Arthur Conan Doyle was a Scottish physician and writer who is best known for his stories following the adventures of the detective Sherlock Holmes. He lived from 1859 to 1930 and was writing for a large proportion of his life, though many of his first publications fell from history, some not being published until well after his death.
However he has become a giant in the genre of detective fiction, his Sherlock Holmes stories considered by all as a milestone within the tradition, and certainly the foundations for many other works. The skill in his story telling came from two central talents: the creation of the infamous Holmes, a dazzling and almost pathological figure with an unorthodox approach and a skewed moral compass; and his ability to weave fact and fiction, his work a powerful depiction of the world in which he lived, and the concepts of detective work inspired by his own medical career.
Doyle started writing while studying at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, finding his first publication 1879, a short story set in South Africa. But it wouldn’t be for many years that his writing took over, and he went on complete his PHD to find employment as a ship’s doctor on the whaler Hope of Peterhead, and later as a surgeon on the SS Mayumba.
In 1882, Doyle set up private practice in Portsmouth, but found a lack of patients. While waiting for his practice to grow he started to write again, composing two novels, as well a wide collection of short stories that would later play a part in the popularisation of the mystery of the Mary Celeste (another important footnote in is writing career).
Doyle however found it difficult to find publishers for his work. It wasn’t until the first appearance of Holmes and Watson in The Study In Scarlet, that Doyle started to become successful as a writer, selling the rights of the work for £25 – a substantial sum at that time. Though still a new writer (a fact that meant he was left feeling taken advantage of at some points), Holmes dedicated himself and released more of the Holmes saga through different magazines, finding a consistent outlet in The Strand Magazine, the site of which now bears a historical plague due to this relationship.
Still at this point though, Holmes and Watson were not the only sole subject of his writing, still collaborating with other writers on different projects. But the growing popularity of the stories were as much as the start of something special as they were hindrance. Holding a special place for what he considered more serious works (historical fiction), Doyle spoke of killing Holmes, so that he could be free of him, considering the character a distraction.
And so it was in 1893 that Doyle sent both Holmes and Moriarty to their deaths, locked in a deep plummet off the side of a cliff. It was a move that was designed to set Doyle free, but the stories had grown so much in popularity that there was a public outcry. In 1901 Doyle brought the character back in a prequel story, but then later returned to the timeline in 1903, explaining Holmes’ death as a deception so that the detective may escape other powerful enemies. He went on to write Holmes stories for the rest of his life.
There is a great irony that the writer of a work, considered such a milestone of the genre that it holds a special historical place, would try to be destroyed by the writer so that he may pursue historical writing. But this may well be due to the ‘realness’ of the characters themselves and the world in which they live – if they seem so real to the reader, then why not the writer?
It is largely given that Holmes was based upon his university teacher Joseph Bell, as seen from a letter from Doyle to Bell where he tells him “…round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.” Though there is no suggestion that Bell was a drug addicted, pathological oddball, there was a central idea that Doyle took from this man to create his character – and these to Doyle would have been very real ideas, when considering his background and education.
Another point that may well have aided in the characters overcoming Doyle’s world (to some degree) lies in the character Watson. The character could, in many respects, seen to be Doyle. A physician of similar social standing, well-educated and so forth, he is the moderate man. Watson is the vessel that carries the reader into the story and tells us about this strange Holmes character. And to a large degree, we could see this as representing not just the more normal point of view, but actually indicative of Doyle himself. Watson may not be the narrator in all the stories, but this matters not, his existence metres and explains Holmes, if only often by comparison. He is the gateway to us trying to understand Holmes.
In the podcast it is discussed that the central theme of the Holmes canon is “the love between these two men.” What binds the stories together, what keeps them going and makes us interested, is more than the original plots and Holmes’ unique approach to solving crimes. It is the mutual platonic love that these two men feel for each other carries them, and indeed us, through all the works. And indeed, if this is true, and if it is also true that Watson is in fact a reinvention of Doyle himself, then we can say that it is Doyle’s love of Holmes that have created such wonderful stories.