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Arthur Conan Doyle frankly acknowledged his profound indebtedness to Edgar Allan Poe, who created C. Auguste Dupin the amateur detective in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter” and then lost interest in armchair detectives. Poe was a genius. With a few strokes of his pen he devised most of the conventions of this sub-genre, including the technique of telling the story from the viewpoint of the detective’s close friend—Dr. Watson, in the case of Sherlock Holmes, and the anonymous narrator in the case of Dupin.
These two armchair detectives and their friends enjoy lives of luxury and indolence which their readers envy. The long-lasting appeal of the Sherlock Holmes stories is largely due to our identification with their lifestyles. Who would not like to live at 221B Baker Street, lounging, musing, reading books and newspapers, having Mrs. Hudson to respond to our every beck and call, rarely having to go outside if the weather is bad, but comfortably ensconced by the fireplace wrapped in a woolen dressing gown? Money is no problem because wealthy clients show up in carriages and pay generously for advice.
Poe invented this setting and this lifestyle. Here is a small sample from the opening of “The Purloined Letter”:
At Paris, just after dark one gusty evening in the autumn of 18--, I was enjoying the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum, in company with my friend, C. Auguste Dupin, in his little back library, or book-closet, au troisieme, No. 33 Rue Dunot, Faubourg St. Germain.
Notice that it is a gusty evening outside. The weather is often inclement in Doyle’s stories too. This helps to emphasize the snugness inside. While Dupin and his friend are indulging in their twofold luxury, they are visited by Monsieur G- the Prefect of the Parisian police. He has to come to Dupin in spite of the weather. British policemen usually come to Baker Street too, and not only detectives but government officials of the highest rank and even members of royal houses.
Like Poe’s two detective stories, those of Doyle often begin and end in the snug lodgings of Sherlock Holmes. Note how “The Red-headed League,” for example, begins at Baker Street. Then Holmes and Watson go to inspect the neighborhood of Jabez Wilson’s pawn shop and spend the remainder of the day listening to Sarasate playing the violin at St. James’s Hall, after which they separate and agree to meet again at ten that night. After the dramatic climax in the basement of the bank, they return to Baker Street, where Holmes explains everything over a glass of whisky and soda. These comings and goings are characteristic of the Sherlock Holmes stories. They allow Doyle to vary the settings and provide visual contrast, and they usually reinforce the notion that Holmes is indolent but capable of tremendous bursts of energy when the situation demands it.
The swing of his nature took him from extreme languor to devouring energy; and, as I knew well, he was never so truly formidable as when, for days on end, he had been lounging in his armchair amid his improvisations and his black-letter editions.
The reader likes to think of himself as someone like Holmes or Dupin. In fact we all like to think of ourselves as potential men of action—even Supermen—if the occasion should ever demand it. Meanwhile we’ll stay close to the fire and perhaps ccasionally glance out the window at the huddled pedestrians on those wet streets.
It should be noted that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle takes care to specify that the French gold is stored only temporarily in a branch of one of the "principal London banks." He describes how Mr. Merryweather conducts Holmes, Watson, and the Scotland Yard detective down into a cellar where the gold has yet to be unpacked. This location obviously does not sound like a really secure place for storing such an enormous quantity of gold. If it were transferred to the bank's main building the thieves would not be able to come up with the simple idea of digging a tunnel and breaking through the thin flooring. The present setting is very insecure. Doyle does not explain why the gold came to be stored in a branch bank where there apparently isn't even a single guard on duty at night.
The literal setting of the story appears to be London during the reign of Queen Victoria. The story begins in Sherlock Holmes' house, which was supposedly located on Baker Street in London. There are many references to London in the story, especially Saxe-Coburg Square. Saxe-Colburg was the family name of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. In addition, St. Paul's church, which is located in London, is mentioned as well as St. James Hall. Finally, Holmes tells Merryweather, "We are at present, Doctor—as no doubt you have divined—in the cellar of the City branch of one of the principal London banks." However, as critics have pointed out, the tunnel under the square is representative of the recesses of Holmes' mind. Thus, Holmes mind and its thought processes could be considered as a symbolic setting for the story, especially since John Clay seems to be a mental match for Holmes and the two men, who have evidentally clashed before, must match wits again in this story.
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