As legions of Sherlock fans await a visit to Victorian London and an encounter with The Abominable Bride on British television in the New Year, we thought a little-known tale from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would further whet the appetite.
Burger’s Secret is a tale of archaeology, Roman remains, inflamed passions and a dark conclusion. Whilst you probably won’t need Holmesian deduction to work out the story’s twist, the book that it was originally published in may surprise you: a compendium of Victorian knowledge, produced by a major soap manufacturer. Burger’s Secret was “specially written” for the Sunlight Year book for 1898.
Aiming to be “a treasury of useful information of value to all members of the household” the Yearbook was produced by the Lever Brothers, whose manufacturing business was built around the success of Sunlight soap. The Year book for 1898 was its fourth year of publication and the company certainly pulled off a coup by getting Conan Doyle to write a story for them. Otherwise, the rest of the volume consists of an encyclopaedic overview of history, geography, science and many points in-between.
Burger’s Secret is a relatively little known part of the Conan Doyle cannon, evading the attention of many of his biographers. After appearing in the Sunlight Year book, it was anthologised in The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport in 1900, when its title was changed to The New Catacomb.
The story was written during the period of Conan Doyle’s career when he was trying to distance himself from his most famous creation. After The Final Problem in 1893 – when Holmes and Moriarty plunged from the Reichenbach Falls – Conan Doyle concentrated on more serious, historical novels.
However, around the time of the publication of the Sunlight book Conan Doyle also wrote a number of short stories for the The Strand magazine. Published in 1898 and 1899 – and later anthologised as Round the Fire Stories – these stories have a similar macabre air to Burger’s Secret.
As Burger’s Secret is only a short tale, perhaps the other contents of the Sunlight Year Book can help fill the days before the 1 January and the latest installment of Sherlock? After all, the section in the Yearbook on Victorian Indoor Games may help pass a few hours. Whilst Conan Doyle leaves aside the detail of whether such games as Dumb Crambo or Bib-Bob were ever attempted at 221b Baker Street, we can imagine Sherlock Holmes being rather adept at the creation of Shadow Animals:
though, of course, his representation of the Giant Rat of Sumatra would be a Shadow Animal for which the world is (still) not yet prepared…