Would it have been possible the world never got to hear of Sherlock Holmes? Was it merest chance that Dr. Watson began to record the cases? Let’s examine the possibility.
Except for two later cases written by Holmes himself (LION & BLAN) and two written in the third person (LAST & MAZA) by an author, all of Holmes’ cases were written for publication by Dr. Watson. The first case published was named A Study in Scarlet (STUD) in which Watson introduced himself to his readers and then explained the circumstances of his introduction to Holmes. The meeting took place in the chemical labs of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital (casually called “Bart’s”). Watson went on to tell of the subsequent decision by the pair to take up residence together in Baker Street.
The criminal investigation in STUD began not too long after Watson and Holmes began sharing living quarters. Watson had been curious about Holmes’ activities but was reticent about quizzing Holmes. Then later, Holmes explained himself to Watson, and about the same time received a note from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard requesting assistance on a case. Holmes had been bored with lack of work, and expressed reluctance to take up the case. What was the use? He would do the work, and Gregson and Lestrade of Scotland Yard would get the credit. Watson, however, was interested, and Holmes decided to take up the case, and he invited Watson along to help.
In the end, Watson wrote the story and published it, which was the world’s introduction to Sherlock Holmes. Watson went on to record 55 more cases, and as a result Holmes became one of history’s most recognizable figures, one whose fame has lasted well into the twenty-first century and still shows no signs of diminishing. Holmes has been depicted in more movies than any other character, and there is a strong “cottage industry” of writers publishing new stories, parodies, and pastiches. Plays are being performed, a big Hollywood production has been made with sequels planned, and numerous clubs and societies at many levels meet regularly to discuss just about every imaginable aspect of Holmes’ life and career. You could sit down at your computer and find more material on the internet regarding Holmes than could be digested in a lifetime.
This eventual fame all depended on a single careless act of omission by an otherwise careful criminal, one who had proved capable of carrying out a murder plot involving years of effort, scheming, tracking, and international travel! Jefferson Hope was the man, and as a cab-driver he tracked down Enoch J. Drebber and killed him in an empty house off the Brixton Road in London. After the murder, Hope left the scene, leaving behind a lot of footprints. Holmes read all the clues and determined that the cab-driver had been the killer, which led to his capture. The crime had been first discovered by John Rance, a constable on patrol who noticed a candle burning inside a house he knew to be vacant. He checked it out and discovered the body within a very short time of death. Scotland Yard investigated, was puzzled, called in Holmes, and the rest is history.
If Hope had remembered to blow out the candle, Rance would have walked right by the house and never found the body, at least until after some time had passed and the rain had obliterated the footprints. In all likelihood, Drebber’s body would have remained in the closed-up empty house until its putrefaction attracted attention. Even that would probably have taken longer than normal, because the house had been vacated due to the death by typhoid of the occupant, which resulted from problems with the drains (sewers). A bad smell would not have been immediately considered to be out of place, and authorities would have been slow to investigate.
A decomposed dead body found in an empty house having no wounds upon it and no significant physical clues would more than likely have been written off as unsolvable by the police, or not even been considered a crime. It is unlikely Holmes would have been consulted, and even more unlikely Holmes could have solved the case had he been involved. The tracks, which were the main clues, would not have been there, the poison smell would not have been discernible, and the mystery would stay just that, or not even been recognized as a crime.
It was Holmes’ excellent and prompt crime scene investigation that led to the solution of the mystery, and additionally, impressed Scotland Yard with his forensic skills, leading to more work. Had there been no case, Watson would have had no story to write, and it is probable that Holmes’ early fame would not have been achieved. We can only speculate about that, but if the case which propelled Holmes to fame and fortune had not occurred, his career might not have taken off the way it did. Watson’s wound pension would have ended a few months later, sending him back to doctoring, and Holmes’ career would have gone largely unrecorded.
The next time you have a romantic candle-lit dinner, at its conclusion be sure to blow out the candle, and when you do, think of Sherlock Holmes. Had a certain candle in this case been blown out, you might never have heard of him.