In the nearly three years that I’ve been a Sherlockian, I’ve heard quite a few people explain, “I’m a Sherlockian, not a Doylean” when questions regarding Watson’s literary agent come up in conversation. To be honest, I don’t think I can claim to be a Doylean either; I have yet to read The White Company or Micah Clarke, for example, although I’m sure I will someday, simply from a sense of obligation. My loyalties and affections remain firmly with the Great Detective.* Still, the aim of this blog is to create as many “well-read Sherlockians” as possible, and I firmly believe that the more we know about the world our heroes inhabit, the better we can come to know them–and that includes learning about the publishing phenomenon that introduced them to the world. I know that some of you are thinking about skipping this review altogether; you don’t want to see “how the sausage is made.” But, really, you can look at this book in one of two ways: a history of how a young, not-that-successful doctor and two men who were at the top of the British publishing game created a literary sensation…or the account of how a talented literary agent was able to find the perfect medium for a physician’s tales of the adventures he shared with his uniquely brilliant best friend. Take your pick!
Many fans of Sherlock Holmes enjoy doing research, which they then present on their blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, or submit to their local society’s journal. The most ambitious and confident aim for ASH’s Serpentine Muse, the BSI’s Baker Street Journal, or the SHSL’s Journal.** Robert Veld thought he was just putting together a little piece on the Strand for The Sydney Passengers’ Log. Instead, he wound up with an entire book analyzing the deep, and mutually beneficial relationship between Sherlock Holmes and The Strand Magazine.
The Strand Magazine (we’ll start calling it The Strand now, for simplicity’s sake) was the brainchild of Herbert Greenhough Smith, at that time working as an editor at another literary magazine, The Temple Bar. Greenhough Smith saw room in the British market for a magazine specializing in the best stories and articles from the foreign press, translated for English-speakers–a kind of up-market Readers’ Digest.*** After fulfilling his professional obligation by suggesting this idea to Temple Bar publisher George Bentley (and being refused), he shopped it to a competitor, George Newnes. They agreed on particulars in August of 1890, and The Strand was on the newstands by December 10th.
This may seem incredibly fast, particularly given the 19th century technology involved. George Newnes, however, had never sat on a good idea in his life. Nine years before, as a furniture salesman with no publishing experience whatsoever, Newnes had a flash of inspiration: he wanted to create a paper which contained the best of all the popular British papers. It would be affordable, wholesome, and easy to read while commuting on the train. He would call it Tit-Bits.
Unfortunately, no one else seemed to think his brainchild had any future; he couldn’t obtain any financial backers. Undeterred, Newnes opened a vegetarian restaurant in a Manchester cellar. He ran out of food the very first day, and soon built a successful business which he sold at a profit just a few months later to fund his dream. A genius at promotion with an instinct for what everyday people liked to read, he was able, within a year’s time, to create a paper with sales running into the tens of thousands. It had to give him tremendous satisfaction to be able to refuse a purchase offer from one of the companies which had initially refused to fund him.†
With tested, mature talent behind it, The Strand met with even greater success. Although it was originally intended to showcase foreign talent, Greenhough Smith’s practice of not letting authors hang on for months waiting for a verdict, coupled with premium pay, meant that British writers soon made it one of their favorite targets. The list of authors featured during The Strand’s sixty years contains some of the most talented names of the time (or any time, for that matter): Kipling, Wodehouse,Wells, Christie, Sayers, Allingham, Wallace, Simenon, and even Churchill. Yes, that Churchill.
