Decoding Sherlock Holmes

September 21, 2012 | Kathryn

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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.
Cubitt's code
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.
Coincidence? We think not.

 Conan Doyle signatureConan Doyle's autograph, May 1903