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In December 1893, Sherlock Holmes-adoring Londoners eagerly opened their Strand magazines, anticipating the detective’s next adventure, only to find the unthinkable: his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, had killed their hero off. London spiraled into mourning-crowds sported black armbands in grief-and railed against Conan Doyle as his assassin.
Then in 1901, just as abruptly as Conan Doyle had “murdered” Holmes in “The Final Problem,” he resurrected him. Though the writer kept detailed diaries of his days and work, Conan Doyle never explained this sudden change of heart. After his death, one of his journals from the interim period was discovered to be missing, and in the decades since, has never been found…. Or has it?
When literary researcher Harold White is inducted into the preeminent Sherlock Holmes enthusiast society, The Baker Street Irregulars, he never imagines he’s about to be thrust onto the hunt for the holy grail of Holmes-ophiles: the missing diary. But when the world’s leading Doylean scholar is found murdered in his hotel room, it is Harold-using wisdom and methods gleaned from countless detective stories-who takes up the search, both for the diary and for the killer.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
The Sherlockian is a work of historical fiction. All of the contemporary characters in the novel are the product of the author's imagination.
The Reichenbach Falls
So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle
The doll and its maker are never identical.
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
London Opinion, December 12, 1912
August 9, 1893
Arthur Conan Doyle curled his brow tightly and thought only of murder.
"I'm going to kill him," Conan Doyle said as he folded his arms across his broad frame. High in the Swiss Alps, the air tickled Arthur's inch-thick mustache and seemed to blow straight through his ears. Set far back on his head, Arthur's ears always appeared to be perking up, listening to something else, something distant and behind him. For such a stocky man, he had a nose that was remarkably sharp. His hair had only recently begun to gray, a process that Arthur couldn't help but wish along. Though he was but thirty-three years of age, he was already a celebrated author. An internationally acclaimed man of letters with light ocher hair would not do so well as a wizened one, now, would he?
Arthur's two traveling companions ascended to the ledge on which he stood, the highest climbable point of the Reichenbach Falls. Silas Hocking was a cleric and novelist well known as far away as Arthur's London. His recent offering of religious literature, Her Benny, was a work Arthur held in high regard. Edward Benson was an acquaintance of Hocking's and was much quieter than his gregarious friend. Though Arthur had met the two men only this morning, over breakfast at the Rifel Alp Hotel in Zermatt, he felt that he could confide in them safely. He could tell them of his mind, and of his dark plans.
"The fact is, he has gotten to be a kind of 'old man of the sea' about my neck," continued Arthur, "and I intend to make an end of him." Hocking huffed as he stood beside Arthur, gazing at the vast expanse of the Alps before them. Tufts of snow melted yards beneath their feet into a mighty stream of water that had, millennia ago, driven a path through the mountain as it poured loudly into the frothing pool below. Benson silently pressed a mittenful of snow into a tight ball and dropped it whimsically into the chasm. The force of the wind tore bits off the snowball as it fell, until it disappeared in the air as a series of white puffs.
"If I don't," said Arthur, "he'll make a death of me."
"Don't you think you're being rather rough on an old friend?" asked Hocking. "He's given you fame. Fortune. You two have made a handsome couple."
"And in plastering his name across every penny dreadful in London, I've given him a reputation which far exceeds my own. You know I get letters. 'My beloved cat has vanished into South Hampstead. Her name is Sherry-Ann. Can you find her?' Or, 'My mum had her purse snatched exiting a hansom in Piccadilly. Can you deduce the culprit?' But the thing of it is, the letters aren't addressed to me—they're addressed to him. They think he's real."
"Yes, your poor, admiring readers," pleaded Hocking. "Have you thought of them? People seem so terribly fond of the fellow."
"More fond of him than of me! Do you know I received a letter from my own Mam? She asked—knowing I would of course do anything she ever required—she asked that I sign the name Sherlock Holmes to a book for her neighbor Beattie. Can you imagine? Sign his name rather than my own. My Mam speaks as if she's Holmes's mother, not mine. Gah!" Arthur tried to contain his sudden burst of anger.