Of course, Greenhough Smith waded through plenty of other submissions, not all of them reaching the level of quality that his magazine was known for. Sadly, we have no idea what sort of unagented slush he had to plough through every day, but it was bad enough that when he opened a packet from A.P. Watt, containing a couple of stories from a relatively new writer (one Arthur Conan Doyle, MD) he was immediately struck by their obvious quality:††
Good story writers were scarce [Greenhough Smith remembered], and here to an editor, jaded with wading through reams of impossible stuff, comes a gift from Heaven, a godsend in the shape of a story that brought a gleam of happiness into the despairing life of this weary editor.†††
From here, Veld traces the decades-long relationship between Sherlock Holmes and The Strand in great detail, as well as the complicated dealings Conan Doyle himself had with the detective. It’s conventional wisdom, for example, that Sir Arthur believed Holmes was keeping him from achieving his true destiny as a writer of great historical romances.‡ While this is true, it’s also just a part of the story. Sherlockians sometimes point out how various canon stories share similar plots. Now this is doubtless because, criminals tending to the unoriginal, Holmes simply ran into similar cases in his practice…or it could be because it’s difficult for a writer to come up with new and unusual puzzles over the course of forty years; the brain, like Mycroft, tends to have its rails and runs on them. Veld shows us a bit of Arthur’s creative process, his frustrations, and the way he was inspired by friends like Bertram Fletcher Robinson and Greenhough Smith who, for all that he tended towards the antisocial, became more to his star author than just the man with the red pencil. And while the detective and his Boswell eventually retired and the doctor and his editor inevitably passed on, The Strand and Sherlock Holmes continued their symbiotic dance until the magazine folded in 1950, the damage wrought by war and competition too much for it to sustain. In his concluding chapter, Veld takes the time to describe these last twenty years, which closed, rather touchingly, with an expert rendering of 221B by Ernest Short in The Strand’s final issue.
Writing straight history (as opposed to the type in which the author allows herself some imaginative reconstruction) is a definite skill; it’s hard to pull off without burying the audience in a sandstorm of dry, academic prose. Veld takes what many might find heavy going–the history of a magazine–and makes it fascinating without resorting to gossipy stories and speculation. He stays focussed, not veering into interesting tidbits about, say, Conan Doyle’s psychometric investigation of fellow Strand author, Agatha Christie’s disappearance.‡‡ The Strand Magazine and Sherlock Holmes is impeccably researched, with detailed footnotes and a complete bibliography. Yet it’s compactly written: the text covers only ninety-five pages, an even hundred with end matter. Basically, Veld does such an excellent job that I first assumed he had to be a professional writer of some sort, but he’s not–this is his first book. And while it may have taken him eight years, and required an apology of sorts to his wife and daughters, we can only hope it’s not his last. I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in literary history, Conan Doyle, or the newsstand Watson passed everyday on his way home to Baker Street.
The Strand Magazine & Sherlock Holmes: The Two Fixed Points in a Changing Age is available for order from Wessex Press (http://www.wessexpress.com). As far as I know, Mr. Veld does not have a public blog or author’s page at this time.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5 “This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”
*Seriously. I don’t care what he does. Watson has nothing on me, people.
**If you’d like to find a scion society in your area, start here: http://sherlockian.net/societies/index.html
If you want more information about what it takes to publish a Sherlockian paper somewhere other than your own blog, Alistair Duncan offers some tips here: http://alistaird221b.blogspot.com/2013/05/how-easy-is-it-to-get-sherlockian.html
***Which, in case you were wondering, is an American magazine founded in 1922.
†We might refer to this as his Pretty Woman moment: “Big mistake. HUGE!”
††Alexander Pollock Watt, like someone else we know, created his own occupation: he was the world’s very first literary agent, beginning to represent clueless authors in 1875. Conan Doyle hired him after he completed The White Company. Although by this time he had published “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of Four,” several other non-Holmes stories, and a novel, Micah Clarke, he was having trouble reaching the markets to which he aspired, and believed that he was being shorted on the business side of things by publishers such as Ward, Lock and Co. Which, most likely, he was. Conan Doyle stayed with A.P. Watt for quite some time; although he once dropped him to handle his writing affairs on his own, he soon went back. The publishing world has always been a scary place.
††† Veld, p.18
‡ Of the Sir Walter Scott variety, not the Bertrice Small sort.
‡‡Seriously. You can find it in Andrew Lycett’s biography, p. 448 (paperback edition), and a whole chapter on it in Daniel Stashower’s biography, Teller of Tales, pp. 41-26 (paperback).