Emile Gaboriau's Infuence on
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 2

by Drew R. Thomas

When first developing his contribution to the detective, crime, and murder mystery genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was profoundly influenced by Emile Gaboriau. Part 1 of this article compared short quotes from Gaboriau's works about Monsieur Lecoq with quotes from Doyle about Holmes in an effort to demonstrate the influence.

The few short comparisons which I shared may seem, at best, circumstantial. However, in "The Noble Bachelor," Sherlock Holmes said, "My whole examination served to turn my conjecture into a certainty. Circumstantial evidence is occasionally very convincing, as when you find a trout in the milk, to quote Thoreau's example."

Some longer quotes in comparison may serve to show the influence in context.

Example 1:

The following quote is from The Widow Lerouge:

"Small type," he said, "very slender and clear; the paper is thin and glossy. Consequently, these words have not been cut from a newspaper, magazine, or even a novel. I have seen type like this, I recognize it at once; Didot often uses it, so does Mme. de Tours."

He stopped with his mouth open, and eyes fixed, appealing laboriously to his memory.

Suddenly he struck his forehead exultantly.

"Now I have it!" he cried; "now I have it! Why did I not see it at once? These words have all been cut from a prayer-book. We will look, at least, and then we shall be certain."

He moistened one of the words pasted on the paper with his tongue, and, when it was sufficiently softened, he detached it with a pin. On the other side of this word was printed a Latin word, Deus.

"Ah, ha," he said with a little laugh of satisfaction. "I knew it. Father Taberet would be pleased to see this. But what has become of the mutilated prayer-book? Can it have been burned? No, because a heavy-bound book is not easily burned. It is thrown in some corner."

Compare the quote above with the following from The Hound of the Baskervilles:

"I presume, Doctor, that you could tell the skull of a negro from that of an Esquimau?"

"Most certainly."

"But how?"

"Because that is my special hobby. The differences are obvious. The supra-orbital crest, the facial angle, the maxillary curve, the--"

"But this is my special hobby, and the differences are equally obvious. There is as much difference to my eyes between the leaded bourgeois type of a Times article and the slovenly print of an evening half-penny paper as there could be between your negro and your Esquimau. The detection of types is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime, though I confess that once when I was very young I confused the Leeds Mercury with the Western Morning News. But a Times leader is entirely distinctive, and these words could have been taken from nothing else. As it was done yesterday the strong probability was that we should find the words in yesterday's issue."

"So far as I can follow you, then, Mr. Holmes," said Sir Henry Baskerville, "someone cut out this message with a scissors--"

"Nail-scissors," said Holmes. "You can see that it was a very short-bladed scissors, since the cutter had to take two snips over 'keep away.'"

"That is so. Someone, then, cut out the message with a pair of short-bladed scissors, pasted it with paste--"

"Gum," said Holmes.

"With gum on to the paper. But I want to know why the word 'moor' should have been written?"

"Because he could not find it in print. The other words were all simple and might be found in any issue, but 'moor' would be less common."

"Why, of course, that would explain it. Have you read anything else in this message, Mr. Holmes?"

"There are one or two indications, and yet the utmost pains have been taken to remove all clues. The address, you observe is printed in rough characters. But the Times is a paper which is seldom found in any hands but those of the highly educated. We may take it, therefore, that the letter was composed by an educated man who wished to pose as an uneducated one, and his effort to conceal his own writing suggests that that writing might be known, or come to be known, by you. Again, you will observe that the words are not gummed on in an accurate line, but that some are much higher than others. 'Life,' for example is quite out of its proper place. That may point to carelessness or it may point to agitation and hurry upon the part of the cutter. On the whole I incline to the latter view, since the matter was evidently important, and it is unlikely that the composer of such a letter would be careless. If he were in a hurry it opens up the interesting question why he should be in a hurry, since any letter posted up to early morning would reach Sir Henry before he would leave his hotel. Did the composer fear an interruption--and from whom?"

"We are coming now rather into the region of guesswork," said Dr. Mortimer.

"Say, rather, into the region where we balance probabilities and choose the most likely. It is the scientific use of the imagination, but we have always some material basis on which to start our speculation. Now, you would call it a guess, no doubt, but I am almost certain that this address has been written in a hotel."

