It is generally agreed that the most famous fictional detective in the world is Sherlock Holmes. Films, books, plays and various other artistic modalities have been utilized to feature this forerunner of the modern scientific method in detective sleuthing. He is the invention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician by training, who started writing during his medical school years and developed his most famous character while actively practicing. Contrary to literary versus medical trends today, Doyle soon found he could make more money by writing Sherlock Holmes stories, and the medical practice eventually became a specter of the past. However, Doyle, being a restless soul with numerous interests, soon tired of Sherlock Holmes (“He takes my mind from better things.”) and raised his prices to such a ridiculous level that he assumed no rational publishing company would pay the price, thereby allowing him to move on to “better things.” As Johnny Carson would say, “Wrong, Moosebreath.” The character had become so popular with the reading public by then that Strand Magazine, the major publisher of the stories, agreed to his price hike and Doyle became one of the best paid writers of that era.
Altogether, Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, with The Hound of the Baskervilles being the most famous. A considerable portion begin with Holmes and his friend, John Watson, a physician, lounging around in the former’s residence at 221B Baker Street until the landlady, Mrs. Hudson, escorts someone in who has a problem. The customers appear from all segments of society and their problems range from murder to disappearances to missing or stolen items to peculiar occurrences, etc. Holmes, a tall, thin, gaunt individual is nonetheless quite athletic and strong, and is an excellent shot. He has numerous peculiarities, as related by his friend, Watson, including playing the violin and abusing cocaine when he is bored or between cases. He is highly intelligent, and supercilious, and apparently can’t keep himself from looking down on those law enforcement personnel who do not possess his same gifts. On the other hand, he has a brother, Mycroft, whom he considers even more intelligent than himself, though lazy, and Mycroft makes an appearance in some of his cases. What has made Sherlock Holmes a special and endearing character over the years is his extraordinary powers of deductive reasoning. From a person’s dress, accent, and carriage he is able to draw historical and contemporary conclusions that astound everyone around him. These same skills are utilized to solve his cases.
Most people who have heard of Sherlock Holmes have also heard of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s a good novel, though not a great one, and the ending is excellent: “I sprang to my feet, my inert hand grasping my pistol, my mind paralyzed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadows of the fog . . . Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outline in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
Doyle is best at his short stories and there are many to choose from. One of the earliest, published in 1891, is “The Red-Headed League,” which gives a good feel for the atmosphere and tone that the author is able to produce: “Try the settee,” said Holmes (to Watson), relapsing into his armchair, and putting his fingertips together, as was his custom when in judicial moods.” The story concerns a gentleman who hires a red-headed pawnbroker to copy out of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but for nefarious purposes. Another good one is “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” which involves a series of stick figures drawn on paper in various stages of movement or dance. Holmes must decipher the code of the dancing men while solving the mystery that they have brought, and he works on both issues simultaneously, one helping him unravel the other. Perhaps the best story in the collection, and a favorite of many Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts, is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” This one is more eerie than Doyle’s general fare: “By the light of the corridor lamp I saw my sister appear at the opening, her face blanched with terror, her hands groping for help, her whole figure swaying to and fro like that of a drunkard. I ran to her and threw my arms round her, but at that moment her knees seemed to give way and she fell to the ground. She writhed as one who is in terrible pain, and her limbs were dreadfully convulsed . . . ‘Oh, my God! Helen! It was the band! The speckled band!’”
Interested? You might find the story is at your local library.
Though known primarily for Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was actually the author of a considerable number of other works during his lifetime, including novels, fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, essays, and various other kinds of non-fiction. I would particularly recommend a book of his non-Sherlock-Holmes stories entitled, Tales of Terror and Mystery, and have a special fondness for the opening tale, “The Horror of the Heights.” This was written in 1913, just as aviation was coming into its own, and Doyle allows his mind to soar into the stratosphere of possibilities. It concerns a man who wonders about the disappearance of airmen in the recent months and decides to fly as high as he can to determine what’s up there. He discovers, to his horror, that giant creatures inhabit the skies at rarified heights: “The whole aspect of this monster was formidable and threatening, and it kept changing its color from a very light mauve to a dark, angry purple so thick that it cast a shadow as it drifted between my monoplane and the sun.”
Yeah. Check it out.
Though an avowed atheist, Doyle was also interested in spiritualism, and was a friend of the magician Harry Houdini. He was highly energetic, athletic, and felt keenly about humanitarian affairs, for instance that the justice system in England should be improved. In 1900 he wrote a book on the Boer War, and was knighted in 1902 (hence the name Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). To the very end of his life, to his death in 1930 at age 71, he felt ambivalent toward his creation of Sherlock Holmes. He probably would have said something like, “As an author, I’m more than that.”
Perhaps, but history will ultimately value him by those stories and that one great character—not a bad legacy by which to be judged.