Conan Doyle Introduces Sherlock Holmes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The publication of the first Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle helped launch the popular form of detective fiction and introduced a literary character instantly recognized around the world to this day.

Summary of Event

In 1886, a young medical doctor and fledgling writer named Arthur Conan Doyle had a short novel, or novella, entitled A Study in Scarlet (1887 serial, 1888 book) accepted for publication by Ward, Lock & Company. The story, which appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in December, 1887, featured a tall, hawk-nosed “consulting detective” named Sherlock Holmes and was narrated by Holmes’s friend Dr. John Watson. Holmes was modeled on Dr. Joseph Bell, who was one of Conan Doyle’s professors at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school. Bell possessed an uncanny ability to discover a person’s trade or life circumstances simply by quickly observing the person’s appearance. Holmes demonstrated the same skill in A Study in Scarlet and subsequent stories. Although Conan Doyle aspired to write more “serious” literature, the success of his Holmes stories would define his reputation for the rest of his life. Sherlock Holmes Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Literature;detective Literature;English Literature;Sherlock Holmes [kw]Conan Doyle Introduces Sherlock Holmes (Dec., 1887) [kw]Doyle Introduces Sherlock Holmes, Conan (Dec., 1887) [kw]Introduces Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle (Dec., 1887) [kw]Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle Introduces (Dec., 1887) [kw]Holmes, Conan Doyle Introduces Sherlock (Dec., 1887) Sherlock Holmes Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan Literature;detective Literature;English Literature;Sherlock Holmes [g]Great Britain;Dec., 1887: Conan Doyle Introduces Sherlock Holmes[5560] [c]Literature;Dec., 1887: Conan Doyle Introduces Sherlock Holmes[5560] Bell, Joseph Bettany, G. T.

A Study in Scarlet centers on the murder of an American in London amid several puzzling clues. Holmes is consulted by the police and eventually helps to solve a mystery with roots in a Mormon community in Utah. In narrating the story, Watson recounts how he met Holmes for the first time and how they came to share lodgings together. Many of Holmes’s defining characteristics are described in this story, which is told with earnestness peppered with occasional moments of humor. From the earlier, American writer Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle borrowed the essential device of an armchair detective who solves mysteries by reviewing facts that others have “seen but not observed.” Conan Doyle admired Poe’s work, and he even had Holmes explicitly mention Poe’s fictional detective, C. Auguste Dupin, albeit disparagingly.

Actor William Gillette (1855-1937) in Charles Frohman’s production of an original Sherlock Holmes play in 1900. Many actors, including Gillette, have made careers of portraying Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective.

(Library of Congress)

Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet in 1886 during the long intervals between patients. The manuscript was rejected by several publishers before its acceptance by G. T. Bettany Bettany, G. T. , chief editor of Ward, Lock & Company. Bettany could offer Conan Doyle only twenty-five pounds for the copyright, and the story would not be published for a year. Conan Doyle said he would have preferred to receive royalties on the sales of the story, but ultimately accepted the offer. (Later Conan Doyle would purchase back his rights to the story for five thousand pounds.) The 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual containing A Study in Scarlet sold out, although probably not because of Conan Doyle’s story. A Study in Scarlet received little notice from critics at the time. Later, however, the story would become immensely popular, being republished innumerable times and in dozens of languages.

At less than one hundred pages, A Study in Scarlet was particularly well suited for publication in the periodicals such as Beeton’s Christmas Annual that were popular at the time. One such periodical in America—Lippincott’s—commissioned Conan Doyle to write a second Holmes story in 1890. The result was a second novella, The Sign of the Four (1890; later pb. as The Sign of Four), which, like A Study in Scarlet, had Holmes solving a mystery with distant roots—this time in India. Also like its predecessor, The Sign of the Four did not garner much critical interest.

