatever remains, however improbable, might be better left alone.


  1. Great article, Terence. W.S. Baring-Gould, in Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, tries to reconcile all of at least the major mistakes of Doyle in constructing a timeline of Holmes life, which appears at the end of the book. If I remember correctly Baring-Gould can only make it work if Watson in fact had three different wives.

  2. Welcome to Sleuthsayers.
    How nice to know the great man had poor handwriting and how nice to learn that had positive effects!

  3. Welcome to SleuthSayers, Terence. I agree the opportunity to quibble about the facts adds to the fun of the Holmes canon. I wonder if Conan Doyle would finally have revised if he'd lived to see the age of e-books. I'm preparing a new e-edition of my mystery series, and my publisher has encouraged me to update as much as I want. I'm having a grand time discovering how much better my writing and my faculty for self-critiquing have become since my first novel was published in 2008.

  4. Welcome, Terence.
    Being the perpectual Pollyana kind of person who, when given lemons in life, makes whiskey sours, the Holmes situation makes me think of what an opportunity this is for a writer of pastiches. (We have an excellent pastiche-writer among the SSers.) Intervening stories could be written that explain away the discrepancies and justify Watson's three wives could be very interesting and entertaining when worked into new mysteries.

  5. Terence, welcome to SleuthSayers. Wonderful column.

    I'd noticed (and heard about) several of those Holmes inconsistencies, but I didn't realize there were so many. Doyle's success should be reassuring to those who make as many writing mistakes as I do . . .

  6. Great opening shot, Terry. Welcome to the club.

    Fran makes a good point; pastichists (pastichers? pastichianos?) have had a fun time filling in the DOyle gaps. See James Lincoln Warren's Shikari, for example.

    In the Rex Stout world the favorite argument is this: where was Nero Wolfe born? He told an FBI agent the US, but in Montenegro he showed a shack he said was the very place. There are other such gaps, of course...

    My own character Shanks has only appeared in eight stories, but his past life has some odd confusion.

  7. Terence, you make a nice addition to the club. Nice to have you aboard.
    If Doyle made all those errors and was still so successful there might be a slight chance for me yet.

  8. After all, Watson himself said that his experience of women spanned three separate continents - why not a wife for each one?
    Welcome aboard, Terence!

  9. Welcome aboard.

    I read the Holmes stories at least 4 maybe 5 times and never thought about the inconsistencies. Now, during my next reread, I'll go inconsistency hunting.

  10. Great post, Terence, and welcome. I hope that you enjoy the Tuesday slot as much as I did.

    I choose to think that the discrepancies are intentional and cleverly placed clues. Now, if we could only figure them out, we would at long last know who Moriarity really is!

  11. I'd like to thank everyone again for the warm welcome! And I especially like to thank Sir Arthur for not "dope slapping" me from beyond the grave!

  12. Thanks for such a thought-provoking article. For my part, I wonder if perhaps Doyle made the earlier mistakes by accident, then – after realizing what he’d done – went on to make intentional errors as a sort of “gotcha” for his readers.

    I’ve heard (perhaps someone here can confirm/deny) that Doyle was frustrated by the success of his Holmes series vs. the relative anonymity of his historicals -- to which he attached true importance -- and that he was quite unhappy when eventually he felt forced to reanimate Holmes after killing him off. Makes me wonder if the latter errors are instead hidden barbs meant to illuminate what he might have seen as the “low-cunning” of his readers – readers who ignored the books he really loved writing.

    And, Fran’s post has me thinking it would be great fun to read stories about the "Womanizing Watson" and his three wives...interesting...very interesting. “I say, Watson! Don’t tell me you’ve gone and married again!”



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