“I lay upon the sofa and tried to interest myself in a yellow-backed novel. The puny plot of the story was so thin, however, compared to the deep mystery through which we were groping, and I found my attention wander so continually from the fiction to the fact, that I at last flung it across the room, and gave myself up entirely to a consideration of the events of the day.”
–Dr. Watson, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (Doyle 80)
Newgate novels, some of the first best-selling works of sensationalist crime fiction, eventually declined in popularity around 1840 after the trial B.F. Courvoisier. Courvoisier, convicted for the murder of Lord William Russell, declared he was inspired to commit this crime by the book Jack Sheppard and a play he had seen based on it. The press took this opportunity to defame all sorts of penny dreadfuls and other publications like Jack Sheppard, including Newgate novels (Panek 34). The emerging middle class, concerned with remaining upstanding, stopped reading these works and instead turned to more respectable sources like Charles Dickens during this period of “High Victorian Seriality” (Wiltse 106). However, as these authors stopped publishing serially in magazines nearing the 1880s and 1890s, this left an empty niche in many English publications.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories perfectly fit the criteria necessary for a popular series. His stories were serial, but not in the same way that past literature had been. He stuck to no single storyline, but his stories were independent and did not require much background knowledge of the characters or specific situations in which they might find themselves. However, even though they did not necessarily have to keep up with one specific plot line, readers grew attached to characters like Holmes and Watson and bought issues of The Strand in order to see what happened to them next (Wiltse 108).
Even though his Holmes stories appealed to the masses, Doyle specifically targeted them toward the middle class. The Strand’s biggest market was railroad commuters, typically middle-class workers who traveled into the city daily, and they often sold in newspaper stands at railroad stops. In order to preserve this market, the editor of The Strand, George Newnes, deliberately kept sensationalist works out of his paper. At the time, members of the lower class were specifically known for devouring literature that was simply bad: poorly written and sensational to the maximum. Therefore, in order to distance themselves from the lower class, members of the middle class read “wholesome” literature to “improve… [their] cultural health” (Pittard 2).
Even the illustrations done by Sidney Paget to accompany Doyle’s stories went against the established norms of sensationalism as seen in broadsides and less tasteful publications. Paget refused to depict crime directly and continually denied readers the full scene of the actual story by cutting off the visual plane at a mangled body’s point of interest or showing a body at a distance so the gore was not clear (Pittard 12).
Though Doyle himself did not think his Holmes stories were at all his best work, he did value them over works done by others at the time. As Christopher Pittard writes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was “not high art, but hygienic for its reader-consumers” (Pittard 2).