What finally launched Sherlock Holmes into the public consciousness (and Conan Doyle into a measure of prosperity and fame) was the publication of a series of short stories (rather than novellas) featuring Holmes. Still considering his Holmes stories to be a poor showcase for his literary skills, Conan Doyle nevertheless realized that they could provide him with the funding and access to support him in his more “serious” work of writing historical novels. The first of his Holmes short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” appeared in the Strand magazine in 1891. It was immensely popular, and subsequent issues of the periodical containing more Holmes stories were anticipated eagerly by the public. Conan Doyle produced an initial series of six stories, after which he agreed to write another six—at a somewhat higher price.

The popularity of the Holmes stories had its good and bad points for Conan Doyle. Although they did bring him the income and notice that he desired, he felt that Holmes was crowding out his other literary opportunities. He told his friends that he was tiring of the character and that he would “murder” Holmes. This he did in “The Final Problem” (1893), his twenty-third Holmes short story for the Strand. Public outrage followed the unexpected demise of Holmes. The editors of the Strand were frantic to return the popular stories to its pages. Conan Doyle stood his ground, refusing even the pleadings of his own mother that he resurrect Holmes—for a time.

Now free to pursue his other literary ambitions, Conan Doyle gradually learned that the public was less interested in him than it was in Holmes. Thus, after an eight-year hiatus, Holmes returned in print in another short novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902 serial, 1902 book). The story was instantly successful. Although it was supposed to take place prior to Holmes’s death in “The Final Problem,” most readers suspected that Conan Doyle would now have to find a way to resurrect Holmes for future stories. Bowing to public pressure, Conan Doyle did just this in “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the first of a new series of short stories that appeared in the Strand starting in 1903.

In all, Conan Doyle would write fifty-six short stories and four novellas featuring Holmes. The final story, “The Retired Colourman,” appeared in the Strand in 1927. Conan Doyle died three years later.


Conan Doyle’s canon of Sherlock Holmes literature practically represents a genre unto itself. Today all of the Holmes stories remain in print by numerous publishers and in various languages. They have also been made into hundreds of plays, films, and radio programs. The Holmes stories have inspired subsequent mystery writers to create such characters as Agatha Christie’s Christie, Agatha Hercule Poirot. Others have created new Holmes tales using the characters developed by Conan Doyle. The character of Sherlock Holmes has become an icon for detection and intelligence, and even his trademark deerstalker cap and magnifying glass have become universal symbols for mysteries. The figure of Holmes—even simply his easily recognizable silhouette—is regularly used in signs, print advertising, cartoons, and other formats.

The popularity of the Holmes stories in Conan Doyle’s time owed much to his rich but accessible writing style, engaging plots, and clever puzzles, as well as to the colorful characters who developed throughout the course of the stories. The stories’ enduring popularity to this day must partly be due to their nostalgia value, emblematic as they are of Victorian London. Perhaps also contributing to their popularity is the unambiguous depiction of good and evil in the figures of almost melodramatically noble heroes and despicable villains. Such order and clarity can be comforting, particularly when coupled with the familiar and enduring friendship of Holmes and Watson.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baring-Gould, William S., ed. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1967. Definitive two-volume set of all Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, extensively annotated and illustrated, with various essays, bibliographies, and other features.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chabon, Michael. “Inventing Sherlock Holmes.” New York Review of Books 52, nos. 2-3 (February 10-24, 2005). Nominally a review of the Klinger volumes, this two-part essay provides a solid general overview of the Holmes phenomenon. By a Pulitzer-Prize winning author who has written a novella featuring Sherlock Holmes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klinger, Leslie S., ed. The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Generally follows the format of the Baring-Gould volumes, with extensive annotations, illustrations, and related essays. Like the Baring-Gould volumes, appears as a two-volume set, and includes all sixty Holmes stories by Conan Doyle. What distinguishes this set is a fuller discussion of the various inconsistencies, vagaries, contradictions, and speculations about the details in the Holmes stories. Also includes more developed “theories” to resolve these issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millett, Larry. Sherlock Holmes and the Red Demon. New York: Viking Press, 1996. A good example of the post-Conan Doyle works that use the Holmes and Watson characters and that attempt to replicate the narrative form of Watson recounting the tale.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stashower, Daniel. Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. Detailed biography of Conan Doyle, with considerable focus on his writing of the Holmes stories.

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