The Eternal Mr. Holmes

FROM Australia, the United States, Russia, Japan, and many other countries, inquiries, birthday cards, and Christmas cards continue to pour in to 221B Baker Street, London. Although it is 104 years since Sherlock Holmes, the greatest and most enduring detective of all time, first took up residence at that address, his fame lives on and his expertise continues to be sought by those with mysteries to solve.

Such was the magic of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that those who write to the famous detective are convinced that he is a real person and that he is still to be found playing the violin and demonstrating his extraordinary powers of deduction in his Baker Street consulting rooms.

Alas, Sherlock Holmes is no longer at the old address, which is occupied by the Abbey National Building Society. Those who write to Mr. Holmes are informed by his personal secretary, Erica Harper, that he has retired to Sussex to keep bees and is taking no more cases.

Thus the fiction is maintained that Mr. Holmes, despite his advanced age and his inability to concern himself with solving crime, is a real person who lives on in the depths of the English countryside.

The great detective had an inauspicious start and his longevity would have astonished his creator. Conan Doyle was 27 when he began his first Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson story, ``A Study in Scarlet.'' It was rejected by the first three publishers to whom it was submitted. The fourth publisher gave him 25 pounds for the copyright, and it appeared the following year (1887) in a Christmas annual.

It would be pleasant to record that the birth of Sherlock Holmes instantly projected his creator to fame and fortune, but that did not happen. The literary critics of the day ignored the birth entirely. If it had not been for a more astute American editor, who read ``A Study in Scarlet'' and persuaded Doyle to write another detective novel, Sherlock Holmes might have been stifled at birth.

Doyle's second Sherlock Holmes novel, ``The Sign of Four,'' appeared in 1890. It had no success. It attracted no more attention than had his first. Incredible as it seems today, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were to be had by publishers and editors almost for the asking for more than five years. Genius was there, staring them in the face, yet they failed to recognize it.

Then, in 1891, Conan Doyle sent, through his literary agent, ``A Scandal in Bohemia'' to the Strand magazine, which had begun publication the year before. The story appeared in the magazine's July issue and Sherlock Holmes achieved fame at last.

When Doyle had written six stories for the magazine, the editor asked for more. Doyle refused to supply them. He was more interested in writing historical novels than detective stories. Eventually, in response to demands from readers of the magazine, he wrote another six.

As he approached the end of the second series he said he thought of killing off Holmes because ``he takes my mind from better things.'' By that he meant his historical novels.

In 1893, Conan Doyle went for a holiday to Switzerland and on his return he disposed of Holmes in a duel with the arch criminal Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.

THE death of Holmes was greeted by a gasp of dismay that echoed from London to New York. Young men paraded the streets of London with crepe mourning bands round their hats. A flood of angry and abusive letters descended on the author.

In the United States, Keep Holmes Alive societies were formed, and cables were sent to Doyle begging him to write more Sherlock Holmes stories.

It was 10 years before Doyle relented. An American publisher offered $5,000 a story for as many new stories as he could get. Doyle brought Holmes back to life by stating that, instead of falling to the foot of the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes had been saved by clinging to a small but perceptible ledge.

Since that happy resurrection, the Holmes and Dr. Watson saga, aided by film, radio, and television, has continued to gain strength and credibility. It will never die.

Judging by the letters that continue to clamor for the attention of the great detective, the writers are firmly convinced that, behind the fog-enshrouded windows of 221B Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes is still calling urgently: ``Come, Watson, come. The game is afoot.''

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