The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes (from the 223B Casebook)

“So please grip this fact with your cerebral tentacle, / The doll and its maker are never identical.” So wrote Arthur Conan Doyle in 1912 in a poetical rebuttal to a critic’s accusations that he borrowed from Poe’s stories only to have Holmes’ dismiss his detective-hero Dupin as “very inferior.” We know, of course, that Doyle admired Poe. To an American reporter’s question about whether he had been influenced by Poe he replied, “immensely!”

John Cusack portrays Edgar Allen Poe

When your author has appeared in movies more often than you, it’s time for a gritty reboot.

He wrote later: “If every man who receives a cheque for a story which owes its springs to Poe were to pay a tithe to a monument for the master; he would have a pyramid as big as that of Cheops.”

Nevertheless, those who could not distinguish between the theft of others’ words and the use of ideas to create original works were fond of bashing Holmes. Today’s example from the February 1905 issue of “The Critic” comes from Arthur Chapman (1873-1935), the newspaper columnist and cowboy poet whose most notable work is “Out Where the West Begins.”

Stories from the 223B casebook — stories published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — are published here every Monday and Friday. The up-to-date list can be found here.

In all my career as Boswell to the Johnson of Sherlock Holmes, I have seen the great detective agitated only once. We had been quietly smoking and talking over the theory of thumbprints, when the landlady brought in a little square of pasteboard at which Holmes glanced casually and then let drop on the floor. I picked up the card, and as I did so I saw that Holmes was trembling, evidently too agitated either to tell the landlady to show the visitor in or to send him away. On the card I read the name:

Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin,

While I was wondering what there could be in that name to strike terror to the heart of Sherlock Holmes, M. Dupin himself entered the room. He was a young man, slight of build and unmistakably French of feature. He bowed as he stood in the doorway, but I observed that Sherlock Holmes was too amazed or too frightened to return

the bow. My idol stood in the middle of the room, looking at the little Frenchman on the threshold as if M. Dupin had been a ghost. Finally, pulling himself together with an effort, Sherlock Holmes motioned the visitor to a seat, and, as M. Dupin sunk into the chair, my friend tumbled into another and wiped his brow feverishly.

“Pardon my unceremonious entrance, Mr. Holmes,” said the visitor, drawing out a meerschaum pipe, filling it, and then smoking in long, deliberate puffs. “I was afraid, however, that you would not care to see me, so I came in before you had an opportunity of telling your landlady to send me away.”

To my surprise Sherlock Holmes did not annihilate the man with one of those keen, searching glances for which he has become famous in literature and the drama. Instead he continued to mop his brow and finally mumbled, weakly:

“But—but—I thought y-y-you were dead, M. Dupin.”

“And people thought you were dead, too, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said the visitor, in his high, deliberate voice. “But if you can be brought to life after being hurled from a cliff in the Alps, why can’t I come out of a respectable grave just to have a chat with you? You know my originator, Mr. Edgar Allan Poe, was very fond of bringing people out of their graves.”

“Yes, yes, I’ll admit that I have read that fellow, Poe,” said Sherlock Holmes testily. “Clever writer in some things. Some of his detective stories about you are not half bad, either.”

“No, not half bad,” said M. Dupin, rather sarcastically, I thought. “Do you remember that little story of ‘The Purloined Letter,’ for instance? What a little gem of a story that is! When I get to reading it over I forget all about you and your feeble imitations. There is nothing forced there. Everything is as sure as fate itself—not a false note—not a thing dragged in by the heels. And the solution of it all is so simple that it makes most of your artifices seem clumsy in comparison.”

“But if Poe had such a good thing in you, M. Dupin, why didn’t he make more of you?” snapped Sherlock Holmes.

“Ah, that’s where Mr. Poe proved himself a real literary artist,” said M. Dupin, puffing away at his eternal meerschaum. “When he had a good thing he knew enough not to ruin his reputation by running it into the ground. Suppose, after writing ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’ around me as the central character, he had written two or three books of short stories in which I figured. Then suppose he had let them dramatize me and further parade me before the public. Likewise suppose, after he had decently killed me off and had announced that he would write no more detective stories, he had yielded to the blandishments of his publishers and had brought out another interminable lot of tales about me? Why, naturally, most of the stuff would have been worse than mediocre, and people would have forgotten all about that masterpiece, ‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue,’ and also about ‘The Purloined Letter,’ so covered would those gems be in a mass of trash.”

“Oh, I’ll admit that my string has been overplayed,” sighed Sherlock Holmes moodily, reaching for the hypodermic syringe, which I slid out of his reach. “But maybe Poe would have overplayed you if he could have drawn down a dollar a word for all he could write about you.”

“Poor Edgar—poor misunderstood Edgar!—maybe he would,” said Dupin, thoughtfully. “Few enough dollars he had in his stormy life. But at the same time, no matter what his rewards, I think he was versatile genius enough to have found something new at the right time. At any rate he would not have filched the product of another’s brain and palmed it off as his own.”

“But great Scott, man!” cried Sherlock Holmes, “you don’t mean to say that no one else but Poe has a right to utilize the theory of analysis in a detective story, do you?”

“No, but see how closely you follow me in all other particulars. I am out of sorts with fortune and so are you. I am always smoking when thinking out my plans of attack, and so are you. I have an admiring friend to set down everything I say and do, and so have you. I am always dazzling the chief of police with much better theories than he can ever work out, and so are you.”

“I know, I know,” said Sherlock Holmes, beginning to mop his forehead again. “It looks like a bad case against me. I’ve drawn pretty freely upon you, M. Dupin, and the quotation marks haven’t always been used as they should have been where credit was due. But after all I am not the most slavish imitation my author has produced. Have you ever read his book, ‘The White Company ‘ and compared it with ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’? No? Well do so, if you want to get what might be termed ‘transplanted atmosphere.'”

“Well, it seems to be a great age for the piratical appropriating of other men’s ideas,” said M. Dupin, resignedly. “As for myself, I don’t care a rap about your stealing of my thunder, Sherlock Holmes. In fact, you’re a pretty decent sort of a chap, even though you are trying my patience with your continual refusal to retire; and besides you only make me shine the brighter in comparison. I don’t even hold that ‘Dancing Men’ story against you, in which you made use of a cryptogram that instantly brought up thoughts of ‘The Gold-Bug.'”

“But you did not figure in ‘The Gold-Bug,'” said Sherlock Holmes with the air of one who had won a point.

“No, and that merely emphasizes what I have been telling you—that people admire Poe as a literary artist owing to the fact that he did not overwork any of his creations. Bear that in mind, my boy, and remember, when you make your next farewell, to see that it is not one of the Patti kind, with a string to it. The patience of even the American reading public is not exhaustless, and you cannot always be among the ‘six best-selling books’ of the day.”

And with these words, M. Dupin, pipe, and all, vanished in the tobacco-laden atmosphere of the room, leaving the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, looking at me as shamefacedly as a schoolboy who had been caught with stolen apples in his possession.