Thinking the Unthinkable: Reopening Conan Doyle's "Cardboard Box"

Article excerpt

BETWEEN JULY 1891 and June 1892, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published twelve Sherlock Holmes stories in the Strand Magazine. In October 1892 they were gathered together and published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These stories proved so popular with late-Victorian readers that, even before the first twelve were fully published, the Strand was negotiating with Conan Doyle to produce a second series of stories. Hoping to bluff his way out of writing twelve new tales, Conan Doyle placed his fee at a thousand pounds. Unexpectedly, the Strand accepted his terms, and Conan Doyle, wanting to concentrate on his more arduous and more serious historical fiction but glad to receive such an excessive wage for stories he could produce more easily, began work on the new series of Holmes adventures.

The first story in the new series, "Silver Blaze," appeared in December 1892. The second story, "The Cardboard Box," appeared in January 1893. By the end of the year, Conan Doyle had produced twelve new stories for the Strand, and a second collection of tales, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, was duly issued. However, when George Newnes, the publisher of the Strand, brought out this second collection, he included only eleven of the twelve new stories. Following Conan Doyle's wishes, Newnes excluded "The Cardboard Box" from the new collection, and the tale would not appear in book form until 1917. Not surprisingly, the mysterious disappearance of "The Cardboard Box" has generated a good deal of speculation among Conan Doyle's most devoted readers. Out of all the fifty-six Holmes stories, these readers ask, why was this story the only story Conan Doyle ever wished to suppress? "The Cardboard Box" is indeed a dark tale, but surely not any darker than the gothic horrors of "The Speckled Band" (Conan Doyle's favorite Holmes tale) or the quieter, but equally sinister domestic outrages of "A Case of Identity." Why, then, "The Cardboard Box"?

At different moments in his life, Conan Doyle offered different reasons for the tale's suppression: "The Cardboard Box" was a weak story, its plot was much too sensational, it was out of place in a collection of stories intended for boys. However, as Christopher Roden argues in his recent introduction to the Oxford edition of The Memoirs, none of these reasons will suffice. As Roden notes, "The Cardboard Box" is "certainly not a weak story, and Conan Doyle's own regard for the opening paragraphs of the story, which he transposed into `The Resident Patient,' seems to refute his statement" (xxi). As for sensationalism, "The Cardboard Box," while involving murder, adultery, and mutilation, is no more sensational than the other eleven tales. As for Conan Doyle's final justification, Roden observes that "Whether one can consider a collection of stories which had appeared in the Strand as being intended for boys' consumption is open to debate. It seems an unrealistic explanation when one considers [that] some of the other adventures ... have features which might then have been considered to render them unsuitable for boys' reading material" (xx-xxi). In the end, Roden argues, "One is lead to the conclusion ... that something of which we are unaware, or can only speculate upon, happened in Conan Doyle's life between the time the story appeared in the Strand and the time the collection was published in book form" (xxi).

Something mysterious may have indeed happened to Conan Doyle in 1893, something that would have made republication of "The Cardboard Box" undesirable, but we can only speculate as to what it might have been. Such speculations are not likely to move us closer to the truth and, in fact, may move us further from it. However, we still have the tale itself, and any account that hopes to explain the mysterious disappearance of "The Cardboard Box" must focus on the story, and not any biographical explanations. As Holmes would say, we must hypothesize from the facts, and the only facts we possess, in lieu of any Doylean pronouncements from the grave, are the words on the page. …