Edgar Allan Poe's Influence
on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Part 2

by Drew R. Thomas

Doyle's Embellishment of Poe's Formula

To say that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was profoundly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe is not to discount his own considerable contribution to the detective, crime, and murder mystery genre. Whereas Poe's detective Dupin employed an agent to create a diversion so his villain would be distracted momentarily, providing Dupin an opportunity to snatch a letter and replace it with a facsimile, this event happened "off stage," so to speak.  Dupin later recounted this incident to his narrator friend in "The Purloined Letter" (Tales of Edgar Allan Poe):

I bade the Minister good morning, and took my departure at once, leaving a gold snuff-box upon the table.

"The next morning I called for the snuff-box, when we resumed, quite eagerly, the conversation of the preceding day. While thus engaged, however, a loud report, as if of a pistol, was heard immediately beneath the windows of the hotel, and was succeeded by a series of fearful screams, and the shoutings of a terrified mob. D-- rushed to a casement, threw it open, and looked out. In the meantime, I stepped to the card-rack took the letter, put it in my pocket, and replaced it by a fac-simile, (so far as regards externals,) which I had carefully prepared at my lodgings - imitating the D-- cipher, very readily, by means of a seal formed of bread.

"The disturbance in the street had been occasioned by the frantic behavior of a man with a musket. He had fired it among a crowd of women and children. It proved, however, to have been without ball, and the fellow was suffered to go his way as a lunatic or a drunkard. When he had gone, D-- came from the window, whither I had followed him immediately upon securing the object in view. Soon afterwards I bade him farewell. The pretended lunatic was a man in my own pay."

--"The Purloined Letter"

In "A Scandal in Bohemia," Doyle moved the incident to center stage, where it belongs, when he has Holmes engage agents to raise an alarm of fire. One of these agents is Dr. Watson himself. Watson asks Holmes what he is expected to do:

"To do nothing whatever. There will probably be some small unpleasantness. Do not join in it. It will end in my being conveyed into the house. Four or five minutes afterwards the sitting-room window will open. You are to station yourself close to that open window."

"Yes."

"You are to watch me, for I will be visible to you."

"Yes."

"And when I raise my hand--so--you will throw into the room what I give you to throw, and will, at the same time, raise the cry of fire. You quite follow me?"

"Entirely."

"It is nothing very formidable," he said, taking a long cigar- shaped roll from his pocket. "It is an ordinary plumber's smoke- rocket, fitted with a cap at either end to make it self-lighting. Your task is confined to that. When you raise your cry of fire, it will be taken up by quite a number of people. You may then walk to the end of the street, and I will rejoin you in ten minutes. I hope that I have made myself clear?"

"I am to remain neutral, to get near the window, to watch you, and at the signal to throw in this object, then to raise the cry of fire, and to wait you at the corner of the street."

"Precisely."

--"A Scandal in Bohemia"

In "The Norwood Builder," Holmes employs the use of fire in a slightly different way. Watson describes the event:

Lestrade's face had begun to grow red and angry. "I don't know whether you are playing a game with us, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said he. "If you know anything, you can surely say it without all this tomfoolery."

"I assure you, my good Lestrade, that I have an excellent reason for everything that I do. You may possibly remember that you chaffed me a little, some hours ago, when the sun seemed on your side of the hedge, so you must not grudge me a little pomp and ceremony now. Might I ask you, Watson, to open that window, and then to put a match to the edge of the straw?"

I did so, and driven by the draught a coil of gray smoke swirled down the corridor, while the dry straw crackled and flamed.

"Now we must see if we can find this witness for you, Lestrade. Might I ask you all to join in the cry of 'Fire!'? Now then; one, two, three----"

"Fire!" we all yelled.

"Thank you. I will trouble you once again."

"Fire!"

"Just once more, gentlemen, and all together."

"Fire!" The shout must have rung over Norwood.

It had hardly died away when an amazing thing happened. A door suddenly flew open out of what appeared to be solid wall at the end of the corridor, and a little, wizened man darted out of it, like a rabbit out of its burrow.

"Capital!" said Holmes, calmly. "Watson, a bucket of water over the straw. That will do! Lestrade, allow me to present you with your principal missing witness...."