"My greater work is ignored," he continued. "Micah Clarke? The White Company? That charming little play I concocted with Mr. Barrie? Overlooked for a few morbid yarns. Worse still, he has become a waste of my time. If I have to concoct another of those tortuous plots—the bedroom door always locked from the inside, the dead man's indecipherable final message, the whole thing told wrong end first so that no one can guess the obvious solution—it is a drain." Arthur looked to his boots, showing his weariness in his bowed head. "To put it frankly, I hate him. And for my own sanity, I will soon see him dead."
"How will you do it, then?" teased Hocking. "How does one go about killing the great Sherlock Holmes? Stab him in the heart? Slit his throat? Hang him by the neck?"
"A hanging! My, are those words a balm upon my mind. But no, no, it should be something grand—he is a hero, after all. I'll give him one final case. And a villain. He'll be in need of a proper villain this time around. A gentlemanly fight to the death; he sacrifices himself for the greater good, and both men perish. Something along those lines." Benson pounded another snowball into being and lobbed it gently into the air. Arthur and Hocking watched its open-ended arc as it vanished into the sky.
"If you want to save on funeral expenses," Hocking said with a chuckle, "you could always toss him off a cliff." He looked to Arthur for a reaction but found no smile on his face. Instead Arthur curled his brow in the tight-faced frown he wore when he was in the midst of his deepest thinking.
He gazed at the jaws of the chasm below. He could hear the roar of the falling water and the violent crush it made at the mouth of the rock-speckled river. Arthur felt himself suddenly terrified. He imagined his own death on those stones. Being a medical man, Arthur was more than familiar with the frailty of the human body. A fall of this height… His corpse banging, slapping against the rocks all the way down… The dreadful cry caught in his mouth… Torn limb from limb on the crust of the earth, the wisps of grass stained with his blood… And now, in his thoughts, his own body vanished, replaced by someone leaner. Taller. A thin, underfed ribbon of a man, in a deerstalker cap and long coat. His hard face obliterated, once and for all, on a spike of gunmetal stone.
The Baker Street Irregulars
"My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don't know."
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
January 5, 2010
The five-penny piece tumbled into Harold's palm. The coin felt heavy as it landed, heads up, and Harold closed his fingers around the worn silver. He squeezed for a few seconds before he realized that his hands were shaking. The room exploded in applause.
Harold heard laughter, and more clapping. A hand slapped him on the back, and another rubbed his shoulder warmly. But all Harold could think about was the coin in his own right hand. In his left, Harold gripped his new certificate. The coin had been glued, poorly, to the lower left corner and had become unattached when Harold overexcitedly grasped the paper. The coin had fallen off, and Harold had caught it midflight. He looked down at the tiny silver piece. It was a Victorian-era shilling, worth only five pennies in its day. It would be worth a lot more than that now, and to Harold it was worth a fortune. He blinked away the moisture that had formed in the corners of his eyes. The coin meant that he had arrived. That he had achieved something. That he belonged.
"Welcome, Harold," said a voice behind him. Someone tousled the deerstalker cap on his head. "Welcome to the Baker Street Irregulars."
These words, which Harold had hoped to hear for so long, sounded foreign and strange now as he finally heard them. All these people—two hundred bodies, laughing and joking and patting backs—they were all clapping for Harold. This Harold. Harold White, twenty-nine years old, with the slight belly, with the thick eyebrows, with the astigmatism, with the sweaty, shivering hands.
Harold couldn't believe that he really deserved all this. But he did. He belonged here.
