Skip to main content
Grolier Club Exhibitions

Conan Doyle’s Return to Sherlock Holmes

Conan Doyle set aside his reservations about Sherlock Holmes when the American magazine Collier’s Weekly made him an irresistible offer: $25,000 for six stories, $30,000 for eight, or $45,000 for 13. Of the objects displayed here, the correspondence from Conan Doyle to his literary agent, the artwork of Frederic Dorr Steele, and four story manuscripts each provide a unique lens for appreciating the stories in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

More letters from Conan Doyle to his literary agent A. P. Watt appear here than in any other area of the exhibition, and reading them feels like eavesdropping on urgent telephone calls. They bring a sense of immediacy, and even drama, to the business of shepherding the stories into print. They underscore Watt’s importance and success as the intermediary between Conan Doyle, the Strand, and Collier’s.

It is a pleasing coincidence that my four Return manuscripts, collected over a 30-year period, just happen to be in publication order, comprising the third through sixth stories. Reading these stories in manuscript delivers an elemental thrill. It slows you down, making you especially susceptible to the storyteller’s art. You hear the author’s voice through his clear hand, sensing the growing presence of the characters and places he’s brought to life; you feel your own pulse quicken as discoveries and tension mount.

Steele’s atmospheric illustrations offer another way of inhabiting these stories. As America’s foremost illustrator of Sherlock Holmes, he brought a bold, new look to the detective, and to magazine design. He modeled his Sherlock on Gillette, even though he had not seen Gillette's play or met the actor in person. Instead he worked from stage photographs, using live models to capture particular poses. The two eventually met in 1905, and in 1929 Gillette posed for a portrait for his Farewell Tour program.

Unsigned cartoon, In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes

Unsigned cartoon, In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes
From a clothbound collection covering Vol. 1, 1893–1894
To-Day Magazine, No. 8, December 30, 1893, p. 10
London: W. A. Dunkerley, 1893

This full-page cartoon in a popular humor magazine captures the dismay and incredulity that greeted Holmes’s apparent demise in 1893—and the hope that he might somehow return. It pictures an agitated George Newnes, publisher of the Strand Magazine, and a pensive Arthur Conan Doyle beside the detective’s coffin. The caption reads:

Editor Newnes: “Great Scott! Doyle, is he dead?”
The Corpse: “It’s all right, guv’nor; the doctor knows what to do when you want me.”

Holograph letter to P. F. Collier

Holograph letter to P. F. Collier
On Hindhead stationery, April 8, 1903

In this letter, Conan Doyle renews contact with publisher Peter F. Collier. The two men had a long and cordial acquaintance, and Conan Doyle’s familiarity and good cheer are evident as he shares his progress: “... I’ve actually resuscitated Sherlock, and run to over 9000 words doing so — so I hope you won’t regret your bargain. ...”

As a Christmas gift five years later, Conan Doyle presented Collier with the manuscript of “The Adventure of Black Peter,” one of four story manuscripts from The Return of Sherlock Holmes on display here. The magazine’s dealings with Conan Doyle lasted more than two decades; it carried subsequent Sherlock Holmes adventures as well as other work by Conan Doyle through 1924.

Holograph letter to A. P. Watt

Holograph letter to A. P. Watt
On Hindhead stationery, undated

While directing his literary agent in ongoing discussions with Collier’s, Conan Doyle also wanted Watt to secure British serial rights for the Return.

"The Holmes business seems quite in order now. . . . I hope to have handed in most of the stories before October — so we can safely contract to do the first by that date."

Holograph letter to A. P. Watt

Holograph letter to A. P. Watt
On London’s Grand Hotel stationery, May 20, 1903

Conan Doyle approached the new stories with his usual diligence, sending each to Watt as soon as the ink was dry. He cautioned Watt that the order in which he produced the tales would not necessarily be their publication order:

"Would you let Collier’s know that I don’t want the order of delivery to be necessarily the order of appearance and that I am trying to do them a good Xmas one, which would mean that the last delivered would be postponed till after it. The Strand know about this."

