A good day to die

Readers can be like addicts. Once they fall in love with a fictional character, they want to read more, and more, and more about the character. A good-selling series of books can set a writer for life.

But it can be something of a gilded cage.

When Arthur Conan Doyle was a struggling young physician, he found himself sitting for rather long stretches between patients. So he started writing stories during his down time, and would sell them to various magazines of the time. He soon found that he had a knack for mysteries, not always crime stories, but stories in which there was a puzzle for the characters (and the readers) to solve. One day Conan Doyle started writing a long story about an independent detective. He based this detective on one of his medical school teachers, Dr Joseph Bell.

Bell was an early advocate of what would now be called forensic diagnosis. He told his students to pay more attention to physical clues about a patient’s illness. Close observation and deduction he said, were more important that what the patient told you. To demonstrate his method, he would have people pick out strangers in a crowd or on the street, and just by looking at the person (how they were dressed, wear patterns on their clothing, the presence or absence of callouses on various portions of hands, and so forth) deduce their occupation and recent activities.

Sherlock Holmes was a man who used Bell’s methods to solve crimes. A Study in Scarlet was published first as part of a Christmas Special (though it has no Christmas theme) in 1887. It was republished as a standalone book the next year. Sales were good enough to justify a second edition, more expensively bound, to be produced the next year. Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a second novel, The Sign of the Four (he was republished the next year in various journals throughout the empire, often with the slightly modified title The Sign of Four), which became an even bigger hit.

Conan Doyle was commissioned to write a series of short stories starring Sherlock Holmes for The Strand magazine, and they were published monthly from June 1891 through July 1892. As he neared the end of the series of 12 tales, Conan Doyle was finding himself growing tired of Sherlock. So he planned to kill him in the twelfth tale. Conan Doyle made the mistake of mentioning this fact at a dinner party at his mother’s home. His mother was upset, not so much about her son killing the character, but she felt the way he planned for Holmes to die (mauled to death by a vicious guard dog as Holmes and Watson rescued a young woman from a particularly disturbed couple) was entirely too ignoble for such a hero. She made him promise that Holmes would not die in the story. So, Conan Doyle changed the ending of the “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.”

The stories were so popular, that people were literally lining up outside the offices of the Strand on publication day to get a copy. Holmes was not the first literary character to evoke this response. Many years earlier (1841) people had lined up in anticipation of the final chapters of Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. The Strand commissioned more stories. Conan Doyle couldn’t really turn down the money, but he was getting even more tired of Holmes. So he kept completely mum about “The Final Problem,” in which Holmes is killed by Moriarty. Moriarty dies along with him.

“The Final Problem” has a lot of problems. Its internal logic is laughable (Holmes must disguise himself lest the killers find him, but he travels with Watson who is completely undisguised, and Watson booked their train, boat, and second train passages in his own name). Moriarty had never appeared in any story before this one, and there is absolutely no hint of his existence. That later prompted the producers of at least one television series that tried to follow the stories faithfully to insert Moriarty as the mastermind who supplied the plan to the robber in “The Red-Headed League,” just to get the character on the scene and in the viewers’ minds.

Conan Doyle never thought of his Holmes stories as serious literature, or of much importance. Which is why at different times he has Dr Watson refer to himself as “James” instead of “John.” In the original Moriarty story, the Professor’s first name is not mentioned, though the Professor’s brother, Colonel James Moriarty is mentioned by name. Later stories to feature Moriarty refer to him as James Moriarty. There are many other contradictions.

When Holmes was killed, the public was shocked. Some people dressed in full mourning clothes. People wrote Conan Doyle, pleading with him to bring back Holmes, and so on.

For years Conan Doyle ignored the pleas. Then, while visiting friends in the country, when one friend told about a local legend of a ghostly dog, Conan Doyle said it would make a wonderful basis of a Holmes story, but he could never write it since he’d killed Holmes. One of the other friends suggested the idea that the story could begin with Watson explaining that he had sworn never to tell this tale while certain innocent persons were alive, but now he could. So the story would be set before Holmes’ death in 1892, but could be published in 1902. And thus The Hound of the Baskervilles came to be.

The pressure to bring back Holmes increased (and the amount of money both American and British publishers were willing to offer for new Holmes stories skyrocketed), so in 1905 he relented. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” Watson is shocked (in 1894) to discover that Holmes is alive, having faked his own death in order to lure Moriarty’s confederates into mistakes so that the rest of the criminal organization can be dismantled. Thirteen stories are included along with “The Adventure of the Empty House” in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, featuring adventures that supposedly occurred after the time of Holmes’ faked death, but before the publication of his return.

Conan Doyle wrote a fourth Holmes novel, which marked the return of Moriarty, though this story is set in time before “The Final Problem.” Conan Doyle remained adamant that Moriarty’s death in “The Final Problem” was not faked. He wrote another 26 short stories about Holmes until his death in 1930.

Readers always wanted more.

So I wasn’t terribly surprised to read that the author of the Sookie Sackhouse/True Blood series is getting a lot of grief for announcing that the next novel is the finale, ending the series once and for all. I have never read the stories, nor seen the insanely popular HBO series. So I wasn’t aware that she had originally planned to kill one of the main characters and end the series in the ninth book some years ago.

Sometimes a story has run its course. Sometimes it’s time to tell a beloved character good-bye.

Even though I sympathize with her fans, I hope Charlaine Harris is happy with how she’s ended things, and goes on to tell whatever other stories she likes.

1 thought on “A good day to die

  1. Wow. I didn’t know this about Sherlock Holmes. Thank you for this. More recently, there were rumors abound that Harry Potter was going to be killed in the final book. Some, including me, still maintain that the only reason J. K. Rowling didn’t is because of pressure from fans. I admit though, I’m kinda glad she didn’t. I’d love to one day achieve the same feat as a writer; to make my readers care about the characters in my book.

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