Holmes imitators - A blessing or a curse for Conan Doyle?

Once Sherlock Holmes achieved popularity and Arthur Conan Doyle began to make serious money, it was a given that other people would attempt to take a slice of the 'literary detective' cake. As I mention in The Norwood Author, two detectives appeared in 1893 - the same year that Holmes was destined to leave the stage (as it were). The first was Loveday Brooke who debuted in The Ludgate Monthly in February 1893. In an evident attempt to stand out, the character was a lady detective which must have been pretty revolutionary at the time.

In what appears as an attempt to present readers with a familiar experience, the illustrator clearly went for a Paget style for his accompanying drawings. The above drawing (from The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep) is very much the same as the train carriage drawings that Paget drew for The Boscombe Valley Mystery and Silver Blaze.

However the writer's efforts were not enough. The Pall Mall Gazette of April 6th 1894 reviewed the stories (presumably when they were compiled into book form) and said that even though they were as good as similar stories (presumably not including Holmes) they relied too much on a fixed pattern which the reviewer defined as follows:

'avoid the obvious criminal: connect your case if possible with some absolutely irrelevant advertisement read by chance in the morning paper: score off everyone else around, but remember last of all that it is possible even for an amateur detective to be a bore.'

In December 1893, just as Holmes (supposedly) went over the falls of Reichenbach, a more successful would-be replacement emerged. His name was Sexton Blake. His similarities to Sherlock Holmes were such that he was even referred to as 'the poor man's Sherlock Holmes'.

In fact, the similarities were so startling that it is a wonder that legal proceedings were not started by Conan Doyle or The Strand. Blake's appearance was virtually identical to Paget's Holmes, he eventually (but not initially) had a residence on Baker Street, he had a less intelligent sidekick who was a man of action and his name even had the same number of syllables (which I believe was probably a conscious decision - the same of course was true for Loveday Brooke).

Blake suffered (or did not depending on your point of view) from having no single author. Consequently he was able to have a lot more adventures but naturally his character was subject, to some degree, to variation brought about by so many different author perspectives.

Initially, as I suggest in The Norwood Author, Conan Doyle was probably relieved that other detectives were coming up. He may have hoped that the public would latch on to one or more of them and that this would reduce the demand for Holmes's resurrection. However, when it finally came to Holmes's resurrection (in The Hound of the Baskervilles) it is tempting to wonder whether Conan Doyle had any fears that these new detectives would dent his income. As we now know he had no cause to worry - the name Sherlock Holmes would always draw people in - but he may well have had some concerns even if he did not express them publicly.


The Norwood Author (Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository). Kindle, iPad and other e-reader formats are available.

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