As one of the pioneers of mystery writing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created one of the most famous crime sleuths of all time with Detective Sherlock Holmes. Alongside his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson, Holmes used his powers of deductive reasoning and incredible analytical skills to solve any number of heinous crimes. Covering 56 short stories and four full-length novels, Doyle captivated the reading public in the 19th century with the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes with A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1888), only to infuriate his readers by supposedly killing him off in the short story "The Final Problem" (1893). Following a detour into historical novels and a growing fascination with the Spiritualism movement, Doyle finally bowed to public pressure and brought Holmes back to life in "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1903), which was actually published after the prequel novel The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). In the following decade, Sherlock Holmes became one of the most popular characters to play on the screen with film and television adaptations permeating the landscape, and numerous actors from Christopher Plummer and Peter Cushing to Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Lee Miller all played the role. Despite being relatively limited to mystery writing, Doyle created one of literature's most lasting and often portrayed characters.
Born on May 22, 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Doyle was raised in poverty by his alcoholic father, Charles, and his mother, Mary, both of whom split temporarily before reuniting in 1867. Luckily, Doyle had a wealthy uncle who paid his way through Jesuit schools Stonyhurst College in Lancaster, England and Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria. From 1876 to 1881, he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he also began writing short stories. During that time, he published his first fictional short story "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley (1879) in Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, while also publishing non-fiction pieces in the British Medical Journal. But most importantly, it was during his time in medical school that he met and was mentored by Professor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose keen powers of observation served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. In 1880, while still a student, Doyle acquired the post of ship surgeon aboard a whaling vessel bound for the Arctic Circle. With his sense of adventure aroused, he later incorporated his journey into the story "The Captain of the Pole Star" (1883), while returning to medical school and earning his degree in 1881.
Now a professional doctor, Doyle took the position of medical officer aboard the steamship Maymba which traveled from Liverpool to Africa. After settling for a time in Plymouth, he moved to Portsmouth where he opened his own practice and struggled to balance medicine with gaining a foothold as an author. It was during this time that he met and married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had two children. Meanwhile, Doyle's practice faltered and he pursued writing as a fulltime venture, eventually writing his first mystery novel A Tangled Skein, which he changed to A Study in Scarlet. Published in 1887 in Beeton's Christmas Annual, the novel was the world's first introduction to Detective Sherlock Holmes and his assistant, Dr. Watson. Using his astute logical reasoning and skills in forensic science, Holmes sets about solving a difficult murder after meeting the more mundane Watson, who goes on to serve as something of a catalyst to Holmes' often incredible observations. Despite some minor attention in the form of good reviews, Doyle's famed character failed to initially catch on with the reading public. In the following century, the novel was adapted several times for the screen, including a 1914 silent version and a 1933 film starring Reginald Owen and Anna May Wong.
Doyle went on to publish a second Holmes novel, the densely plotted The Sign of the Four (1888), which was written after he was commissioned by Lippincott's Monthly Magazine managing editor. With a plot that involved the East India Company, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and a secret pact made among four convicts, the novel was the first to humanize Holmes, particularly with the introduction of his penchant for injecting cocaine when lacking the stimulation of a murder case. The novel sold fairly well, and with the advent of filmed entertainment, was adapted numerous times, mainly in British-made productions that included a 1923 silent version, a 1932 talkie, a 1968 BBC series with Peter Cushing as Holmes, and a 1983 animated film with Peter O'Toole voicing the famed investigator. Meanwhile, Doyle felt exploited by his publisher and left to write short stories for The Strand Magazine, where he published many stories featuring Holmes and illustrations by Sidney Paget. The character finally took off with the public as Holmes became wildly popular with stories like "A Scandal in Bohemia" (1891), "A Case of Identity" (1891), "The Five Orange Pips" (1891) and "The Adventure of the Speckled Band" (1892). Twelve of the stories he wrote in this period were published in the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892).