The Baker Street Irregulars were the world's preeminent organization devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes, and Harold was its newest member. Harold had published his first article in the Baker Street Journal, the Irregulars' quarterly publication, two years earlier. "On the Dating of Bloodstains: Sherlock Holmes and the Founding of Modern Forensics," Harold had titled the piece. It had explored the historical connections between Holmes's first experiments in A Study in Scarlet with the work of Dr. Eduard Piotrowski. ("Dr. Piotrowski, practicing in Kraków in the 1890s, beat in the heads of baby rabbits and recorded the patterns made by the blood bursting from their skulls. Holmes's experiments were similarly gory, though he at least had the decency to use his own blood, as well as the labors of his own skull," Harold had written. He thought this was his most amusing line in the piece.) Harold had published two other articles after, in smaller Sherlockian magazines. Tonight was his first time at the Irregulars' invitation-only annual dinner. Just to be included among the guests at the Irregulars' dinner was an immense honor—but to be offered membership, at such a young age, with such a small history of scholarship to his name? Harold couldn't think of another Irregular who'd been offered membership this quickly, after only one dinner.
Harold White, in the cheap black suit that hung loosely on the shoulders, in the chicken-stained tie, was in the middle of the proudest moment of his life. He adjusted the plaid deerstalker hat that rested magnificently on his head. The hat was by far his favorite possession. He'd owned it since he was fourteen years old, since he had first become obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and dressed as the famed detective for Halloween. As his love of Holmes grew from childish infatuation to mature study, what had once been a costume prop eventually became day-to-day clothing. He'd worn the hat proudly at his graduation from Princeton, even temporarily sewing a tassel on top for the occasion. As Harold moved from his nervous teens to his tedious twenties, the hat served him well through the cocktail parties, the autumn picnics, the friends' weddings that cropped up more and more often. He had worn it when he accepted his first career-oriented job as a New York publisher's assistant. He had worn it as he separated from his longest-lasting girlfriend, Amanda, about whom Harold never spoke.
The Irregulars' dinner, held this year at the Algonquin Hotel on Forty-fourth Street, fell amid a grand week of Sherlockiana. For four days around January 6, Holmes's birthday, all the world's societies devoted to the celebration of Sherlock Holmes gathered in New York. Lectures, tours, book signings, sales of Victorian antiques and first-edition printings—for a Sherlock Holmes devotee, it was heaven.
Of the hundreds of Sherlockian societies in attendance, however, the Baker Street Irregulars were by far the oldest, the most senior, and the most exclusive. Truman and FDR had claimed membership, as had Isaac Asimov. Only the Irregulars, and their few guests, could attend the annual dinner, and their rare invitations were the object of heated cravings from Sherlockians the world over. The Irregulars were even responsible, as everyone knew, for deducing January 6 as the day of Holmes's birth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had never actually written the date January 6 in the "Canon"—that is, the four novels and fifty-six short stories that make up all the original adventures of Sherlock Holmes. But an extensive, Talmudically deep reading of these tales allowed Christopher Morley, one of the founding Irregulars, to propose January 6 as the most likely candidate for Holmes's birthday. All the other organizations were considered "scion" groups of the Irregulars and needed an official sanction from the Irregulars in order to form. Applications for membership in the Irregulars did not exist—if you distinguished yourself in the field of Sherlockian studies, they would find you. And if the leader of the Irregulars deemed you qualified, you would be presented with a shilling piece as a sign of your membership—like the coin, the faded and ancient silver, that Harold squeezed between his whitening knuckles.
The applause dissipated into chatter. Chairs were pushed back from the dining tables, white linen napkins draped across the plates of half-eaten chickens and boiled vegetables. Tumblers of scotch were downed in long gulps. Hands were shaken. Good-byes were offered.
Harold felt suddenly foolish, clutching his shilling. He had fantasized about this moment since he'd first learned of the Irregulars. And now it was over. He wondered what he would have to do next to have this feeling back. He wanted so much to hold on to his successes and not let them fade away into the dull clamor of normal life. Harold watched servers collect the silverware, sweeping the dirty forks and dull butter knives into plastic tubs.
