When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press — Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.
We were great friends in those days, our friendship only interrupted when I went to live in America. He was an enthusiastic cricketer — he could have played for any first-class country — and he used to have cricket weeks at his place in the country, to which I was almost always invited. And after a day’s cricket and a big dinner he and I would discuss literature.
The odd thing was that though he could be expansive about his least known short stories – those in Round the Red Lamp, for instance — I could never get him to talk of Sherlock Holmes, and I think the legend that he disliked Sherlock must be true. It is with the feeling that he would not object that I have sometimes amused myself by throwing custard pies at that great man.
Recently I have taken up the matter of Holmes’s finances.
Let me go into the matter, in depth, as they say. I find myself arriving at a curious conclusion.
Have you ever considered the matter of Holmes’s financial affairs?
Here we have a man who evidently was obliged to watch the pennies, for when we are introduced to him he is, according to Doctor Watson’s friend Stamford, “bemoaning himself because he could not find someone to go halves in some nice rooms which he had found and which were too much for his purse.” Watson offers himself as a fellow lodger, and they settle down in — I quote — a couple of comfortable bedrooms and a large sitting room at 221B Baker Street.
Now I lived in similar rooms at the turn of the century, and I paid twenty-one shillings a week for bed, breakfast, and dinner. An extra bedroom no doubt made the thing come higher for Holmes and Watson, but thirty shillings must have covered the rent and vittles, and there was never any question of a man as honest as Watson failing to come up with his fifteen bob each Saturday. It follows, then, that allowing for expenditures in the way of Persian slippers, tobacco, disguises, revolver cartridges, cocaine, and spare violin strings Holmes would have been getting by on a couple of pounds or so weekly. And with this modest state of life he appeared to be perfectly content. Let us take a few instances at random and see what he made as a “consulting detective.”
In the very early days of their association, using it as his “place of business,” he interviewed in the sitting room “a grey-headed seedy visitor, who was followed by a slipshod elderly woman, and after that a railway porter in his velveteen uniform.” Not much cash in that lot, and things did not noticably improve later, for we find his services engaged by a stenographer, a city clerk, a Greek interpreter, a landlady, and a Cambridge undergraduate.
So far from making money as a consulting detective, he must have been a good deal out of pocket most of the time. In A Study in Scarlet, Inspector Gregson asks him to come to 3 Lauriston Gardens in the Brixton neighborhood, because there has been “a bad business” there during the night. Off goes Holmes in a hansom cab from Baker Street to Brixton, a fare of several shillings, dispatches a long telegram (another two or three bob to the bad), summons “half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs I ever clapped eyes on,” gives each of them a shilling, and tips a policeman half a sovereign. The whole affair must have cost him considerably more than a week’s rent at Baker Street, and no hope of getting any of it back from Inspector Gregson, for Gregson, according to Holmes himself, was “one of the smartest of all the Scotland Yarders.”
Inspector Gregson! Inspector Lestrade! Those clients! I found myself thinking a good deal about them, and it was not long before the truth dawned upon me, that they were merely cheap actors, hired to deceive doctor Watson, who had to be deceived because he had the job of writing the stories.
For what would the ordinary private investigator have said to himself when starting out in business? He would have said ‘Before I take on work for a client I must be sure that the client has the stuff. The daily sweetener and the little something down in advance are of the essence,’ and he would have had those landladies and those Greek interpreters out of his sitting room before you could say ‘bloodstain.’ Yet Holmes, who could not afford a pound a week for lodgings, never bothered. Significant!
Later the thing became absolutely farcical, for all pretence that he was engaged in a gainful occupation was dropped by himself and the clients. I quote Doctor Watson.
“He tossed a crumpled letter across the table to me. It was dated from Montague Place upon the preceding evening and ran thus:
Dear Mr. Holmes,
I am anxious to consult you as to whether or not I should accept a situation which has been offered to me as a governess.
I shall call at half-past ten tomorrow, if I do not inconvenience you.
Now, the fee an investigator could expect from a governess, even one in full employment, could scarcely be more than a few shillings, yet when two weeks later Miss Hunter wired “Please be at the Black Swan at Winchester at mid-day tomorrow,” Holmes dropped everything and sprang into the 9:30 train.
It all boils down to one question – Why is a man casual about money?
The answer is – Because he has a lot of it.
He pretended he hadn’t, but that was merely the illusion he was trying to create because he needed a front for his true activities. He was pulling the stuff in from another source. Where is the big money? Where it has always been, in crime. Bags of it, and no income tax. If you want to salt away a few million for a rainy day, you don’t spring into 9:30 trains to go and talk to governesses, you become a Master Criminal, sitting like a spider in the center of its web and egging your corps of assistants on to steal jewels and navel treaties. I saw daylight, and all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place. Holmes was Professor Moriarty.
What was that name again?
Do you mean that man who was forever oscillating his face from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion?
That’s the one.
But Holmes’ face didn’t forever oscillate from side to side in a curiously reptilian fashion.
Nor did Professor Moriarty’s.
Holmes said it did.
And to whom? To Doctor Watson, in order to ensure that the misleading description got publicity. Watson never saw Moriarty. All he knew about him was what Holmes told him on the evening of April 24,1891. And Holmes made a little slip on the occasion. He said that on his way to see Watson he had been attacked by a rough with a bludgeon. A face-oscillating napoleon of Crime, anxious to eliminate someone he disliked, would have thought up something better than roughs with bludgeons. Dropping cobras down the chimney is the mildest thing that would have occurred to him.
P.S. Just kidding, boys. Actually, like all the rest of you, I am never happier than when curled up with Sherlock Holmes, and I hope Messrs Ballantine will sell several million of him. As the fellow said, there’s no police like Holmes.