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Issue 36 - As sure as Sherlock

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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As sure as Sherlock

We look at the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Scottish author and creator of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

Arthur Doyle was born into a prominent Edinburgh family on 22nd May 1859 (the Conan part was his middle name which he adopted later).

The Doyle family were Irish Catholic, and at aged nine he was sent to a Jesuit school in England. Despite his harsh schooling, Arthur graduated at 17 with no religion, and an innate sense of justice and sportsmanship that would shape his career.

Like so many other young luminaries of his time such as James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur went to the University of Edinburgh to study medicine.

It was here that he met Dr. Joseph Bell, the teacher who became the inspiration for his detective Sherlock Holmes. The doctor was a master at observation, logic, deduction, and diagnosis and it is claimed that Bell could sometimes diagnose a patient just by looking at them.

Afew years into his studies, Conan Doyle began writing short stories, and when they were published he realised that medicine was not the only way he could make a living.

In his third year he became ship’s surgeon on a whaling boat about to leave for the Arctic Circle. He wrote later that the Arctic had “awakened the soul of a born wanderer.” He was also employed as a medical officer on a steamer navigating between Liverpool and the west coast of Africa.

During the next few years, Conan Doyle divided his time between trying to be a good doctor and struggling to become a recognised author. He married a woman named Louisa Hawkins and rented a house in Portsmouth, England, to use as a practice.

In 1886, he began writing the novel which catapulted him to fame. At first it was named ATangled Skein and the two main characters were called Sheridan Hope and Ormond Sacker. Two years later this novel was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, under the title A Study in Scarlet which introduced us to the immortal Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

His next novel Micah Clark was also well received and in 1891, now living in London, Conan Doyle chucked in his medical career and gave himself to writing fully. The Sherlock Holmes stories were becoming increasingly popular in The Strand magazine, though Doyle felt that he had yet to make a lasting name in English literature. He considered the Sherlock Holmes stories purely commercial and there were a number of serious historical novels, poems and plays, which Conan Doyle expected to be recognised as a serious author.

In The Final Problem, published in December 1893, Conan Doyle decided to kill off the great detective. Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty plunged to their deaths over a waterfall, and 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand.

Public demand eventually forced the author to revive Holmes, and inspired by a trip to Dartmoor in Devon, Doyle wrote another adventure for his sleuth detective.

The Strand magazine published the first episode of The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 and it was an instant sensation. It was followed by other full length Holmes novels.

In 1900 Conan Doyle went to serve as a doctor in the Boer War aged 40, and was knighted for services to the crown. He also stood for Parliament in Scotland twice, but was unsuccessful. He rallied against injustice of any kind and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two imprisoned men being released.

His wife Louisa died in 1906 after a long illness, and a year later he married old-flame Jean Leckie. He had five children in total. His oldest son Kinglsey was killed in World War One, in which Conan Doyle was also serving as a war correspondent.

Perhaps it was the death of his loved ones that was the root of the most perplexing contradiction in the author’s life; that he was capable of writing brilliantly about logic sand deduction, but that he was inexorably drawn to the paranormal and to spiritualism.

During the later part of his life he became president of several spiritualist organisations and embarked on many psychic tours. At one point, he literally believed in fairies.

Arthur Conan Doyle died on 7th July 1930 from heart disease at his home, in Windlesham, Sussex.

Without question, Holmes was his most popular creation, but Conan Doyle deserves to be remembered for his other works; the non-fiction, plays, memoirs, short stories, and historical novels as well as supernatural fiction that was so important to him.