--"The Norwood Builder"

In "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes attempts to retrieve a photograph for his client, The King of Bohemia. When Doyle created the following scene, he avoided merely duplicating the incident verbatim from Poe. Rather than have Holmes take a coveted item and replace it with a facsimile (as Dupin does in "The Purloined Letter"), Holmes merely wanted to know where it was so he could return later and retrieve it.

Poe's writing often included long, narrative passages with little dialogue. Doyle's stories have a lot more dialogue and are much more memorable and dramatic because of it. His dialogue sparkles, and Sherlockians love to quote from passages, such as the following:

  • "You consider that to be important?" he asked.

    "Exceedingly so."

    "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

    "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."

    "The dog did nothing in the night-time."

    "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

--from "Silver Blaze"

                                                                                      


  • "You're too late. She's my wife."

    "No, she's your widow."

    His revolver cracked, and I saw the blood spurt...


--from "The Solitary Cyclist"

                                                                            

  • "How did you know all that, Mr. Holmes?"

    "I followed you."

    "I saw no one."

    "That is what you may expect to see when I follow you."


from "The Devil's Foot"

                                                                                 

I've often wondered why scriptwriters and dramatists have failed to adhere more closely to Doyle's dramatic visual scenarios and dialogue. It seems that many scenes can be lifted verbatim (or nearly so) and placed on stage or screen. This has now been proven by the advent of Jeremy Brett, Clive Merrison, and others in more recent productions of the Holmes stories. However, some critics and reviewers have stated that earlier audiences were not ready for a more faithful rendition from the canon. (Balderdash! This will be examined elsewhere on this web site!)

And Doyle did create Irene Adler, the woman Holmes admires to the end of his days. (Mention of her is made in at least three other stories.) Watson writes of Holmes:

It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position.

--"A Scandal in Bohemia"

But contrast Watson's perception of Holmes with Holmes's own words. Holmes himself says of Irene Adler, "She is the daintiest thing under a bonnet on this planet." He tells Watson, "I only caught a glimpse of her at the moment, but she was a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for."

And it can only be to Irene Adler that Holmes refers when a gentleman approaches him and asks for his assistance in solving a case. The man had already spoken with Watson, who sang Holmes praises. He now says to Holmes:

"He said that you could solve anything."

"He said too much."

"That you are never beaten."

"I have been beaten four times--three times by men, and once by a woman."

--"The Five Orange Pips"

Other Passages and Comparisons

Even the language and some of the phrases that Poe used have been picked up by Doyle. For example, in "The Purloined Letter," Dupin's client explains about the culprit (the Minister D___): "He has been twice waylaid, as if by footpads, and his person rigorously searched under my own inspection" (emphasis mine).

Compare this with the discussion  between Sherlock Holmes and the King of Bohemia. In this passage, Holmes is advising the King on how to retrieve a compromising photograph:

"It must be recovered."

"We have tried and failed."

"Your Majesty must pay. It must be bought."

"She will not sell."

"Stolen, then."

"Five attempts have been made. Twice burglars in my pay ransacked her house. Once we diverted her luggage when she travelled. Twice she has been waylaid. There has been no result."

--"A Scandal in Bohemia" (Emphasis mine)

Other comparisons between Poe's and Doyle's writings reveal still further Poe's influence upon Doyle. Poe writes:

"I am perfectly willing to take advice, and to pay for it. I would really give fifty thousand francs to any one who would aid me in the matter."

"'In that case,' replied Dupin, opening a drawer, and producing a check-book, you may as well fill me up a check for the amount mentioned. When you have signed it, I will hand you the letters.'"

--"The Purloined Letter"

Dupin's narrator writes:

I was astounded. The Prefect appeared absolutely thunder-stricken. For some minutes he remained speechless and motionless, looking incredulously at my friend with open mouth, and eyes that seemed starting from their sockets; then, apparently recovering himself in some measure, he seized a pen, and after several pauses and vacant stares, finally filled up and signed a check for fifty thousand francs, and handed it across the table to Dupin. The latter examined it carefully and deposited it in his pocket-book; then, unlocking an escritoire, took thence a letter and gave it to the Prefect. This functionary grasped it in a perfect agony of joy, opened it with a trembling hand, cast a rapid glance at its contents, and then, scrambling and struggling to the door, rushed at length unceremoniously from the room and from the house, without having uttered a syllable since Dupin had requested him to fill up the check.

