Do we need still another book about Sherlock Holmes or his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle? Yes — at least, if it’s by that highfunctioning bibliographer Mike Ashley. The dust jacket of “Adventures in the Strand,” his new book, describes Ashley as “one of the foremost historians of popular fiction,” which verges on understatement: In fact, no one alive knows more about British magazines published between roughly 1880 and 1940, a period so rich in genre fiction that it is sometimes called “the age of the storytellers.”
The Strand was by far the most famous periodical of those years, and its most famous contributor was Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Ashley’s book surveys the nearly 40-year relationship between the writer and magazine, extending from the Strand’s third issue, dated March 1891, to the retirement in 1930 of its great editor, Herbert Greenhough Smith. That third issue included Conan Doyle’s “The Voice of Science,” an inconsequential comedy of manners involving an early phonograph. Shortly afterward, though, the young author submitted a second story, a longish one that ran about 8,600 words. It began: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.”
Legend has it that after Smith finished reading “A Scandal in Bohemia,” he rushed into the office of George Newnes, the magazine’s founder, to announce that he had discovered the greatest short-story writer since Poe. Maybe. Among English writers, Kipling had been active for a few years, and he would probably get my vote. But Kipling didn’t create Sherlock Holmes, the most recognizable and beloved fictional character of modern times.
Conan Doyle had previously written two short novels about Holmes and Dr. John Watson — “A Study in Scarlet” (1887) and “The Sign of the Four” (1890) — and both had done reasonably well, though not well enough for their author to quit his day job as a doctor. Ashley, who loves financial as well as bibliographic detail, doesn’t shy away from talking about the money. He notes that Conan Doyle received 100 pounds for the latter novel, the equivalent of 10,000 pounds today, or more than $14,000. Given that the book was written in a month or two, this isn’t bad pay. Of course, within a few years, Conan Doyle would be receiving nearly as much for a single Sherlock Holmes short story. By 1901, the Strand would ante up 4,795 pounds (approximately $672,000 in current dollars) to serialize “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The following year, Collier’s magazine offered $45,000 — the equivalent today of $1.3 million — for just the U.S. serial rights to 13 new Holmes adventures. These were, as Ashley points out, unheard-of sums, but also money well spent. An issue of the Strand headlining the great detective could boost sales by 100,000 copies or more.
“Adventures in the Strand,” however, ranges far beyond the tales of Baker Street (unlike Robert Veld’s excellent but more narrowly focused monograph, “The Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes,” published by Wessex Press). In fact, Smith loyally printed almost anything Conan Doyle sent him. Thus Ashley devotes a chapter to the tall-tale-like exploits of Brigadier Gerard, a vainglorious but lovable Napoleonic hussar. “They show,” he writes, “better than the Holmes stories and perhaps better than any of Doyle’s other connected stories, his skills as a storyteller.” Other pages look at “Rodney Stone,” a boxing novel set in the Regency era of bare-knuckle bouts, and “The Tragedy of the Korosko,” a tense thriller about Western tourists on a Nile boat tour taken hostage by Islamist terrorists — it was timely then and, alas, still is.
In fact, Conan Doyle could, and did, turn his hand to almost every genre. Short mysteries and shockers were gathered into “Round the Fire Stories.” Most of his science fiction features the bombastic Professor George Edward Challenger, who discovered dinosaurs and cavemen in “The Lost World” and awaited cosmic disaster in “The Poison Belt.” While Conan Doyle always said that he was at his best in historical fiction, Ashley flat-out declares “Sir Nigel” a masterpiece: “It stands head-and-shoulders above many rivals for its remarkable historical detail, its depth of knowledge, its stirring characters, its vivid adventures, and its powerful evocation of a long-lost age.”
Okay, so maybe the man really was the greatest natural-born storyteller of the age — and, as it happens, not just in fiction. The Strand also serialized Conan Doyle’s autobiographical “Memoirs and Adventures” (highly recommended), several rather cutesy accounts of his children and home life (not recommended), a multivolume history of World War I and various credulous pieces about spiritualism and fairies.
While Ashley’s carefully researched book is almost a biography and might seem a complete survey of Conan Doyle’s oeuvre, it does — because of its focus — omit consideration of important works that failed to appear in the Strand. These include, most notably, a half-dozen early novels, such as the swashbuckling historical romance “The White Company,” an often hilarious romp about women’s emancipation called “Beyond the City” and the chiaroscuro portrait of a marriage entitled “A Duet, With an Occasional Chorus.” Also missing is “Through the Magic Door,” in which Conan Doyle describes his library and the books he loves most. His bluff enthusiasm is quite irresistible.
But any regrets over what Ashley doesn’t cover are minor, given all that is. “Adventures in the Strand” contains such plenty — and I haven’t even mentioned the illustrations, tables and bibliographic appendices — that any serious student of Arthur Conan Doyle or popular fiction will want to read it. What’s more, the British Library has produced a splendidly handsome volume.
Michael Dirda who reviews each Thursday in Style, will be away until July 21. He wrote the introduction for the Penguin edition of “Sherlock Holmes: The Novels” and is the author of the Edgar Award-winning “On Conan Doyle.”
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By Mike Ashley
British Library/Trafalgar Square. 288 pp. $34.95