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Advertising flyer produced by The Strand Magazine
London: George Newnes, Ltd., September 1903

The Strand alerted its readers to the momentous news of Sherlock Holmes’s return in its September 1903 issue. Its 9 × 6-inch advertisement shares a visual kinship with its announcement of the Hound two years earlier: no illustration, no color, just text. But there’s a little more sizzle in its message.

Holograph letter to A. P. Watt

Holograph letter to A. P. Watt
On Hindhead stationery, Nov. 10, 1903

Having turned in eight stories to kick off the series in October, Conan Doyle agreed to deliver four more, telling Watt:

"You can now Contract for the four extra Stories"

Holograph letters to A. P. Watt Holograph letters to A. P. Watt Holograph letters to A. P. Watt

Holograph letters to A. P. Watt
On Hindhead stationery, Nov. 25 and 26, 1903

Tetchy about when he intended to write the remaining four stories and turn them in, Conan Doyle wrote Watt three letters in two days, flexing his authorial muscle:

"We always said that if we undertook the 12 stories it was with the proviso that we could stop at any point. . . . I preserve the option of doing 12, but at present I don’t want to burden my mind by the promise. . . ."

In the next letter he reminds Watt of his reason for not wanting to “burden” his mind: he had begun campaigning to represent a trio of Scottish border towns in Parliament. And in the last of these letters, he expressed concern about not writing if he felt “wearied out.”

First appearances of four Return stories First appearances of four Return stories

First appearances of four Return stories
Held in manuscript in the Miranker collection

These Collier’s Weekly magazines featured Frederic Dorr Steele’s artwork for the first appearances of the Return stories whose manuscripts are in the Miranker collection. They reached the public a few days before the US and UK Strand Magazines.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
First UK edition
London: George Newnes Limited, 1905

One of 15,000 copies priced at six shillings, with a dark blue cloth cover, titled in gilt. After Newnes stopped publishing books in 1906, except for his sixpenny editions, the remaining sheets went to Smith, Elder and Company. The firm reissued the book in 1907 with a new title page and the same covers, though the Smith Elder imprint appeared on the spine.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
First US edition
New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1905

McClure’s edition, priced at $1.50, features a dramatic image stamped on the brown cloth cover: Holmes’s face is silhouetted in black against a latticed window lit by yellow light. The edition contained 13 illustrations by Charles Raymond Macauley, house illustrator for McClure, Phillips.

“The Adventure of the Priory School”

“The Adventure of the Priory School”
Original holograph manuscript, 1904
Notebook bound in plain vellum over boards, 8¼ × 6½ in

A favorite story of mine, for Holmes’s many deductions, his logic at once mystifying and unassailable. His powers at their sharpest, his eye for detail, his knowledge of the arcane, his ability to see past red herrings and pursue genuine clues—all are on display. Where the whole school assumed the missing German master had kidnapped the Duke’s son, Holmes determined from the tracks left by his bicycle that he had gone to the boy’s rescue. Where cattle tracks seemed to crisscross the moor, Holmes deduced that cunningly shod horses, not cows, had been there. When the Duke’s secretary left his bicycle outside the Fighting Cock Inn, Holmes saw that the tire implicated him in kidnapping, extortion, and murder.

“The Adventure of the Priory School”

Sidney Paget, “The Adventure of the Priory School” Original artwork
Gouache, crayon, and charcoal on paper, 11 × 7 in
The Strand Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 158, February 1904 London: George Newnes, 1904

This scene from “The Priory School” displays Paget’s quintessential artistry. It is dark, anxious, and suspenseful. With a single detail—a burst of light from a match—it captures a new twist in the story of a missing child. For the light reveals a patched Dunlop tire, identifying it as the second bicycle Holmes tracked on the moor. And as Holmes has now seen its rider, he deduced the identity of the kidnapper.