From 1892-93, Doyle wrote several more stories featuring Holmes and Watson, including "Silver Blaze" (1892) - which was turned into a 1977 film starring Christopher Lee - "The Adventures of the Gloria Scott" (1893) and "The Adventure of the Crooked Man" (1893) that elevated the character to new heights. But in tiring of writing about Sherlock Holmes and desirous of writing about others subjects like spiritualism and history, Doyle decided to kill off Holmes for good in "The Final Problem" (1893), a story that also first introduced adversary Professor Moriarty. Holmes and Moriarty battle at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, where both tumble off into the crashing water where they both presumably die. But instead of being able to bury Holmes, Doyle was forced by public outrage to eventually revive him, starting with The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), which was serialized in The Strand Magazine. In an ironic twist, Moriarty's introduction by Doyle was for the sole purpose of killing Holmes and only appeared once more directly in the story "The Valley of Fear" (1915), which was actually set prior to the events in "The Final Problem." But in many 20th-century screen adaptations, Professor Moriarty was elevated to Holmes' primary antagonist, and was most notably played by Laurence Olivier in "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976) and Jared Harris in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (2011), starring Robert Downey, Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson.
In the interim between Holmes' alleged death and his resurrection in the short story "The Adventure of the Empty House" (1903), Doyle wrote a number of mystery-related short stories as well as historical novels like The Refugees (1893) and Rodney Stone (1896), a gothic mystery set in the world of boxing. He also published his first non-fiction novel, The Great Boer War (1902), and introduced the lesser-known character Captain Sharkey in a series of short stories published in McClure's Magazine in 1897. Holmes made his first official return with "Empty House," where he explained to a shocked Watson that only Moriarty died in the falls and that Holmes faked his death to hide from his other enemy, Colonel Sebastian Moran, whom Doyle dubbed "the second most dangerous man in London." Many of the stories from the 1903-04 period were released in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), including "The Adventure of Black Peter" (1904), "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" (1904) and "The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter" (1904).
In 1906, Doyle suffered from personal tragedy when his wife, Louisa, died from tuberculosis, which in part led to his conversion to the growing Spiritualism movement of the early 20th century. At the time, he wrote his last historical novel, Sir Nigel (1906), which was set in during the early portion of the Hundred Years' War spanning the years 1350-56 and featuring a loose adaptation of knight Neil Loring, who served at the pleasure of Kind Edward III. Doyle went on to create Professor Challenger, an investigator who was the polar opposite of Sherlock Holmes; instead of being cool and analytical, Challenger was domineering and aggressive. Professor Challenger made his first appearance in The Lost World (1912), but appeared in only two more novels, The Poison Belt (1913) and later The Land of Mist (1926), which was heavily influenced by his increasing belief in Spiritualism, and finally in only two short stories "When the World Screamed" (1928) and "The Disintegration Machine" (1929). Meanwhile, he published the fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear (1915), the second and last time Professor Moriarty featured as a direct adversary to Holmes. Doyle next published another collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories, His Last Bow (1917), which featured stories published in The Strand Magazine from 1908-1913 like "The Adventure of The Devil's Foot" (1910 and "The Adventure of the Red Circle" (1911).
In 1918, Doyle experienced more personal tragedy when his son, Kingsley, died of pneumonia while convalescing from serious injuries sustained in the 1916 Battle of the Somme during World War I. That loss pushed him further into the solace of Spiritualism, and led to his fascination with finding proof of life beyond the grave and other supernatural phenomenon. In fact, Doyle actually believed in many supernatural occurrences as if they were real, such as the famed Cottingley Fairies photographs, which showed a young girl posing with five superimposed fairies that was later revealed to be a hoax. He was even convinced that friend and fellow spiritualist Harry Houdini possessed supernatural powers, despite the latter's consistent refutations that mediums employed trickery. Meanwhile, he wrote a number of books about the supernatural like The Wanderings of a Spiritualist (1921), The Coming of the Fairies (1921), and The Case for Spirit Photography (1925), before releasing his final collection of Sherlock Holmes stories, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927), which contained stories published in The Strand Magazine from 1921-27. Doyle wrote what became his final novel, The Maracot Deep (1929), an adventure about the discovery of the sunken city of Atlantis, before he died on July 7, 1930 after suffering a heart attack at 71 years old. Doyle left behind a legacy for creating one of the most lasting characters in all of literature, who was portrayed onscreen starting in the early silent era all the way through the 21st century via major Hollywood blockbusters and television series like "Elementary" (CBS, 2012- ) starring Johnny Lee Miller and the British-made "Sherlock" (BBC, 2010- ) with Benedict Cumberbatch.
By Shawn Dwyer