The birth of P.G. Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes

Strand pagetPGW quoted this famous character from his third book up to his ninety-third and had a tremendous admiration for Arthur Conan Doyle.

N.T.P. Murphy, A Wodehouse Handbook

On the 15th of October, 1881, P.G. Wodehouse was born in Guildford , England.

Coincidentally, 1881 was also the year in which Dr. John Watson first met Sherlock Holmes. Their meeting was recounted by Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887).

Some years later, the young Wodehouse became an avid reader of these stories, and his early work is littered with Holmesian references.  In The Adventure of the Split Infinitive , a 1902 short story published in ‘Public School Magazine’, Wodehouse sends Mr. Burdock Rose and his companion Dr. Wotsing to investigate a murder at St. Asterisk’s school.

“Anyone suspected?” I asked.

“I was coming to that. One of the Form, Vanderpoop by name, under whose desk the corpse was discovered, has already been arrested.”

“Did he make any statement?”

“Well, he hit the policeman under the jaw, if that could be called making a statement. He is now in the local police-station awaiting trial. Popular opinion is, I should say, strongly against him.”

“That I should think is in itself almost enough to clear him. Popular opinion is always wrong.”

The Adventure of the Split Infinitive (1902)

Wodehouse’s wonderful school duo Psmith and Jackson bear some similarity to Holmes and Watson. Psmith is uniquely brilliantly, while his friend Mike Jackson is loyal and dependable. Psmith sees himself as a Holmsian figure and consciously uses Holmes-speak in conversation. It was Wodehouse’s Psmith, not Conan-Doyle’s Holmes, who first used the words ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ — in Psmith Journalist (1910).

“Sherlock Holmes was right,” said Psmith regretfully. “You may remember that he advised Doctor Watson never to take the first cab, or the second. He should have gone further, and urged him not to take cabs at all. Walking is far healthier.”

Psmith Journalist (1910).

The language of Holmes and Watson was one that Wodehouse readers knew – then and now. Many Wodehouse enthusiasts today are fans of Conan Doyle, and much research has been done to find the Holmesian references in Wodehouse’s writing. An excellent list, compiled by John Dawson, is available from the Madam Eulalie website.

Another well researched piece by fellow blogger Shreevatsa reveals that Wodehouse wrote an introduction to a 1970s edition of Conan Doyle’s The Sign of the Four.

When I was starting out as a writer—this would be about the time Caxton invented the printing press—Conan Doyle was my hero. Others might revere Hardy and Meredith. I was a Doyle man, and I still am. Usually we tend to discard the idols of our youth as we grow older, but I have not had this experience with A.C.D. I thought him swell then, and I think him swell now.

Wodehouse and Conan Dolyle also became friends. They shared a mutual love of cricket and played together for the Authors Cricket Club .

Wodehouse retained a love of detective stories throughout his life, and this was reflected in his work. He enjoyed entangling characters in a spot of light crime, and created numerous detectives to catch them at it –like Miss Trimble and Mr Sturgis (Piccadilly Jim), Percy Frobisher Pilbeam (Heavy Weather), and Maudie Stubbs née Beach (Pigs Have Wings). He even tried his hand at straight detective fiction, in The Education of Detective Oakes (Pearson’s Magazine, 1914), later republished as The Harmonica Mystery, and Death at the Excelsior. 

Perhaps, if he had applied himself seriously, P.G. Wodehouse might have become a great crime writer. Happily for us, he didn’t — readers of detective fiction are spoiled for choice, but great humour writers are lamentably rare. The result was a happy one for his characters too. As a creator of comedy romances, Wodehouse’s detectives were permitted time off from the study of little known Asiatic poisons to relax at the Senior Bloodstain, and even to fall in love.

A hardboiled crime writer could never permit such diversions, as we learn from Wodehouse’s fictional crime writer, James Rodman, in ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’.

He held rigid views on the art of the novel, and always maintained that an artist with a true reverence for his craft should not descend to goo-ey love stories, but should stick austerely to revolvers, cries in the night, missing papers, mysterious Chinamen, and dead bodies — with or without gash in throat.

Honeysuckle Cottage

While the great Sherlock Holmes remained a bachelor, Wodehouse’s Adrian Mulliner, detective with the firm Widgery and Boon, won the heart of Millicent Shipton-Bellinger after he distinguished himself in the Adventure of the Missing Sealyham (‘The Smile That Wins).

All her life she had been accustomed to brainless juveniles who eked out their meagre eyesight with monocles and, as far as conversation was concerned, were a spent force after they had asked her if she had seen the Academy or did she think she would prefer a glass of lemonade. The effect on her of a dark, keen-eyed man like Adrian Mulliner, who spoke well and easily of footprints, psychology and the underworld, must have been stupendous.

‘The Smile That Wins’ (Mulliner Nights)

No less stupendous, it seems, was Wodehouse’s life-long love for the genre. I can imagine him, even as a nonagenarian, clawing at the birthday gift-wrapping with indecent haste to get at the latest crime thriller inside.

Happy Birthday Plum!


33 thoughts on “The birth of P.G. Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes

  1. Very nicely done and on a favorite connection to Plum and his works. My local TWS chapter recently read Death at the Excelsior and in working up some introductory notes on Wodehouse and murder mysteries I said it was the only such story Plum ever wrote but then I reconsidered. And I suggest that the Mulliner frame to Strychnine in the Soup amounts to a complete murder mystery story. Well, it’s a theory.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Ken. I wish I could have been there to listen to your soothing voice perform its magic with Wodehouse! I can still hear you, keeping us spellbound on fish. Perhaps you could record a few for the Libravox audiobook community one day…..

      This piece is really just scratching at the surface of a theme, which so many others have scratched before me. Having been weened on mystery novels as a girl, I love the element of mystery in Wodehouse.


  2. What a juicy piece, if piece is the word I want!

    His cops not only fall in love, but also fall short of the high standards set by Scotland Yard. When confronted by a Justice of Peace who has a personal agenda of his own, they can’t even press charges. Some of them even take the rap for being excessively ambitious.

    Perhaps the conduct of Rupert Baxter in ‘Something Fresh’ might shine as a better example of investigative skills on display!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Baxter is indeed the consummate Javert. I suppose my favorite Wodehouse cop is the bullish Stilton Cheesewright from “Joy in the Morning,” who sticks to his law enforcement principles by resigning from the force.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Interesting thought — I automatically thought of private detectives rather than the constabulary. On the subject of Rozzers, we have your excellent piece for reference.


    2. What ho, Ashok. I had not thought of the constabulary– more the private detective–but of course you are quite right! As for Baxter, and the other amateur sleuths… definitely more ripe pickings there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well done, Honoria, once again . . . and of course happy birthday Plum. If anyone wishes to be both informed and bored at the same time, seek out “Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes”, a 1992 tome by Mid-West academic Kristin Thompson. She analyses and compares the Holmes-Watson and Wooster-Jeeves relationships at exhausting and futile length. It’s interesting, up to a point, but when she starts quoting some Russian authority on formalism I am immediately reminded of Cootaboot and how he clicked.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on ashokbhatia and commented:
    How fortunate we happen to be! If Plum had abandoned dishing out humorous escapades of all sizes and shapes, and instead turned to crime fiction, the universe we live in would have become so very listless and mirthless.

    Here is yet another delectable post from Honoria Glossop.

    Liked by 1 person

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