Arthur Conan Doyle: The Genius Behind Sherlock Holmes, The World’s Most Famous Detective

“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”

― Arthur Conan Doyle

Crime fiction is a genre of literature that centres around crimes and the ongoing investigations to reveal how and why they happened. It is very popular among readers, and for many of them, it is even addictive. Such popularity is almost entirely attributed to the great deal of suspense this type of literature provides.

Well, why not? Does suspense not directly translate to pleasure?

It does. Here is how this happens.

Reading crime fiction evokes both confusion and curiosity. As we go through the puzzling events and the unexpected twists, we feel excitedly stressed. In response, our brains release adrenaline, a hormone that helps us handle this excitement.

When adrenaline is released, our hearts beat faster, our lungs work more efficiently, and more blood is pushed into our brains. As a result, we feel more alert, physically strong, and courageous—some people reported they feel invincible.

In addition, adrenaline itself stimulates the brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone that evokes pleasure.

In other words, reading crime fiction makes us feel happy and excited. The more we read good crime stories, the more addicted we get to the suspense. So we look for better and better stories and feverishly dig everywhere for the best.

In this context, we cannot mention the best crime stories without referring to 

the iconic, arrogant, yet exceptionally intelligent detective Sherlock Holmes. Accordingly, we cannot mention Sherlock Holmes without recalling Arthur Conan Doyle, the genius who brought this fictional detective into existence and provided humanity with a significant content of pleasure and excitement.

In this article, we will explore the life of Arthur Conan Doyle and how he became one of the world’s most remarkable and influential crime writers.

So let’s hop into it.

Arthur Conan Doyle

You can think of Arthur Conan Doyle as a jack of all trades but a master of all. He is a true genius who had many creative pursuits and excelled in many other fields.

Let’s explore some of them.

Writing

Arthur Conan Doyle was a 19th-century British writer whose fame primarily stems from his monopoly moustache and his work in crime fiction. He is best known for creating the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, the super-intelligent, London-based detective who uses close observation, logic, and deduction to solve mysteries.

Throughout his life, Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes.

In 1903, Doyle founded the Crimes Club. This is a private social club where attendees discuss crimes, practice deduction, and study criminals’ minds. The club still exists but under the name Our Society, with only a maximum of 100 members. Meetings are held four times a year in London.

Crime fiction was not the only genre that Doyle excelled at. He also mastered science fiction and fantasy. He wrote many sci-fi stories featuring Professor Challenger. This is the other major fictional character he came up with, yet was sadly overshadowed by the success and attractiveness of Mr Holmes. 

Additionally, Doyle wrote on history and war. As he served as a volunteer physician in the Second Boer War in South Africa, he wrote a short book called The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, where he justified the UK‘s role in the war.

The book had a wide impact. According to Doyle, it is probably why King Edward VII honourably gave him the title Sir in 1902.

Doyle was so prolific. In total, he produced over 200 works of art ranging from novels and short stories to poems, narratives, articles, and studies.

Medicine

That aside, Doyle was originally a physician, an ophthalmologist, to be precise. He specialised in treating eye conditions and fixing vision problems through medicine or surgery.

In 1876, at 17, Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh Medical School for five years. During this period, he received medical training in Aston, Sheffield. Alongside his medical studies, Doyle also studied at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh—a scientific centre specialising in studying plants.

After graduating in 1881, Doyle started his practical medical career as a surgeon. Then he earned his Doctor of Medicine degree (an advanced medical degree), which he completed in 1885.

In early 1891, Doyle moved to Vienna, Austria to specialise in ophthalmology. Discouraged by the German language, Doyle found the study difficult and quit only after four months. When he returned to London later that year, at 32, Doyle left medicine to become a full-time writer.

Sports (and others)

Besides writing and medicine, Doyle was also into sports. Although he did reach a competitive level in many of them, he still considered himself an amateur.

For instance, Doyle played football and was the goalkeeper for the Portsmouth Association Football Club. He was also so good at cricket that he competed in 10 matches from 1899 to 1907.