Harold lived in Los Angeles and worked as a freelance literary researcher. His primary employers were movie studios, whose legal departments hired him to defend against charges of copyright violation. If an angry novelist sued the makers of the summer's biggest action blockbuster, claiming that they had stolen the idea from his little-read political thriller of twenty years back, it was Harold's job to write a brief saying that no, in fact both works took their basic plot elements from a lesser-known Ben Jonson play, or one of Dostoyevsky's difficult short stories, or another work that was similarly obscure and similarly in the public domain. Harold's name was well used and well lauded in the legal departments of the studios, except in the rare cases when they would sue one another.
Harold's main qualification for this position was that he had read everything. He had simply read more books—more fiction—than anyone else whom either he or his employers had met. This had been accomplished, at his age, via an acute ability to speed-read. As a child, as he ploddingly read through the pages of every Sherlock Holmes mystery, his desire—his animal need—to know what happened next posed a problem: It took him longer to get through the stories than he could bear. So he taught himself to speed-read from a mail-order self-help book. His fellow students would tease him about this ability, as they found it unthinkable that anybody could read a four-hundred-page novel in two hours and still have any significant amount of information retention. But Harold could. And he would prove it to them, reading books alongside his peers and letting them quiz him about plot elements and descriptive passages. Sure enough, Harold retained more information, more quickly, than anyone he had met at his grade school in Chicago, in his college years at Princeton, or in his adult life since.
"Harold!" came a deep and resonant voice from behind. A set of hands squeezed Harold's shoulders. He turned and looked up into the face of Jeffrey Engels. A snow-haired Californian with a nearly permanent grin etched into his cheeks, Jeffrey was easily the best-liked and most respected Sherlockian in the room. Harold suspected that it was Jeffrey, in fact, who had campaigned for Harold's investiture in the Irregulars. But he knew better than to ask, as Jeffrey would never tell him, one way or the other.
"Thank you," said Harold.
Jeffrey ignored Harold's comment. His usual grin was gone, replaced with a dour stare.
"This affair has taken a grave turn," said Jeffrey quietly.
"To murder!" replied Jeffrey.
The Final Problem
"You know a conjuror gets no credit when once he has explained his trick."
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
A Study in Scarlet
September 3, 1893
Arthur killed Sherlock Holmes by the light of a single lamp.
Encased behind the heavy wooden doors of his study, Arthur wrote quickly. The oil lamp atop his writing desk glowed pale yellow over the book-lined walls. Shakespeare, Catullus, even, as Arthur would admit freely, Poe. His favorites were all there, but Arthur rarely consulted them. He wrote confidently. He was not the sort of writer who spread his sources across his desk like bedsheets, clinging to them tightly, consulting, soiling, pinching. Hamlet lay on its shelf—third from the bottom, a quarter of the way around the room clockwise from the door—and if, when Arthur quoted it for another pithy aphorism from Holmes, he quoted inaccurately… well, such was fiction.
Murder tasted sweet on Arthur's lips. He salivated. His pen, heavy between his stubby fingers, did not scratch the paper. It stroked the pages, filling each one top to bottom with black ink. The plot, the confounding little puzzle of tricks and then treats, had been worked out well in advance.
At this, the middle point of his career, Arthur was unquestionably England's great composer of the mystery story. Indeed, as the States had failed to produce a mystery author of any caliber since Poe had invented the form, Arthur thought it not unreasonable to say that he was the most accomplished in the world. There was a trick to mystery stories, of course, and Arthur wasn't embarrassed to admit that he knew it. It was the same trick practiced by a thousand amateur parlor magicians and face-painted circus jugglers: misdirection.
Arthur laid the facts of the crime before his readers clearly, calmly, and efficiently. No important detail was left out, and—yes, here was the mark of the true craftsman—not too many unimportant details were left in. It's an easy feat to confuse the reader with a mountain of unnecessary characters and events; the challenge, for Arthur, was in presenting a clean and simple tale, with only a few notable characters to keep straight, and yet still to obscure the solution from the reader. The key was in the prose, in the way the information was laid out. Arthur kept the reader's mind on the exciting, exceptional, and yet fundamentally unimportant facts of the case, while the salient details were left for Holmes to work upon, as if by magic.
