Remembering Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the anniversary of his birth

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born into a prosperous family on 22 May 1859 in Edinburgh.  He trained as a doctor, earning his degree from Edinburgh University.  He worked as a surgeon and medical officer on a ship traveling between Liverpool and Africa.  He finally settled in Portsmouth on the English coast, where he set up a medical practice.

In between patients, Doyle worked on his novella A Study of Scarlet, which marked the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle was largely dissatisfied as a reader with the crime fiction of that time.  He felt the stories seemed contrived due to the miraculous fluke or a lucky chance that enabled the detective to catch the culprit.  There was seldom any explanation offered about the process behind the resolution.

Doyle, hence, based Holmes on his old professor, Dr. Joseph Bell.  Doyle based Holmes's prodigious observational abilities on Bell's talents.  Holmes, like Bell, was able to tell the occupation, recent activities, habits, and past of his patients merely by observation.

Holmes frequently applied the principles of forensic science during his criminal investigations, which is once again based on Bell.  It was often a chemical test that facilitated resolution of a mystery.

Holmes also approached his case like a geometrical proof, using logic and reasoning to arrive at his conclusion.

Sherlock Holmes is a legendary figure today, but Holmes's literary debut, A Study in Scarlet, was far from stellar.  The novella suffered several rejections from publishers.

The story was eventually published in the 1887 edition of Beeton's Christmas Annual.  Doyle had at first insisted on royalty, but instead, he reluctantly accepted a small sum in return for the full rights of the novella.  The work has been reprinted many times, but Doyle never earned another penny from it. 

Sign of the Four, Doyle's second work featuring Holmes and Watson, also failed to be a success.

Doyle's persistence could be an inspiration to those who suffer setbacks in the early phase of any project.  Had Doyle given up, Holmes would never have become the legendary figure that he is today.

But Doyle remained focused; he transported Holmes to short stories, which were published in the popular Strand Magazine starting in 1891.

While novels take time and effort to comprehend, short stories could be consumed in one sitting.  The new platform and format of stories made Holmes easily accessible to a wider audience, and superstardom followed for both Holmes and Doyle.  Here is a rare film of him speaking, in 1929:

Doyle authored 56 short stories and four novels with Holmes.  The other novels were The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902 and The Valley of Fear in 1915.

Doyle was particularly adroit in creating the world of Holmes in Victorian England.  As you read the words, you can almost hear the hooves of horse-driven carriages strike the cobblestone streets in London.  You felt like a witness to Holmes sitting cross-legged on his chair, puffing on his pipe as he listened with undivided attention to a client narrating his situation. 

Doyle cleverly used Holmes's friend and colleague Dr. Watson as a narrative tool.  Watson, who wasn't entirely familiar with Holmes's method, would often find himself puzzled by Holmes's results.  Holmes would then expound on his process of analysis and deduction to enlighten Watson and the reader.

Doyle was determined not to portray Holmes as a superhero.

Doyle frequently revealed Holmes's sensitive side, usually concealed beneath his stoic demeanor.  Holmes's motivations behind resolving cases weren't personal glory, but instead to aid the helpless and wrongfully accused.  Holmes frequently allowed the police to take credit for resolving the crime, because for him, the work was the reward.

Doyle was careful to indicate that Holmes's astonishing results were the result of not just his amazing skill at deduction, but also his diligence, tenacity, focus, and determination.

Doyle introduced readers to Sherlock's older brother Mycroft, who is superior to Sherlock in his powers of observation and deduction.  Yet Mycroft isn't a great detective like Sherlock owing to his lacking of ambition and drive.  Mycroft is so indifferent to life that he would rather be considered wrong than strive (like Holmes) to prove himself right. 

Doyle even had occasions where Holmes was outdone by a superior adversary.  In Doyle's first short story, A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes is outsmarted by an American actress and opera singer, Irene Adler.  This causes Holmes to hold her in great esteem, and he refers to her subsequently as "the Woman."

It was brave of Doyle to have Sherlock outwitted by a woman in his debut short story; it could have turned off readers permanently.  This was a time in Britain when women didn't even have the right to vote.  But Doyle did so to make an ample display of Holmes's failings.  

Holmes is also depicted as a chain smoker who is addicted to cocaine, which he claims enables him to "escape from the commonplaces of existence."

Doyle saw Holmes as a stepping stone toward something more substantial in literary terms.  While he was pleased by Holmes's legendary status, he grew weary of being identified solely as the creator of Holmes.

He probably realized that detective fiction is regarded as a lightweight affair and was seldom given the respect that serious works of literature earn.

In the stories, Holmes frequently derides Watson for depicting his cases as frivolous adventures that appealed to the least common denominator among the public.

Doyle literally put an end to his misery with The Final Problem, where Holmes is in pursuit of master criminal Professor James Moriarty.  Holmes manages to outwit Moriarty and bring an end to his criminal enterprise, but in doing so, he has to pay the ultimate price.  The story ends with Holmes and Moriarty hurtling to their deaths after being locked in mortal combat.

The public reaction to Sherlock's sudden demise was unlike anything previously seen for fictional character.  The Strand Magazine suffered mass cancelation of subscriptions.  There were claims of men throughout London wearing black mourning crêpes around their arms to mourn Holmes's death.

Pressure from fans and the urge to replenish his bank account eventually persuaded Doyle to resurrect Holmes in The Empty House.  Holmes reveals that he falsified his death to elude Moriarty's confederates eager to avenge the death of their boss. 

It wasn't just detective fiction; Doyle also wrote poetry and theatrical plays.  Doyle was an enthusiastic supporter of the Boer War and wrote two historical accounts of the events.  During the First World War, he also wrote extensively on that conflict.

Beyond writing, Doyle was a golf and cricket enthusiast. 

Politically, he was a Unionist who supported the Home Rule in Ireland.  He even unsuccessfully contested elections for a parliamentary seat.  He supported divorce law reform in favor of women.  He supported the women's suffrage movement but opposed their extremist actions.

Following the close successive deaths of his son and his brother, Doyle turned to spiritualism and wrote extensively on the subject.

Doyle realized that, despite his efforts, his legacy would be defined by Sherlock Holmes, but he also hoped to be remembered as a champion of spiritualism and as a historian.

Postscript: The most faithful adaptations of the Doyle's stories were in the Granada Series, starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes.  Brett captured Holmes's manic energy and the hound-like determination of Holmes, along with the melancholia and mood swings.  Brett even resembled the Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied Doyle's stories in the Strand Magazine.

Photo credit: YouTube screen grab.

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