--"The Purloined Letter"

We can see the influence of that paragraph alone in at least two Sherlock Holmes stories. In "The Naval Treaty," we are told:

Phelps raised the cover, and as he did so he uttered a scream, and sat there staring with a face as white as the plate upon which he looked. Across the centre of it was lying a little cylinder of blue-gray paper. He caught it up, devoured it with his eyes, and then danced madly about the room, pressing it to his bosom and shrieking out in his delight. Then he fell back into an arm-chair so limp and exhausted with his own emotions that we had to pour brandy down his throat to keep him from fainting.

--"The Naval Treaty"

And in "The Priory School":

"The fact is, your Grace," said he, "that my colleague, Dr. Watson, and myself had an assurance from Dr. Huxtable that a reward had been offered in this case. I should like to have this confirmed from your own lips."

"Certainly, Mr. Holmes."

"It amounted, if I am correctly informed, to five thousand pounds to anyone who will tell you where your son is?"

"Exactly."

"And another thousand to the man who will name the person or persons who keep him in custody?"

"Exactly."

"Under the latter heading is included, no doubt, not only those who may have taken him away, but also those who conspire to keep him in his present position?"

"Yes, yes," cried the Duke, impatiently. "If you do your work well, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, you will have no reason to complain of niggardly treatment."

My friend rubbed his thin hands together with an appearance of avidity which was a surprise to me, who knew his frugal tastes.

"I fancy that I see your Grace's check-book upon the table," said he. "I should be glad if you would make me out a check for six thousand pounds. It would be as well, perhaps, for you to cross it. The Capital and Counties Bank, Oxford Street branch are my agents."

His Grace sat very stern and upright in his chair and looked stonily at my friend.

"Is this a joke, Mr. Holmes? It is hardly a subject for pleasantry."

"Not at all, your Grace. I was never more earnest in my life."

"What do you mean, then?"

"I mean that I have earned the reward. I know where your son is, and I know some, at least, of those who are holding him."

The Duke's beard had turned more aggressively red than ever against his ghastly white face.

--"The Priory School"

Later,

The Duke took a pen in his quivering fingers and opened his check-book.

"I shall be as good as my word, Mr. Holmes. I am about to write your check, however unwelcome the information which you have gained may be to me. When the offer was first made, I little thought the turn which events might take. But you and your friend are men of discretion, Mr. Holmes?"


--"The Priory School"

In the end, Holmes says:

"Thank you," said he, as he replaced the glass. "It is the second most interesting object that I have seen in the North."

"And the first?"

Holmes folded up his check and placed it carefully in his notebook. "I am a poor man," said he, as he patted it affectionately, and thrust it into the depths of his inner pocket.


--"The Priory School"

On occasion, it appears that Doyle even picked up specific words or phrases (for example, recherche and outre) from Poe.

Poe introduced an exotic animal as the "murderer" in one of his stories. Doyle made a horse the murderer in "Silver Blaze" and he used exotic animals in "The Speckled Band" (which Holmes calls "the deadliest snake in India"). Other Doyle stories that employ animals include "The Copper Beeches" and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Holmes Cracks the Code(s)

There are scads more comparisons one can make in uncovering the profound influence Poe's writing made upon Doyle. But I will present just one further one and then leave you to discover more for yourself. (It's a great deal more fun to discover these for oneself, isn't it?)

Poe's story "The Gold Bug" has to do with ciphers. Doyle included ciphers in stories such as "The Dancing Men" and The Valley of Fear.

In "The Gold Bug," Poe wrote, "...it may well be doubted whether human ingenuity can construct an enigma of the kind which human ingenuity may not, by proper application, resolve" (Tales). Compare this statement with Holmes's statement to Abe Slaney in "The Dancing Men": "What one man can invent another can discover."

But Poe was not the only writer to have had a great influence on Doyle. I shall explore the influence that Emile Gaboriau made upon Doyle elsewhere on this website.

Note: This article was continued from "Edgar Allan Poe's Influence on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Part 1."


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