Holmes's chronological home

Whilst I have no objection to screen adaptations of Holmes taking place outside of the Victorian era (i.e. Rathbone, Wontner, Cumberbatch), I have always maintained that a screen Holmes series could not be definitive unless it was Victorian based.

I was very surprised to see (or, I should say, observe) that this point of view was one that clearly struck a chord with Conan Doyle himself.

According to the book Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Cinema: A Critical Study of the Film Adaptations by Scott Nollen, Conan Doyle's only real objection to the silent Holmes films starring Eille Norwood was that they were set in the 1920s rather than the Victorian era.

The idea that Conan Doyle believed that Holmes belonged in the Victorian/Edwardian era is also demonstrated by the stories themselves. Even though he published Holmes stories up until 1927 the only one set after 1910 (the end of the Edwardian era) was His Last Bow which was set in 1914 on the eve of the First World War.

As we know, Holmes retired after 1903 to keep bees in Sussex. Following this his only adventure (other than his pre-war adventure) was The Lion's Mane which took place on the Sussex coast (in 1907).

All the other stories released after 1908 were set no later than 1903. Conan Doyle could have written adventures set in later years but chose not to. Why?

Perhaps it was because he knew that part of the charm of the stories was their London setting. Maybe he thought that having Holmes and Watson investigate cases from Sussex would seem less impressive (and it was undeniably less likely that Watson would respond positively to telegrams demanding his immediate attendance if they required that he head to the south coast every time).

Perhaps Conan Doyle realised that 221B Baker Street was as important a participant as his two heroes. If this was something that occurred to him it left him with two options. He could bring Holmes out of retirement and move him back to London or he could pre-date the adventures. It was predicatable that he would choose the latter.

Conan Doyle did not wish to create the idea in the minds of readers that regular Holmes adventures were likely. The stories that make up the last two collections were published far more sporadically than the first three series. This was because Conan Doyle was knocking (not an unfair word) them out as and when (often motivated by the money which helped fund his spiritualist crusade) rather than at a regular rate which he had done when Holmes had first appeared in The Strand.

Was his decision possibly driven by Holmes's age? Holmes's work was mostly cerebral but he was also a man of action. We know, from His Last Bow, that Holmes was 60 in 1914 and hence was 49 at the time he retired. Did Conan Doyle consider that an aging Holmes would be of less interest to his readers?



  1. Interesting! I don't know much about Sherlock Holmes, but he seems to have a pull no matter what age he is.

  2. A really interesting question! I remember reading a comment from Laurie King on this issue. She argued that the catastrophic outcome of WWI obliterated the Victorian sensibility and way of life, rendering Holmes’ --and the readers’--faith in deductive reasoning and logic obsolete. No longer can we believe that, possessed with the correct facts and knowledge, reason will win the day. I found this a very persuasive argument.

  3. I agree with the above comment: Lauri R King put it very well. I don't quite camp on the 'older Holmes' not beign attractive to read about, and Ms King herself has him counting down to 70, and most readers still eagerly await every book; and the illustrations in The Strand never had him looking a day younger than 35, possibly even 40. Personally, I believe it was more of a safety net for Conan Doyle... he could write cash-cow stories when he needed the money, but didn't have to worry about people getting their hopes up on 'new adventures' in the current time. Bringing him out of retirement would probably have meant mixing Holmes up with serious post-war events... and Holmes was well loved, but nothing in the war was fun enough to read about, at least not right after it.

  4. I completely agree with rte-175 above, and I also recall the note that Conan Doyle put on his last connection; he did not want to sour his creation to the reader, make them annoyed and bored with it as 'too much of a good thing'.

    While the demand for Holmes never ceized, this was possibly why: in a rather smart move, he closed Holmes' career while demonstrating that he was still very much a man of action and in the middle of things,leaving readers wanting more. Not giving an ending that gave closure ensured his legacy. Authors are still trying to reach that closure today, but since the original creator never gave it, there will alway be a crack in the window to crawl through.

  5. Doyle wrote the play "The Crown Diamond" early in 1921 (it debuted in May 1921). It is the basis for "The Mazarin Stone". In the play, Holmes has a unique safe alarm. Watson is visiting 221B, Holmes is out. While Watson is waiting a woman arrives to see the detective. She is very nosy and rude. There is this stage direction: (She approaches it [the safe], and as she does the lights go out, and the room is in darkness save for "DON'T TOUCH" in red fire over the safe. Four red lights spring up, and between them the inscription "DON'T TOUCH!" After a few seconds the lights go on again, and HOLMES is standing beside WATSON.) Electricity and neon at Baker Street! Doyle set the one act play in the present day. Perhaps he thought that films should be period, but he himself modernized Holmes for the stage. As "The Crown Diamond" is bad and "The Mazarin Stone" worse, there may be a lesson in there somewhere.