Last reviewed: June 2018
Scottish novelist, short-story writer, and playwright
May 22, 1859
July 7, 1930
Crowborough, East Sussex, England
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the best-known and most popular characters in English literature. Sherlock Holmes, the gaunt and brilliant detective of 221B Baker Street, London, was brought to life by Doyle in fifty-six short stories and four novellas published between 1887 and 1927. Doyle’s tales of crime and detection have enthralled readers and inspired countless stage, screen, radio, and television adaptations. Despite his literary debt to such earlier detective writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Doyle created the first truly great detective of fiction, and he popularized and vitalized the detective story as a fictional form. Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, of Irish parents, on May 22, 1859. He graduated from Edinburgh University’s school of medicine in 1884 and began to practice medicine in England. To supplement his income he wrote a tale of murder and revenge called A Study in Scarlet, featuring Sherlock Holmes as its central character. Doyle based Holmes’s keen powers of observation and deduction upon Dr. Joseph Bell, a former teacher, who had long impressed his students with his ability to diagnose patients with a quick glance.
A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, was the first Holmes novella; it had little immediate success. Doyle, however, was urged by an American editor to continue the exploits of his detective, and he wrote The Sign of Four, the best of the novellas, and produced a series of twenty-four short stories, which were illustrated by Sidney Paget and published in The Strand magazine. These first twenty-four stories were collected in book form in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.
The success of these works enabled Doyle to give up his medical career. But he had become bored with his creation, and in “The Final Problem,” the last story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, he described Holmes’s death at the hands of his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty. Doyle’s readers were shocked and outraged: They were not to be denied their hero. In the face of great public clamor, Doyle at last relented and resurrected Holmes. The series continued with The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1902; the last of the novellas, The Valley of Fear, was published in 1915. The later short stories were published in monthly issues of The Strand and later collected in book form as The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. The stories were narrated in the first person by Holmes’s close companion and assistant, Dr. John Watson, whose vague intellect offered the perfect reflector for Holmes’s genius.
Doyle was an active, public-spirited man and an extremely prolific writer. In his own time he was known for many works besides the Holmes stories, and some of them deserve attention. The White Company remains a classic novel of chivalric adventure, and Micah Clarke, a story of Monmouth’s rebellion, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, and Sir Nigel are all spirited historical romances. In The Lost World Doyle originated the idea of an isolated land of prehistoric life existing in the twentieth century, and in Danger! (1914) he predicted the German submarine blockade of the British Isles. He was knighted in 1902 for his defense of the conduct of the British Army in The Great Boer War and the widely translated The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct.
Arthur Conan Doyle was primarily a superb romancer; he possessed virtually no capacity for dullness. His vigor and sense of adventure infused almost everything he wrote with an uncomplicated air of excitement. Today the best of the Sherlock Holmes tales are puzzling and original mystery stories, but they also absorb readers in an atmosphere of sinister doings in London at the turn of the century that is at once nostalgic and exciting. Doyle died in Crowborough on July 7, 1930.