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Grolier Club Exhibitions

The Death of Holmes & Rebirth of Conan Doyle

Featured here are two remarkable holograph artifacts—the Norwood Notebook and a speech delivered in 1896 at the Authors’ Club—that offer insights into Conan Doyle’s literary development.

Conan Doyle filled many notebooks over his long career, entering personal events, social encounters, ideas, phrases, and research for his many literary endeavors. The Norwood Notebook is a wide-ranging collection of jottings, plus calendars for 1885–1896. The page for 1893 is its most (in)famous, where “Killed Holmes” is scrawled next to December, when the detective seemingly perished in “The Adventure of the Final Problem.”

But just as intriguing to me are the notebook’s other 49 pages, for they reveal the behind-the-scenes work of writing, how wide a net Conan Doyle cast for story ideas, what reading informed his thinking, his methods of work. It is here one can see private musings in transition to the germ of stories.

Equally revealing is an eight-page speech—displayed for the first time—that catches Conan Doyle at the midpoint of his life.

Free from the exertions of churning out Sherlock Holmes stories, Conan Doyle promptly turned his prodigious energies elsewhere: writing the popular Brigadier Gerard series, a collection of medical tales, Round the Red Lamp, the play A Story of Waterloo, the novels Rodney Stone and The Stark Munro Letters; giving a two-month lecture tour in America, and traveling with his wife to Switzerland and Egypt in hopes of conquering her tuberculosis.

Reading this manuscript is akin to hearing Conan Doyle speak. It is personal, good-humored, appreciative of his literary heroes, full of anecdotes about his early, struggling years as a writer, his true feelings about his most famous creation, his bemusement at the annoyances of celebrity, and kindly advice to fellow writers. There are few better ways to fall under Conan Doyle’s spell than by reading this speech.

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Norwood Notebook No. 1, 1885–1896
Idea Book. Generalia

Of all the artifacts on display here, the Norwood Notebook is the one in which I think Sherlockians are most likely to lose themselves in wonder: awed by Conan Doyle’s wide-ranging interests; tantalized by phrases, facts, character sketches, and story ideas; and eager, of course, for clues about Sherlock.

Two notes mention Sherlock Holmes specifically:

  • “Sherlock Holmes story about the country woman whose husband went up to London & disappeared. — She had travelled up by a later train the same night. — Found him with lover.” (There is a missing husband in “The Adventure of the Man with the Twisted Lip,” but no lover.)
  • “Holmes deductions from a stick —St. Bernard dog” (The Hound opens with remarkable deductions about the owner of a walking stick, whose dog is a curly-haired spaniel.)

While another characterization sounds Sherlockian, it never found its way into the Canon: “Detective could tell by difference in shade of ink that man addressing the letter had been uncertain of the address.”

Other notes range from thoughts about religion, poetic fragments, descriptive phrases, quotations from his reading, and snippets of dialogue, to oddities like figures on the UK’s arable acreage in 1896, and such bon mots as “R.S.V.P. Rump steak & veal pie.” Taken as a whole, Conan Doyle’s notes reveal the behind-the-scenes work of writing, where readers can see private musings in transition to the germ of stories.

When flipped and rotated, the notebook opens to calendar pages for 1885–1896, with entries that reduce momentous events to single words or succinct phrases.

  • The page for 1886 has “Wrote Study in Scarlet” and “Finished Girdlestone” at the top and “Study in Scarlet appeared” next to December.
  • In 1891, “Wimpole St.” next to April and May is a reference to his medical practice; alongside it, “Adventures S.H.” means his first Strand stories were under way. “Norwood” next to June signals his move to the suburbs and his impending decision to quit medicine. “Writing Beyond the City & S.H. Tales” appears alongside July and August.
  • In 1893, he notes his lecture tours in Switzerland and England, and accords two words to his wife’s diagnosis with tuberculosis: “Touie ill.” His father’s death that same year goes unremarked, and “Killed Holmes” is the last entry on the page.
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The Work of Storytelling
Eight-page holograph speech
Delivered at the Authors’ Club, June 29, 1896

Displayed for the first time, this eight-page holograph speech catches Conan Doyle at the midpoint of his life. It is best known for this good-humored, pithy remark about Holmes (who by this date had been “dead” for a year and a half ):

I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death but I hold that it was not murder but justifiable homicide in self defence [sic] since if I had not killed him he would certainly have killed me.

But please, peruse the whole manuscript, for Conan Doyle was an accomplished speaker, and it abounds in well-turned phrases. Consider these two:

I should like to say that I was led into the field of letters by a cheering ambition but I fear it is more correct to say that I was chased in by a howling creditor.

I sent out my manuscripts and they came back to me as straight & true as homing pigeons.

Happily for a collector like me, there’s also a mystery surrounding the manuscript after the Authors’ Club dinner. In a letter two weeks earlier, Conan Doyle had promised it to his friend Douglas Sladen, who, as the club’s honorary secretary, was seated at the head table with Conan Doyle. Its whereabouts, however, were uncertain until 2004, when the holograph text surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in London. Attached was an inscription, shown here, from Conan Doyle to Sladen with an odd date—November 1895—seven months before he delivered the speech. These puzzling facts pose an excellent Sherlockian conundrum.

The Death of Holmes & Rebirth of Conan Doyle