Elementary, My Dear Reader!

“For strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination.”

-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

By: Cassie Burris

On May 22, 1859, an Irish Catholic baby was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His name was Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle and twenty seven years later he would create one of the world’s most iconic characters: Sherlock Holmes. How in the world did one man create a character that has captured the hearts and minds of readers for over a hundred years?

In 1876 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was enrolled into University of Edinburgh as a medical student he became enamored with the teaching style of his professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell had a knack for overly theatrical diagnostics and would be able to tell what your profession, hobbies and where you were from just by picking up small visible clues. He could look at the calluses of a man’s fingers and know he played the violin as a hobby.  The good doctor was a master at observation, logic, deduction, and diagnosis. All these qualities would later be found in the persona of the celebrated detective Sherlock Holmes.

During Doyle’s third year of medical school allowed for great opportunities that would influence his first full length story. He was offered the role of the ship’s surgeon on the Hope, a whaling boat, about to leave for the Arctic Circle. He accepted and this trip inspiring him to write Captain of the Pole-Star, which was published in Temple Bar magazine in January 1883.

Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s Dupin mysteries, Doyle decided to try his hand at writing a detective story. Using Dupin and the scientific methods Dr. Bell, used, Sir Arthur wrote the story A Tangled Skein with the two main characters called Sheridan Hope, a scientific detective, and Ormond Sacker, his Afghan assistant. Before being published in the Beeton’s Christmas Annual, the story was changed to A Study in Scarlet with heroes named, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. At just 27 years old, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the world’s most iconic characters.

Thomas Gomez and Basil Rathbone in the 1953 stage production Sherlock Holmes (photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections)

After having written twenty three short stories and a second novel (The Sign of The Four) featuring Sherlock Holmes, Doyle grew tired of writing about the famous detective. “I must save my mind for better things,” he wrote to his mother, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” He thus decided to kill off his famous character in the story The Final Problem, published in December 1893.In this final adventure, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, Holmes’ greatest foe, plunged to their deaths at The Reichenbach Falls.

Did you know that Sherlock Holmes never once said, “Elementary, my dear Watson” in any of Sir Arthur’s stories?

The public responded with a massive uproar. Twenty thousand people canceled their subscriptions to magazines that published the stories and hate mail arrived at the magazine’s offices. Thousands of people wrote Doyle directly, begging him to reverse Holmes’s death. Many people took to wearing black armbands in the street, in mourning for Sherlock Holmes.  The death of the world’s first consulting detective was reported all over the globe as front-page news. Obituaries for Holmes appeared everywhere. People even created petitions to have Doyle bring Holmes back to life!

Doyle attempted to appease the fans by publishing the novel The Hounds of Baskerville as an untold told tale of Sherlock Holmes. Eventually he relented and in 1903 he wrote The Empty House explaining how Sherlock Holmes survived the fall.

Actor Leonard S. Nimoy in a scene from the 1974 touring production of the play “Sherlock Holmes.” (Detroit) (photo: New York Public Library Digital Collections)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would go on to write thirty two more short stories and one more novel bringing the total to 56 short stories and four novels about the famous consulting detective. These stories would go on to inspire many plays, books, radio shows, television programs, and movies, making Sherlock Holmes one of the most beloved characters of all-time and setting up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the fathers of the mystery genre.

Learn more about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle:


Research Question World History (9th-12th Grades):

How did the rise of modern medicine affect literature? How did it affect Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing?

Do modern day events play a role in influencing literature today? What are some examples?

Research Question Language Arts (9th-12th Grades):

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle drew upon different authors, people and stories as source materials to create Sherlock Holmes. How have other authors done similarly?

In your opinion, where does the line of being inspired and copying occur?  Should authors be flattered if someone is inspired by their works?

Posted May 21, 2017

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