Moreover, Doyle was interested in gun firing. He won a few championships and founded the Undershaw Rifle Club to teach local men shooting. He was also an amateur boxer, golfer, and billiard player.

In addition to politics, spiritualism, and justice advocacy, Doyle was fascinated by architecture. He contributed to designing his house, Undershaw, and designed and built a three-storey extension. When he travelled to Canada, he designed a golf course and some buildings for a hotel there.

Now that we have a little glimpse of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, let’s go back to the mid-19th century and explore the timeline of his literary development and what made him such an exceptional writer.

Early life

Arthur Conan Doyle was born on 22 May 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to an Irish Catholic mother, Mary Foley, and an English father, Charles Altamont Doyle. 

Arthur’s father was a watercolour artist. But he did not know what it meant to care for a family. He was scattered because he was addicted to alcohol, and his behaviours tore the family apart.

Consequently, Arthur’s mother took full responsibility for the big family. She had two sons, the older of whom was Arthur, and five daughters. 

School experience (1868-1876)

When Arthur was nine years old, his wealthy uncles sent him to a preparatory school in Lancashire, England, where he studied for two years. Then, he was enrolled at Stonyhurst College, where he received secondary education until 1875.

Arthur did not like his school experience much, if not at all. Stonyhurst College’s management was harsh. Teachers used cruel physical punishment to discipline the students. They also did not save any effort to humiliate and despise them.

In 1875, Arthur graduated from Stonyhurst College, carrying little knowledge and harsh memories and scars. His uncles immediately enrolled him in another school, but this time in Austria. They wanted him to get exposed to another culture, grow intellectually, and improve his German language—which he obviously did not, as we saw earlier.

Arthur finished his studies in 1876 and returned to Scotland to start his higher education. So for the next five years, Doyle joined the University of Edinburgh Medical School to study medicine. This was also when his writing talent started to bloom.

The letters (1868-1930)

At the age of nine, when Arthur separated from his family to start school in Lancashire, he began writing letters to his mother as he was so attached to her.

In fact, Arthur sent letters to other family members and friends too. He used to give them brief updates about his life, what he did, and what he was up to.

Lucky for us, many of these letters survived.

When Doyle died in 1930, his family never agreed on what to do with these letters, so they locked them away, untouched. After many years, Arthur’s last daughter, Jean, could get hold of them. Already aware of their cultural and intellectual value, Jean gave over a thousand letters to the British Library in London before she died in 1997.

British Authors Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower were both Arthur Conan Doyle experts if we can say that. So they decided to put these letters in order and publish them in a book. But that was not as easy as it sounds as most of the letters were not dated. So the authors relied on the events mentioned in the letters and used many references to know which was written before which.

After over 10 years, a lot of hard work, and a few thousand cups of coffee, the 706-page Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters book saw the light. As these letters are intimate and give great insights into Arthur’s personal life, feelings, and experiences, the book can be considered a biography.

Sherlock Holmes (1886-1893)

At 27, Arthur was working as a general practitioner in Southsea, Hampshire. That is when he wrote the first Sherlock Holmes story. Prior to that, he had already written and published a few stories in several local magazines.

As reported by Arthur himself in one of his letters, he owed Sherlock to his university professor Joseph Bell. The latter’s extraordinary deduction abilities and logical reasoning inspired the creation of Sherlock who was destined to live forever.

Almost all the stories that feature Sherlock Holmes are told by his close friend Dr John H. Watson, who accompanied him in all investigations.

A Study in Scarlet (1887)

This is the novel where Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson make their first appearance. The two gentlemen met when their deteriorating financial situations led them to share a room at 221B Baker Street, London. After that, they became close friends.

We can pretty much consider A Study in Scarlet a novella or a short novel since it is only a little over a hundred pages. Arthur wrote it in only three weeks and made it up into two stories. Although it was accepted for publication in 1886, it did not see the light until 1887 in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, a famous magazine at the time.

Then the novel was published as a book in 1888. A Study in Scarlet crossed the Atlantic Ocean and appeared in the USA in 1890 and then in Germany in 1902. After that, the book was translated into many m languages and re-published many times.

