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Toward the end of The Sign of the Four, Doyle advanced the notion that the pursuit of justice was a sport, a great sport, more daring and adventurous than any other—"I have coursed many creatures in many countries during my chequered career," says Watson, "but never did sport give me such a wild thrill as this mad, flying manhunt down the Thames"—but in fact active sports did not conform with the picture he had drawn of Sherlock Holmes.
Sport may be thought to be at the opposite pole from the deadly pursuit of murderers (even when prefaced by the familiar, "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot"). Sport's contests are inconsequential: the loser is not killed and is innocent of any wrongdoing—apart from not scoring as much as his opponent. The end of sport is not life or death; it is a momentary happiness or sorrow, likely to be reversed by the next encounter on the field of play. Almost every day in the life of Conan Doyle affirmed this philosophy, and Sherlock Holmes grew increasingly irksome to him. He had, besides, other writing projects on his mind and he occasionally became careless in details. One of the few sports Doyle did not like was flat racing. Steeplechasing was all right with him, but in flat racing, he believed, everything depended on the horse. "Sport is what a man does," he said, "not what a horse does." Nevertheless, the first Sherlock Holmes story devoted entirely to sport was a racehorse tale. And for Conan Doyle personally, it was a disaster. Silver Blaze is one of the most durable of the many Sherlock Holmes favorites. It remains an absorbing story even now, summoning up a vanished, hit-or-miss racing world and displaying Holmes at the peak of his powers. But it has about as much to do with the realities of racing as a weekly episode of Marcus Welby has to do with medicine. It takes Holmes only "a few hours" to inspect the muddy hollow where Silver Blaze's trainer was killed, to track down the missing horse and to make sure that it will remain missing until the day of the great race. Then he stages his dramatic climax: the horse appears at the track and the murderer is exposed—the horse!
But the bookmakers in Silver Blaze shout odds quoting fractions that were never heard at any racetrack. And if anyone had actually contrived to sneak a horse into a race as Holmes did with Silver Blaze, half the people involved would have been jailed, and the other half—including Sherlock Holmes—would have been warned off the turf for life. That fiendish trainer, trying to maim Silver Blaze invisibly before the horse killed him with a kick on the forehead, was attempting an anatomical impossibility—you cannot cut a racehorse's muscle just a little bit.
Very discreetly, writers in racing journals pointed out the improbabilities (or the impossibilities) in the story, and what they said shocked Conan Doyle. There was a certain amount of Colonel Blimp in him. Confronted with the glaring errors in Silver Blaze, he said huffily, "I have never been nervous about details, and one must be masterful sometimes." But in the end he conceded that in racing matters, "my ignorance cries aloud to heaven."
Doyle never quite lived down the embarrassment of Silver Blaze. Columnist Red Smith periodically raises the charge that Holmes, though he may have been a good detective, was also a thoroughgoing scoundrel, and cites the matter of the Wessex Plate, in which Holmes "so rigged the odds that he got 15 to 1 on a legitimate 3-to-1 shot." (Such contributions to Sherlock Holmes literature are generally regarded as "unfortunate" by Sherlock Holmes fanatics.) But even before Silver Blaze was printed Doyle had decided to kill off Sherlock Holmes. He had already written The Final Problem and was enormously relieved to describe the great detective and Professor Moriarty disappearing from the chasm's edge. It worried him, however, when readers, and especially his mother, insisted that he must have made a mistake, that Sherlock Holmes must still live.
By now Doyle's wife had contracted tuberculosis, and they lived for a time in Switzerland. Doyle appeased his restlessness by crossing a high pass in the Alps on skis, the first such crossing ever recorded, and then busied himself laying out the first golf course in the Alps at Davos. Moving on to the warmth of Egypt for his wife's health, he played golf frequently with the head of the Egyptian intelligence service. It was exotic stuff: the caddies carrying golf bags were really spies from the Sudan and, at the remote greens, communicated information to British agents playing golf, thereby evading the scrutiny of the Caliph's counterintelligence.
Obviously, British intelligence was trying to give Doyle real material for the next Sherlock Holmes stories. But Doyle did not want any more of that. What did he really want? In 1894 he had invented Brigadier Gerard, the dumb, conceited, brave and unforgettable hero of the Napoleonic Wars. Sherlock Holmes had been too perfect. Brigadier Gerard had no such flaw. He was honored by Napoleon himself as having the thickest skull and the stoutest heart in the entire French army. Doyle enjoyed writing about Brigadier Gerard. With his artless (or witless) self-disclosures, Brigadier Gerard revealed how totally unaware he was of the deplorable situations in which he often found himself. In How the Brigadier Slew the Fox, young Brigadier Gerard is ordered to ride around Wellington's army during the siege of Torres Vedras in the Peninsular Campaign to ascertain what the enemy is up to. But on the way he comes upon a group of English officers on a fox hunt. What with the excitement, the hounds, the hallooing and the fox, the Brigadier, without quite meaning to, gets caught up in the hunt. But since he is a superb rider—as he never fails to remind the reader—he soon outdistances the English and, since he does not understand the mores of fox hunting, he kills the fox. Now he expects to receive the cheers of 50 British officers. And there was indeed a considerable outcry. "They would not go away," says Brigadier Gerard. "They shouted and waved their hands at me. No, I do not think that it was in enmity. Rather I think that a glow of admiration filled their breasts...."
Along with the first volume of Brigadier Gerard stories, Doyle also wrote Rodney Stone, a blustering, fast-moving tale of bareknuckle fighters in the days of the Prince Regent, sometime before 1820. Doyle loved this book as he never loved his Sherlock Holmes stories. To begin with, he did an enormous amount of research on prizefight history. No one was going to correct his mistakes on this one. He knew more than the experts. Historical figures appeared: Daniel Mendoza, for instance, supposedly the best in the world in his time. The details had to be absolutely right: the ring was 24 feet square and was enclosed by a second ring eight feet outside it. Within this second ring were the beaters-out. These men were experienced prizefighters equipped, for championship fights, with horsewhips, and their function was to drive back the partisans who tried to storm the ring when their man was losing.
Rodney Stone was a success and would have been enough to make Doyle's reputation even without Sherlock Holmes. So it exasperated Doyle that people kept demanding ever more Sherlock Holmes stories. He wanted never to have to write about the detective again. It may be too much to say that he hated him, but he certainly tried to keep from adding to the Holmes mystique.
Doyle now had a new house at Hindhead in Surrey, outside London, with a large billiards room. He owned two motorcars and a motorcycle. About the time he was knighted (1902) he made his first balloon ascent, rising a mile and a half and drifting for 25 miles. His son Adrian, not the sportsman Doyle Sr. was, wrote of Sir Arthur's knighthood, "Titles meant less to him than reducing his golf handicap." True, Adrian and his father were sometimes at odds—Adrian accidently shot the gardener, wrecked his old man's automobile and set fire to the billiards room—but in this case Adrian was right.