“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”

“The Adventure of the Dancing Men”
Original holograph manuscript, undated but 1903
53 leaves bound in plain vellum over boards 8½ × 6¼ in

The story of how Conan Doyle conjured the dancing men cipher is charming, revealing him to be as observant and as alert to oddities as his detective. While staying at the Hill House Hotel in May 1903, Conan Doyle signed the hotel’s autograph book and came across drawings by two children, Gilbert and Edith Alice Cubitt. The boy had drawn lines of letters decorated with little faces, and his sister had adapted musical notes into remarkably expressive stick figures to tell a brief melodrama. Conan Doyle conflated those elements into his dancing men and also gave the surname Cubitt to this tale’s heroine.

“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”

“The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”
Original holograph manuscript, 1904
Two notebooks bound in plain vellum over boards
8 × 6¼ in

The manuscript of “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist” is stunning. Within the plain vellum binding that Conan Doyle commissioned from Spealls are two preserved Paragon Exercise Books with the handwritten story, their original decorated wrappers intact. Inscriptions abound, as do copious revisions. Conan Doyle made some 70 changes to his manuscript which, among other things, gave the story a new title (with “Cyclist” replacing the crossed-out word “Man”) and the villain a new name (with “Woodley” replacing “Murphy”).

“The Adventure of Black Peter”

“The Adventure of Black Peter”
Original holograph manuscript, 1904
23 loose pages, 12⅝ × 8 in, fastened with a brad at top left corner
With holograph note to publisher Peter F. Collier, signed December 1908

Different in appearance than my other Return manuscripts, “The Adventure of Black Peter” was written on 23 loose ruled foolscap folio pages, fastened with a brad at the upper left corner. Conan Doyle gifted the manuscript to publisher Peter F. Collier prior to having his Holmes manuscripts bound. It remains one of the few in its original form. Accompanying the manuscript is a note from Conan Doyle that reads: “To Mr. Collier with best Xmas wishes Dec. 1908.”

Holograph letter to an unknown recipient

Holograph letter to an unknown recipient
On Crowborough stationery, December 10, 1913

Throughout his life, Conan Doyle did his writing with a pen. A few years into the new century, he began having his holograph manuscripts professionally typed, sending typescripts to his publishers and retaining the loose sheets or student exercise notebooks in which he most often wrote his stories. As manuscripts piled up, an unknown correspondent planted an idea for turning them to good use, and Conan Doyle acted on this with enthusiasm.

I admire Conan Doyle’s puckish term for the buyer he longs for, that “capricious Millionaire,” and his description of the bound volumes wearing “tidy white coats.”

The Return of Sherlock Holmes The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Fourth US edition in cloth
New York: A. Wessels Company, 1907

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Fifth US edition in wrappers
New York: A. Wessels Company, 1907


McClure sold the cheap-edition rights in 1907 to A. Wessels Company, which issued an edition in boards, published with McClure’s leftover sheets, as well as 15,000 copies in wrappers. Wessels was soon sold to Grosset & Dunlap, and the remaining sheets were reissued several times with the original Wessels title page.

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Third US edition, in dust jacket
New York: Doubleday, Page and Company, 1906

Ever plagued by financial problems, McClure transferred the popular-edition rights to Doubleday, Page and Company in 1906. This Doubleday reprint has a utilitarian peach-colored dust jacket; the same cover image is stamped on green cloth. McClure left book publishing three years later, selling the business and his books rights to Doubleday.

The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge

Frederic Dorr Steele, The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge
Complete set of original artwork, 1908, for Collier’s Weekly

There are only two Sherlock Holmes stories for which all of the Frederick Dorr Steele illustrations are known, and “Wisteria Lodge” is the only one for which all seven original illustrations are together in a single collection. They were among a group of 22 Sherlockian originals sold by Steele in 1922 for $300 to Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs, an early Sherlockian and longtime admirer of Steele’s work.

Briggs never displayed the cover illustration for the story because his wife found it too spooky. I felt a special bond with my predecessor in collecting when my younger daughter was similarly distressed by the same drawing; as a consequence it hung for years with a dishtowel draped over its frame.

Conan Doyle’s Return to Sherlock Holmes