Although Holmes was destined for fame and success later on, his first appearance did not grab the readers’ attention as much. But the novel received good feedback from two popular newspapers.

The Sign of Four (1890)

Three years later, Arthur wrote his second novel featuring Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, The Sign of Four. It is about the same size as its predecessor but was made of only one story.

The Sign of Four was first published in February 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. This was originally an American magazine that was also sold in the UK. The novel was published in the UK in several journals many times.

In October of that year, the novel came out as a book with illustrations. Again, The Sign of Four received good reviews, which indeed made it get re-published. But, again, it did not make it that much among the readers.

A Scandal in Bohemia (1891)

Doyle then started featuring Sherlock Holmes in short stories. The first was A Scandal in Bohemia, published in June 1891 in The Strand Magazine. A month later, the story was published in the US. 

A Scandal in Bohemia was a great success. It was soon followed by other short stories featuring Holmes and Dr Watson.

Pause (1893-1901)

In November 1891, Doyle felt his detective stories were draining his literary skills. He also wanted to write in other fields, but he could not. At the same time, the publishers were demanding more stories from him as the magazine sales skyrocketed.

Doyle tried hard to discourage the publishers by increasing his prices, but they did not mind. So he took his decision back and continued writing stories until December 1893.

In December 1893, Doyle could not go on anymore. So he killed Sherlock at the end of the story The Final Problem, published in the same month. This way, he felt relieved and more free to focus on other literary works.

Killing Sherlock Holmes provoked public rage. From the readers’ perspective, this is betrayal. They most probably viewed Doyle as a story-making machine that worked with renewable energy. So ending the stories was much of a shock.

Thousands of readers sent letters both to The Strand Magazine and Doyle, expressing, in obviously distressed tones, their sadness wrapped in anger and disappointment. Around 20,000 people reacted to Doyle’s decision by cancelling their subscriptions to the magazine.

Despite his confidence, Doyle was incredibly surprised by the public’s reaction. However, he turned out more insistent than anyone ever thought, and he did not change his mind.

The return (1901-1927)

Doyle did not change his mind for eight years, but he surrendered after that. So he wrote his third novel featuring Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was then serialised in The Strand Magazine over eight months, from August 1901 to April 1902. 

You must be asking, did Sherlock not die in the last published story? Well, yes. Yes, he did. That is why Doyle set the new story before Sherlock’s death.

As the readers were over the moon, the novel boomed.

The Adventure of the Empty House was what Doyle wrote next. It was a short story published in The Strand Magazine in 1903. Here, Holmes returned and explained to Dr Watson that he did not actually die. Instead, he faked his death to deceive his enemies.

Since then, Doyle continued writing Sherlock’s stories until just a few years prior to his death in 1930.

The collections

In total, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes. The short stories were assembled in six collections.

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892): contains 12 stories published between 1891 and 1892.
  2. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894): contains 12 stories published in 1892 and 1893.
  3. The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905): contains 13 stories published in 1903 and 1904.
  4. The Valley of Fear: this was Doyle’s final novel featuring Sherlock Holmes. It was serialised in The Strand Magazine between 1914 and 1915.
  5. His Last Bow (1917): contains seven stories published in different years between 1892 and 1917.
  6. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927): contains 12 stories published between 1908 and 1917.

Doyle’s last short story was The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place. It was published in The Strand Magazine in April 1927. In this story, Doyle did not kill Holmes again. Instead, he mentioned he had retired.

Conclusion

Here we get to the end of today’s adventure, where we had a glimpse of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s life and the journey through which his intelligent character Sherlock Holmes became the world’s most famous detective.

At first, we learned how much of a genius Doyle was. Although he is well-known as a writer, he was initially a physician and excelled in many fields, including sports.

We then stepped into the realm of Sherlock Holmes and tracked the timeline of his stories. We learned that Doyle stopped writing Sherlock’s stories after four years of immense success and fame. Then he returned eight years later.

We hope you found this article interesting as much as we loved writing it for you. You can read about George Orwell, who was another genius British writer, here. Or you can learn many other interesting things by visiting the different pages of our website.

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