Arthur Conan Doyle's 60 stories about
Sherlock Holmes are so full of ingenious plots and clever devices that many have
had occasion to wonder how he came up with his ideas. A new item in the Arthur
Conan Doyle Collection sheds light on Arthur Conan Doyle's creative process,
particularly in relation to his Holmes story "The Adventure of the Dancing Men."
Conan Doyles' Dancing Men code
The villain in this story communicates
via a code of little stick figures (the "dancing men" of the title), and the
case is only solved when Holmes's client Hilton Cubitt hires him to crack the
code. Arthur Conan Doyle is said to have gotten the idea for this inventive code
after seeing some stick-figure letters drawn by a young boy in an autograph
book. That same autograph book is now the newest addition to the Toronto Public
Library's holdings related to Arthur Conan Doyle and his works.
Autograph book entries by Gilbert John Cubitt and Edith Alice Cubitt
The case for the autograph book as
inspiration is compelling. The name Cubitt appears throughout the book, and
judging from the many sketches and paintings within, they were an artistically
inclined family. The little figures drawn by young Gilbert John Cubitt are
really ornamented letters and numbers rather than a code per se, but it is easy
to see how the drawings, along with Edith Alice Cubitt's stick-figure musical
notes would have suggested the Dancing Men code to Conan Doyle. If you look
closely enough at Gilbert's entry to break the "code", you will see that he
signed it in 1902. Therefore, we know the page was already in the book when
Arthur Conan Doyle signed it in May, 1903. "The Adventure of the Dancing Men"
appeared in the Strand Magazine in December, 1903.
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