Weary of the Sherlock Homes stories and anxious to get on with what he considered his more important writing, Arthur Conan Doyle killed his famous Baker Street detective in December 1893.
Readers protested and publicly mourned; thousands canceled their subscriptions to the Strand Magazine, the publisher of the Holmes stories, and a decade later Holmes returned, not dead after all. In the interim, however, in what can be seen as formative years in the history of detective literature, Holmes's successors and imitators appeared.One of the most important and successful of these was Martin Hewitt, the creation of Arthur Morrison-journalist, chronicler of London's slums, and, in the years following Holmes's "death," a popular writer of detective fiction.
Morrison was a reticent man whose life is as obscure as his work is unjustly neglected. Shy and retiring, Morrison avoided publicity as much as he could. He was more respected than known by his greater contemporaries. He was very sensitive about his family, which had been quite low on the British social scale, and he seemed to have found it painful to talk about his early life. He either evaded questions or deliberately offered misleading information, and his wife, who apparently shared his feelings, at his death burned all his private papers.
Morrison was born in 1863 in a slum district of London known as Poplar, a little to the north of the Isle of Dogs, and he grew up there and in other similar slums in East London. His father was a steamfitter, and the inference is reasonable that there was a persistent milieu of temporary unemployment, poverty, moving and relocation, and domestic unhappiness. All ot these themes – plus the dominant central concept of the boy who tries to escape the slums – occur throughout his serious fiction, and are probably based on his own life pattern.
He began working as a clerk at the People’s Palace in East London in 1887 when he was 23 years old. He worked on accounts and correspondence, and eventually became a subeditor of the Palace Journal. In 1890, taking the advice from Walter Besant, Morrison decided that he was capable of making a living at journalism. He moved to West London and took a position on a local newspaper, also working at freelance writing. His first book publication came in 1891 with a collection of ghost stories entitled Shadows Around Us.
The same year, 1891, saw in Macmillan’s Magazine the first appearance of The Streeet, one of the components of Tales of Mean Streets. It caught the eye of W.E. Henley, one of the leading editors of the day, who accepted further stories for The National Observer. Tales of Mean Streets was published in 1894. In these stories, Morrison portrayed depths of brutality and squalor that had never before been described. Although his contemporaries did not know it, Morrison was writing about things that he knew from his own witness. He did not sentimentalize, glorify, or preach, but with complete detachment, he described the lives of broken charwomen, pimping parasities and shattered workers who drifted down to destruction; he showed shabby attempts to retain respectability and the perpetual edging or slipping into crime.
The volume was a critical success, but a number of reviewers objected to the violence portrayed in one story - Lizerunt.
Around this time Morrison was also producing detective short stories which emulated those of Conan Doyle about Sherlock Holmes. Three volumes of Detective Martin Hewitt stories were published before the publication of the novel for which Morrison is most famous: A Child of the Jago.
After Tales of Mean Streets had been published, Morrison received a letter from Rev. A. Osbourne Jay, a missionary to the slums and author of books on the East End.
Father Jay asked Morrison to investigate the Old Nichol, then one of the worst areas in London. Morrison responded by devoting eighteen months to the projects.
Aided by Father Jay he became acquainted with the denizens. He interviewed them with a persistence and precision worthy of a modern anthropologist, recorded their utterance and even took part in the events of their daily life. His knowledge of boxing, which he had piced up at the People’s Palace, is said to have stood him in good stead on several occasions when he was mugged by natives of the Old Nichol.
Carefully selecting incidents that had taken place, Morrision wrote A Child of Jago, a story of a good-hearted boy destroyed by his environment. The story was immediately recognized as a work of stature, and by 1912 had been translated into several Continental languages. It went through seven British printings.
Although A Child of the Jago was acclaimed artistically, Morrison was much criticised by contemporaries for exaggerating the violent and criminal aspects of the Jago. However, in his preface to the third edition of the book, written in response to the critics, he denied any such exaggeration, claiming rather that he had deliberately understated such features in telling his story.
Six years after A Child of Jago, Morrison wrote his third important book, The Hole in the Wall. The story is set in the mid-nineteenth century, not too far away in time from the years when Morrison hemself was growing up in an East End slum. Told by varying narrators, it is the story of a small boy in the incredibly foul waterfront area near the Ratcliffe Highway. The boy’s grandfather, whose hands are not unstained with murder and theft, operates a low dive, The Hole in the Wall. Both boy and grandfather are caught up in a complex intertwining of crimes, plotted and committed.
Other less well-received novels and stories followed The Hole in the Wall. Then, in 1911, Morrison, who had become an enthusiastic collector of Japanese prints, completed a two-volume work, The Painters of Japan, which was published in both England and America. In 1913 Morrison sold his art collection to the British Museum for the rumored price of £4000 and retired.
Morrison lived until 1945 but little is known of his life during his last 30 years. He was elected to the Royal Literary Society and in the 1920’s served on its council. When he died in 1945 the world was more astonished to learn that he had been still living than that he was dead.