Friday, 25 June 2010

Farewell, Mr Holmes

April 1927, The Strand magazine opens with an atmospheric frontispiece to Shoscombe Old Place - and look, Sherlock's wearing a deer-stalker. You didn't see that very often. I reckon the illustrations by Frank Wiles for the last few stories were far more responsible for the image we have of Sherlock Holmes, taken up by Basil Rathbone etc, than the original, more celebrated, ones by Sidney Paget. Who would have guessed, though, that this would be the last Holmes story ever to be written? Conan Doyle died three years later and never revisited his most lucrative creation.

Oddly enough, though, the previous month The Strand held a competition (see above) inviting readers to choose what they considered the dozen best Sherlock Holmes stories - the person whose selection most closely matched that of Doyle himself won £100. Although the selection could only be made from the four volumes of short stories already in print, with the series then running exempt, there was clearly no idea in anyone's heads that Holmes's adventures had come to an end.

Doyle's selection was not an easy one to guess. There are some odd choices, such as The Empty House, and many of the classics you might expect are absent. I think Doyle was keen to offer a selection throughout Holmes's history, since he was aware of the general (and not entirely fair) criticism that his stories post-Reichenbag Falls weren't as good as those which had preceded his hero's putative demise. Indeed, in the explanation he offers for his choice of stories, Doyle states that he wished he'd been able to include The Lion's Mane, since he considered it one of his very best. Personally, I think The Lion's Mane the poorest of the stories, so there you go. I was pleased to see The Devil's Foot in his list, though, because that is one of my favourites.

The winner of the competition succeeded in getting 10 of the 12 stories right (I bet Empty House and Reigate Squires weren't in his choice). Doyle's selection was, in the order he gave them: Speckled Band, Red-Headed League, Dancing Men, Final Problem, Scandal in Bohemia, Empty House, Five Orange Pips, Second Stain, Devil's Foot, Priory School, Musgrave Ritual, Reigate Squires.

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