Today, November 21, is the 130th anniversary of the very first public appearance of the quippy detective known as Sherlock Holmes. Normally, an anniversary of this stature would have a definitive, clear date attached to it. But, fittingly, figuring out the exact publication date of A Study in Scarlet, creates a mystery worthy of Holmes himself.
The iconic origin story of Sherlock Holmes and his biographer Dr. John Watson (spoiler alert: it’s all because Watson needed a roommate) was depicted in the short novel A Study in Scarlet. But, 130 years ago, the author of this great adventure — Arthur Conan Doyle — discovered he wasn’t going to make any money from this silly detective fiction stuff. The first Sherlock Holmes was, for Doyle, a financial bust.
Before he went public with Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle had been hiding out for years. Just like Holmes would occasionally don an array of quirky disguises, the great detective’s creator had written other non-Holmes short stories anonymously. “He was practically unknown,” Mattias Boström tells Inverse. Boström is the author of the 2017 historical book, From Holmes to Sherlock, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes machinations of the original stories and novels, as well as every adaptation that followed. Speaking of Conan Doyle’s initial anonymity, Boström elaborates, “People just hadn’t heard of him. A few magazine editors were the only ones who knew that he was talented.”
On November 21, 1887, the Beeton’s Christmas Annual released the first Sherlock Holmes story to the people of Great Britain. According to Boström: “The Beeton’s Christmas Annual was a yearly paperback magazine mainly containing prose, verse, and plays. The 1887 edition’s main contribution was the short novel A Study in Scarlet. The rest of it contained two original drawing-room plays and lots of advertisements at the beginning and at the end. The price was one shilling and it sold out before Christmas.”
But, despite the Christmas Annual selling decently, Conan Doyle was later quoted in his memoirs complaining “The book had no particular success at the time.” Boström confirms this saying “The publisher offered Conan Doyle £25 for the complete copyright. After first having tried to negotiate, he accepted the offer. He never earned more than those £25 on A Study in Scarlet.” What this means is that even though the first Sherlock Holmes adventure ever was reprinted in different formats after 1887, because the entire copyright was sold for £25, Conan Doyle never saw any royalties. Contemporarily, this would be like if J.K. Rowling had sold the first Harry Potter book for a flat fee and published the whole thing in an oversized issue of a magazine like Town and Country.
But how do we know today is the exact day A Study in Scarlet came out? Arthur Conan Doyle didn’t exuberantly announce its publication on some rudimentary Victorian Twitter, so it’s tough to find evidence that matches up with how we track publication dates today. Still, there are some details that are — as Holmes might say — instructive.
Because it has the word “Christmas” in its title, you’d think the Beeton’s Christmas Annual would come out on December 1, 1887. This kind of thing is naturally misleading to armchair historians. For over a century, periodicals and comic books in both the UK and America have sported cover dates which are often slightly in their own future. For example, you can buy the December issue of GQ right now even though it’s still November. This was true of the Beeton’s Christmas Annual, too. As Boström explains “Many internet sources have December 1, 1887, as the publication date, but that is wrong. Based on the dates of the advertisements for it. It was definitely for sale before the end of November.” Still, finding the smoking gun which proves the exact publication date of the first Sherlock Holmes story ever, requires retroactive detective work. In his 2016 essay called “The Real First Publication Date of A Study in Scarlet”, Boström cites an advertisement in a newspaper called The Standard which announces the publication of Beeton’s and specifically mentions A Study in Scarlet.
The date of this advertisement corresponds with November 21. And through research into past issues of Beeton’s as well as past advertisements in The Standard, Boström concludes “We can therefore be sure that the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual wasn’t published on December 1, or on any other December date. It was definitely issued in November— most likely on November 21. If it had been published the week before, it seems strange that the publisher didn’t advertise it.”
The logic here is simple. In 1887, a daily newspaper like The Standard would report on the news of the day. Meaning the announcement of the Beeton’s Annual and A Study in Scarlet specifically, reflected something that was occurring on November 21, 1887. And if you’d spent one shilling on it then, and kept it in pristine condition, the Beeton’s annual would be worth a bundle of money today. In 2010, one signed copy of The Beeton’s Christmas Annual was listed by Sotheby’s with a starting bid of $500,000 USD.
Of course, A Study in Scarlet would eventually propel Arthur Conan Doyle into near global fame, but in most ways, only after the 1890 publication of The Sign of the Four, the sequel to A Study in Scarlet. In The Sign of the Four, Holmes’s bizarre moodiness and occasionally laziness glimpsed in A Study in Scarlet was given an explanation: he was a little bit of a coke fiend. Zach Dundas’s 2015 book The Great Detective suggests Doyle was inspired by the fringe bohemian sensibilities of Oscar Wilde when he revealed the Holmes a cocaine addiction in The Sign of the Four. So, was the 1887 Holmes a less edgy, slightly purer version of the detective who appeared again in 1890? It’s hard to imagine a magazine that celebrates Christmas also featuring a story about a dude who shoots up and solves crimes.
In A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes bellows: “Nothing is new under the sun!” which is a quote Conan Doyle borrowed from the King James Bible. This, in part, demonstrates Doyle’s insightful knack for weaving a classic. Most of us associate the detective battle cry “the game’s afoot!” with Sherlock Holmes, but again, like the “under the sun” quote, Doyle stole that catchphrase from Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Like George Lucas injecting classic mythological structures into the Star Wars films, Doyle’s crafting of Holmes was a cocktail of classic and then-modern influences. A Study in Scarlet is still one of the greatest Sherlock Holmes stories of them all. If only because it’s the origin story of the very first contemporary superhero. And for the readers in November 1887, an early, and much welcome Christmas present.