Friday, March 25, 2022

When did the first wave of Sherlock truly start?

 We all know when Sherlock Holmes first appeared to readers in A Study in Scarlet. We also know when his readers were devastated at the unexpected series finale of "The Final Problem." But somewhere in between those points, a whole lot of Victorians had a moment where they went "Hey! I like this Sherlock Holmes! When does the next story come out?"

Ever wonder when that moment occurred?

I mean it had to be during The Strand Magazine short story run. The Sign of the Four was a standalone novel, inspiring no real expectations that any of the characters would return. (Mary Morstan sure didn't.) And readers of "A Scandal in Bohemia" didn't just go, "I love the first episode of this new series! What's next month?" with the expectations we have of a television show. No, like any series, it had to pick up steam.

Was there a turning point story where the Strand's circulation suddenly shot up with the next issue? Was there a tipping point of public opinion on Holmes?

It's not like stories in The Strand Magazine got weekly ratings numbers like a TV series. And there was no social media to pull engagement numbers from. Yet you know there had to be a point where Strand readers turned to their friends or family and went, "These Sherlock Holmes stories are cool!" (Or whatever Victorians said in lieu of that.)

I checked Mirror of the Century: The Strand Magazine 1891-1950 by Reginald Pound, but found nothing about that other than the delight the editor had in getting "A Scandal in Bohemia" and "The Red-Headed League" on his desk. Did it take the readers just two stories to get excited? Or was it a few more in, like the month "The Man with the Twisted Lip" came out? The new practice of releasing some new TV shows first three episodes to hook viewers might indicate three is a magic number, but I somehow don't see "A Case of Identity" as the turning point.

If you look at those first six stories -- A celebrity scandal, a goofy con, a domestic oddity, a murder mystery, a cultish horror tale, and a disappearing act -- you can see it was the sheer range and variety of Holmes tales that helped draw readers in. Didn't like "A Scandal in Bohemia?" Here's "The Red-Headed League?" Didn't fancy that, here's something else entirely. Yet every step of the way, here is your old friend Sherlock Holmes.

It's quite ingenious, and something locked-room murder mystery sloggers missed about Sherlock's success. Holmes's variety was key, and it took a few stories to really put that on display. At the end of those first six -- and then that lovely little Christmas carbuncle as the seventh -- readers definitely had to be hooked. For us now, reading A Study in Scarlet or The Sign of the Four, knowing that a whole lot still awaits us, we don't have nearly that same short-story-by-short-story introduction to Holmes. But back in the day, someone did.

And those someones are a bit intriguing, especially now as our print archeologists unearth new reports every few weeks. I'll be curious to see what else turns up.

1 comment:

  1. If you had the sales figures for the magazines in which the stories appeared, you could see when the numbers started to rise, or rose and fell, or whatever they did. -- Esmerelda