It was a game for Arthur, putting together these plots. It was he against his audience, the writer locked in endless combat with his readers, and only one would emerge victorious. Either the reader would guess the ending early or Arthur would confound him to the final page. It was a test of wits, and a war that Arthur did not often lose.
Why, of course, if the reader were smart enough, he could figure the whole thing through after just the first few pages! But in his heart Arthur knew that his readers didn't really want to win. They wanted to test their wits against the author at full pitch, and they wanted to lose. To be dazzled. And so Arthur's struggle was long, and moreover it was bloody exhausting. He had come to realize that putting together a decent mystery was an infernally tedious affair. And, his having labored at this mill for some years now, the tedium had engendered in him such a hatred for Holmes as he could no longer contain. Now his hatred extended beyond just the rat-faced detective: It carried over to the readers who adored him so. And now thankfully, at last, in his final Holmes story, Arthur would be done with them all for good.
Late as the hour was, Arthur heard the rambunctious banging of children upstairs. He could hear, faintly, the maid Kathleen telling them to hush up before they woke their mother. Touie would be sound asleep by now, as she had been most of the day. Her consumption was not much worsening, but the clean Swiss föhn had done little to improve her health. She rarely left the house. Journeys into the city were simply out of the question. Against her frailty, though, Arthur had become determined. He would take care of poor, dear Touie, his bride since she was nineteen. And if they should have to keep separate bedrooms, for her health, and if nannies would be required to look after the children, and if she had now wilted into the winter of her own private quarters… well, so be it. Arthur would write. He had liked to keep regular, daytime hours for his work, but tonight was different. Some writing one had to do in the dark.
Arthur's pen did not hasten as he moved on to the final page. He made the same broad strokes he always had. The words came to him, first in his head—the orderly noun, the clarifying verb, the occasional but welcome adjective—one by one, and he dutifully recorded them onto the darkening sheet. He did not go back over his sentences once they were on the page. He did not scratch out words, like his good friends Mr. Barrie and Mr. Oliver, endlessly replacing them with their freshest mot juste. Such was the mark, Arthur felt, of an indecisive hand. He did not consult his previous paragraphs for where to go next. He simply knew.
His fingers were steady as he came to the last bit of his story. A letter from beyond the grave, to be opened after its sender had passed on. "The best and the wisest man whom I have ever known," Arthur wrote. A fitting tribute; a fine farewell. He placed a light period after "known" and turned the sheet onto its predecessors. He carefully pressed the stack into a tidy, perfect rectangle and flipped the pages over. "The Final Problem," read the title at the top of page one. Indeed, thought Arthur. And then, queerly, he smiled. He even allowed himself a chortle, as he was alone. Without his wife, or his children, or even his mother knowing, Arthur was, for the first time in years, finally free.
He stood. He stumbled happily to the door. And then—Oh! He'd almost forgotten.
Arthur practically skipped back to his desk. What had come over him? You'd be excused for thinking he was a love-struck teenager, on his way to call on his amore.
Arthur unlocked the bottom-left drawer beneath his desk and removed one dark, leather-bound book from a stack of many. He opened the book and flipped through to the bottom of a page already quite filled with his ink. He plucked up his pen and recorded the date. And then, though most evenings Arthur would spend an hour recording all the day's events and all of his most private thoughts, tonight he committed only two words to his diary.
"Killed Holmes," he wrote.
Arthur felt light. His shoulder muscles loosened. He closed his eyes and inhaled the dark air. He was so happy.
He was careful to lock his precious diary back in the desk before stepping out into the hallway in search of brandy.
The Lost Diary
"Watson here will tell you that I can never resist a touch of the dramatic."
—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
"The Naval Treaty"
January 5, 2010, cont.
