Thursday, January 9, 2014

Was Sherlock Holmes a casualty in the War on Drugs?

An interesting little bit came across the feed from the Twitter machine today when Martin M. Montague posted a shot of something Denis Conan Doyle wrote in to The Lancet:

"As a matter of actual fact," Sir Arthur's eldest son wrote to the medical journal, "my father neither conceived nor depicted Sherlock Holmes as a drug addict. He was represented as one of those rare individuals who use drugs sparingly and occasionally, and who are the masters rather than the slaves of the drug concerned."

That was in 1937.

Come the 1960s, when drug culture was growing with rise of the hippies, Viet Nam, etc., the Baker Street Irregulars were disproving Holmes's possible addiction right and left.

"There can be no doubt that Sherlock Holmes was not addicted to narcotic drugs. There is very little evidence to support such a belief, and the facts are all against it," wrote William H. Miller in an award-winning 1969 article in The Baker Street Journal, and he was just one of many. Some even considered the cocaine and morphine references a hoax or joke Holmes concocted.

And then, in 1971, Richard Nixon declares a "war on drugs," and drugs are suddenly a very big deal, where a minimal amount found on a person can destroy a life. And, unfortunately, a minimal amount of drugs could be found in the Canon of Sherlock Holmes.

A seven percent minimal amount.

It's probably not too surprising, then, when in 1974, an ambitious young writer named Nicholas Meyer decided to do the literary equivalent of tabloid journalism and exploit a celebrity's minor connection to a particular drug to give his budding career a jump start . . . right to the top of The New York Times bestseller list with The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.

Within four years, a member of the Sherlockian community named Jack Tracy backed Meyer's play with a little book called Subcutaneously, My Dear Watson, where Tracy refers to "Sherlock Holmes, cocaine addict" in the very first line, as if the matter is an accepted truth. And maybe, after Meyer knocking Holmes off his pillar in Seven-Per-Cent, it was an accepted truth to those who prefer their heroes with feet of clay. But even Tracy, knowing his Sherlockian brethren, had to put a line in his book's acknowledgements that read, "Needless to say, any conclusions reached in this book are those of the authors, who alone must bear responsibility for errors of fact or judgement."

Even without Tracy turning on Holmes where Irregulars before him did not, the damage was done. I never will forget a cocky young bookstore clerk in Toronto, upon seeing me buying a copy of the Sherlock Holmes stories, felt compelled to inform me authoritatively, "You know the guy that wrote those was addicted to opium!"

"Yeah," I replied, knowing he meant Holmes instead of Doyle, and cocaine instead of opium, and that Meyer was to blame for it all, giving stoner bookstore clerks a drug-using hero.

So it was nice to see Denis Conan Doyle defending our friend Sherlock on Twitter today, preaching the gospel of a Holmes who was a master of his drug use and not mastered by it.

Especially on Thursday night, when Elementary is due to come 'round once more and punish Sherlock some more for being caught by the War on Drugs with that litttle amount. It'll be nice to see his sentence in that particular jail of public gossip over one of these days.


  1. Saw that, too and thought of you. As a novice to canon and without any prejudices I never got the feeling and could see no textual evidence for any addiction, but took it the way it was meant: that Holmes was one of the rare individuums who could handle his drug use.

  2. In "The Missing Three-Quarter" Strand, August, 1904: "Things had indeed been very slow with us, and I had learned to dread such periods of inaction, for I knew by experience that my companion's brain was so abnormally active that it was dangerous to leave it without material upon which to work. For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus, but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping; and I have known that the sleep was a light one and the waking near when in periods of idleness I have seen the drawn look upon Holmes's ascetic face, and the brooding of his deep-set and inscrutable eyes." Doyle didn't have to write that. By 1904, he didn't have to mentioned drug use. The fact that he did means he felt it was a part, maybe not big, of the overall character of Holmes.

    1. I would suggest that Conan Doyle, who had really come to hate Sherlock Holmes long before then, recognized that the drug he thought a harmless toy of artists when he first applied to Holmes in the 1880s, had by 1903 increased at an alarming rate as a recreational and hence dangerous substance. Realizing he might be influencing young readers to a dire direction with his earlier work, Doyle surely felt obligated to include such a cautionary note.

      And as a court case recently established, all the key components of Sherlock Holmes as we know him were put into place early on, and drug addiction found no place in them.

      Admit it, you wouldn't even be arguing the point if you weren't a fan of a certain dreadful show.

    2. I wrote about this on the IHOSE website

      Doyle was sensitive to matters of addiction as his father was an alcoholic and the subject is present in Canonical and non-Canonical works. "Elementary", Granada or "The Seven Per-Cent Solution" does not influence my view of the Canon and drug use. It's the other way around.

    3. And yet, "Elementary" and "The Seven Per Cent Solution" are extreme points of view that most Sherlockians don't accept as basic Holmes 101. There is a matter of preference at work in the choice to view Holmes as a serious addict. Personally, I'll choose the masterful Holmes who could hang out in an opium den to hunt for a missing man without ill effect.

  3. When making the argument, something to consider would be the DSM-IV-TR and the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for substance dependence, substance abuse, and substance use disorder. A compelling argument can be posed for Holmes fitting criteria for cocaine and opiate abuse under the DSM-IV-TR. An abuse diagnosis does not an addict make, but it does indicate that it was on the borderline of a problem.

  4. Denis Doyle's statement, "As a matter of actual fact my father neither conceived nor depicted Sherlock Holmes as a drug addict." is a bit more simplistic than a careful reading of the Canon would indicate. Holmes' drug use started early, 1890, and was a "mania" that threatened to "check his remarkable career" in 1904--all well before the Case-Book and the still-copyright protected material. Personally, I agree with you about wanting a "masterful Holmes who could hang out in an opium den" without ill effect. But I think that Doyle gave us deep waters with that MISS passage--and that he did it on purpose. This was in The Return and my impression for the biographies I've read seems to indicate that after the best-seller success of "Hound" that he was feeling pretty good about the ol' albatross. Another Baker Street dozen, make a quick bundle, and then put him out to pasture. There is, no doubt, more than a bit of truth to your speculation: "Realizing he might be influencing young readers to a dire direction with his earlier work, Doyle surely felt obligated to include such a cautionary note." But he didn't have to go that route. He could have had Holmes find drug-free enlightenment while in Tibet or he could have just dropped any more drug references faster than Watson's bull pup. That Doyle did what he did gives us lots to speculate about, inside and outside the Game.

    Since "Elementary" is a pastiche, let us say in the broadest use of the word, I have no problem with the way it has used addiction. Granada has added extra-Canonical drug use in its series. Meyer has taken Sherlockian scholarship on Holmes' drug use and connection to Moriarty and whipped up his own frothy confection. They're there for all to enjoy if we want to. They don't color my view of the Canon, and if I encounter someone misinformed, like that young man who thought Doyle was an opium user, I'll be happy to correct him because I like talking about the Canon.