"How in the world can you say that?"

"If you examine it carefully you will see that both the pen and the ink have given the writer trouble. The pen has spluttered twice in a single word and has run dry three times in a short address, showing that there was very little ink in the bottle. Now, a private pen or ink-bottle is seldom allowed to be in such a state, and the combination of the two must be quite rare. But you know the hotel ink and the hotel pen, where it is rare to get anything else. Yes, I have very little hesitation in saying that could we examine the waste-paper baskets of the hotels around Charing Cross until we found the remains of the mutilated Times leader we could lay our hands straight upon the person who sent this singular message. Halloa! Halloa! What's this?"

He was carefully examining the foolscap, upon which the words were pasted, holding it only an inch or two from his eyes.

Example 2:

The following quote is from The Widow Lerouge:

"Who told you to bring it? a gentleman, or a lady?"

"Neither, monsieur; it was a porter."

This reply made the porter laugh very much, but not a muscle of M. Verduret's face moved.

"A porter? Well, do you know this colleague of yours."

"I never even saw him before."

"How does he look?"

"He was neither tall nor short; he wore a green vest, and his medal."

"Your description is so vague that it would suit every porter in the city; but did your colleague tell you who sent the letter?"

"No, monsieur. He only put ten sous in my hand, and said, 'Here, carry this to No. 39, Rue Chaptal: a coachman on the boulevard handed it to me.' Ten sous! I warrant you he made more than that by it."

This answer seemed to disconcert M. Verduret. So many precautions taken in sending the letter disturbed him, and disarranged his plans.

"Do you think you would recognize the porter again?"

"Yes, monsieur, if I saw him."

"How much do you gain a day as a porter?"

"I can't tell exactly; but my corner is a good stand, and I am busy doing errands nearly all day. I suppose I make from eight to ten francs."

But Doyle avoided simply plagiarizing. (One of my pet peeves comes from writers or other artists who simply steal bits from the works of others. I call it the "cut-and-paste" school of writing.) Doyle may have been profoundly influenced by Gaboriau but he develops the ideas and concepts into something more exciting, more vibrant, and delightfully unexpected. In the following passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. Mortimer is describing to Holmes a fact that he kept from the police during his testimony:

"On the night of Sir Charles's death Barrymore the butler, who made the discovery, sent Perkins the groom on horseback to me, and as I was sitting up late I was able to reach Baskerville Hall within an hour of the event. I checked and corroborated all the facts which were mentioned at the inquest. I followed the footsteps down the yew alley, I saw the spot at the moor-gate where he seemed to have waited, I remarked the change in the shape of the prints after that point, I noted that there were no other footsteps save those of Barrymore on the soft gravel, and finally I carefully examined the body, which had not been touched until my arrival. Sir Charles lay on his face, his arms out, his fingers dug into the ground, and his features convulsed with some strong emotion to such an extent that I could hardly have sworn to his identity. There was certainly no physical injury of any kind. But one false statement was made by Barrymore at the inquest. He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did--some little distance off, but fresh and clear."



"A man's or a woman's?"

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at us for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered.

"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

Example 3:

In the following brief passage from The Widow Lerouge, Lecoq is addressing an agent (or aide) of his:

"Very well; I will give you ten francs a day if you will walk about the streets, and look for the porter who brought this letter. Every evening, at eight o'clock, come to the Archangel, on the Quai Saint Michel, give me a report of your search, and receive your pay. Ask for M. Verduret. If you find the man I will give you fifty francs. Do you accept?"

"I rather think I will, monsieur."

"Then don't lose a minute. Start off!"

Once again, Doyle develops the concept of agents into something exciting and dramatic when he introduces the Baker Street irregulars, in The Sign of the Four: Watson describes the incident:

"By heaven, Holmes," I said, half rising, "I believe that they are really after us."

"No, it's not quite so bad as that. It is the unofficial force--the Baker Street irregulars."

As he spoke, there came a swift pattering of naked feet upon the stairs, a clatter of high voices, and in rushed a dozen dirty and ragged little street-Arabs. There was some show of discipline among them, despite their tumultuous entry, for they instantly drew up in line and stood facing us with expectant faces. One of their number, taller and older than the others, stood forward with an air of lounging superiority which was very funny in such a disreputable little scarecrow.