"To murder!" repeated Jeffrey Engels for emphasis, back in the Algonquin Hotel.
Harold paused. Something was very wrong here.
"The affair has taken a grave turn? To murder?" Jeffrey said again, with a touch of hesitation.
Harold laughed. "The quote is from 'The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,' " he said. "You owe me a drink."
"Well done!" Jeffrey beamed. "So I do."
"But I think you owe me two drinks. The quote isn't quite right. It should be 'the affair has taken a very much graver turn,' not 'a grave turn.' "
Jeffrey thought for a moment.
"My, you've been invested in the Irregulars all of two minutes and look at you! Picking nits at an old man already. Well, very well. I'll keep you in scotch until dawn at this rate."
Harold had initially encountered this Sherlockian quotation game at the very first meeting he'd attended. Four years ago, before he had written anything for the Baker Street Journal or met any of the Irregulars, he found himself at the meeting of the local Los Angeles "scion" society, the Curious Collectors of Baker Street. They were a small group, considerably less prestigious than the Irregulars. Meetings were open to the public. In an oak-lined bar, over glasses of peat-smelling scotch—all Sherlockians seemed to think that ice cubes were made from poison and were therefore to be distrusted, as far as Harold could tell—they called out quotes from Sherlock Holmes stories. One member would holler a quote—" 'I never guess. It is a shocking habit, destructive to the logical faculty,' " for instance. Then the man or woman to his right would have to provide the name of the story from which it came—in this case The Sign of the Four. If he answered correctly, it would then be his turn to yell out a quote, and then the turn of the Sherlockian to his right to supply the answer. Whoever erred first would find the next round on his or her tab. Given most Sherlockians' fondness for high-quality scotch, and for voluminous quantities of same, new and inexperienced members would find their American Express cards pressed to their limits.
"It's my first night as an Irregular," said Harold. "And my guess is, you're more than a little responsible for that. I think I'm the one who owes you a drink."
Jeffrey's grin returned. "I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about, kid. Now let's make use of the bar."
A few minutes later, Harold sat on the stool beside Jeffrey, sipping bourbon. A group of revelers had staged a nonviolent coup over the bar's piano and were sing-chanting an old Sherlockian ditty. The bartender regarded them with equal parts disapproval and bemusement.
"To all our friends canonical / On both sides of the crime / We'll take the cup and lift it up / To Holmes and Watson's time," sang the drunken group, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne." It was both off-key and arrhythmic, though Harold had to admit that he wasn't sure he'd ever heard a Sherlockian song sung with much regard for proper pitch.
Harold and Jeffrey were soon talking about the diary, which Harold suspected was all anyone was talking about that night. The singing and drinking were a distraction, but there was really only one thought haunting the minds of the hundreds of Sherlockians in the Algonquin Hotel: the lost diary of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The lost diary that had finally been found.
After Conan Doyle died, one volume of his diaries had gone missing. The author had kept a detailed daily diary of his activities for his entire life, and yet when his wife and children surveyed his papers after his death, one book was strangely not present. No worn, ink-drenched leather journal for the period from October 11 through December 23, 1900, could be found. And in the century that had passed since that day, not one of the hundreds of scholars and family members who had tried to find it had been able to do so. The lost diary was the holy grail of Sherlockian studies. It would be worth a fortune—perhaps as much as $10 million, if it ever went up for sale at Sotheby's. But more importantly, it would provide a window into the mind of the world's greatest mystery writer, at the height of his powers. For a hundred years, scholars had theorized about what was in the diary. A manuscript for a lost story? Some secret confession from Conan Doyle? And how on earth had it vanished so completely?
Three months before the dinner at the Algonquin, each member of the Irregulars had received a tantalizingly brief e-mail from Alex Cale, a fellow Irregular. "The great mystery is solved," it had read. "I have found the diary. Please make all necessary arrangements that I might present it, and the secrets contained within, at this year's conference."
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2010
- Page Count
- 368 pages