"Got your message, sir," said he, "and brought 'em on sharp. Three bob and a tanner for tickets."

"Here you are," said Holmes, producing some silver. "In future they can report to you, Wiggins, and you to me. I cannot have the house invaded in this way. However, it is just as well that you should all hear the instructions. I want to find the whereabouts of a steam launch called the Aurora, owner Mordecai Smith, black with two red streaks, funnel black with a white band. She is down the river somewhere. I want one boy to be at Mordecai Smith's landing-stage opposite Millbank to say if the boat comes back. You must divide it out among yourselves, and do both banks thoroughly. Let me know the moment you have news. Is that all clear?"

"Yes, guv'nor," said Wiggins.

"The old scale of pay, and a guinea to the boy who finds the boat. Here's a day in advance. Now off you go!" He handed them a shilling each, and away they buzzed down the stairs, and I saw them a moment later streaming down the street.

Example 4:

Lecoq, in disguise as Verduret, describes how his agents (or aides) have given him valuable information in the form of letters, which he has perused and trusted as reliable and helpful during his investigation:


"You evidently think I have been drawing upon my imagination. You will soon see to the contrary," said Verduret good-humoredly. "While I was at work down there, my aids did not sit with their hands tied together. Mutually distrustful, Clameran and Raoul preserved all the letters received from each other. Joseph Dubois copied them, or the important portions of them, and forwarded them to me. Nina spent her time listening at all doors under her supervision, and sent me a faithful report. Finally, I have at the Fauvels another means of investigation which I will reveal to you later." 

In the following passage from The Hound of the Baskervilles, Watson at first is miffed when he discovers that Holmes has deceived him. But Holmes reveals how much he values Dr. Watson's information in the form of letters or reports:


"Well, I am glad from my heart that you are here, for indeed the responsibility and the mystery were both becoming too much for my nerves. But how in the name of wonder did you come here, and what have you been doing? I thought that you were in Baker Street working out that case of blackmailing."

"That was what I wished you to think."

"Then you use me, and yet do not trust me!" I cried with some bitterness. "I think that I have deserved better at your hands, Holmes."

"My dear fellow, you have been invaluable to me in this as in many other cases, and I beg that you will forgive me if I have seemed to play a trick upon you. In truth, it was partly for your own sake that I did it, and it was my appreciation of the danger which you ran which led me to come down and examine the matter for myself. Had I been with Sir Henry and you it is confident that my point of view would have been the same as yours, and my presence would have warned our very formidable opponents to be on their guard. As it is, I have been able to get about as I could not possibly have done had I been living in the Hall, and I remain an unknown factor in the business, ready to throw in all my weight at a critical moment."

"But why keep me in the dark?"

"For you to know could not have helped us and might possibly have led to my discovery. You would have wished to tell me something, or in your kindness you would have brought me out some comfort or other, and so an unnecessary risk would be run. I brought Cartwright down with me--you remember the little chap at the express office--and he has seen after my simple wants: a loaf of bread and a clean collar. What does man want more? He has given me an extra pair of eyes upon a very active pair of feet, and both have been invaluable."

"Then my reports have all been wasted!" --My voice trembled as I recalled the pains and the pride with which I had composed them.

Holmes took a bundle of papers from his pocket.

"Here are your reports, my dear fellow, and very well thumbed, I assure you. I made excellent arrangements, and they are only delayed one day upon their way. I must compliment you exceedingly upon the zeal and the intelligence which you have shown over an extraordinarily difficult case."

I was still rather raw over the deception which had been practised upon me, but the warmth of Holmes's praise drove my anger from my mind. I felt also in my heart that he was right in what he said and that it was really best for our purpose that I should not have known that he was upon the moor.

Of course, there is much more to demonstrate Gaboriau's influence upon Doyle than the excerpts that I am able to share in this short article. Space limitations force me to be brief. And, besides, it is far more satisfying to discover these for yourself once it has been pointed out to you.

Recommended Reading

Gaboriau's books about Tabaret and Lecoq:

Sherlock Holmes books:

Murder for Pleasure by Howard Haycraft

Gaslight: 1887 | Home

Click on the Slideshow below to Buy from Amazon: