“I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.”
-Arthur Conan Doyle in a letter to his mother, 1891
Inventing a fabulously popular literary character, and then getting paid big bucks to write stories about him would seem to be a dream come true for many writers, but it doesn’t make everyone happy. Just consider the curious case of Arthur Conan Doyle, the British writer and doctor who invented the very brilliant, somewhat odd, and frighteningly intelligent private detective Sherlock Holmes, and his supportive, but somewhat less brilliant, sidekick Dr. Watson.
The short stories about Holmes were first published as a serial in The Strand Magazine, and they soon became insanely popular. However, it wasn’t just the fictional master-criminal Moriarty who wanted to get rid of Sherlock Holmes: Conan Doyle planned to kill him for years before finally hurling him over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland in the short story “The Final Problem”.
Conan Doyle didn’t hate Holmes all the time, but he seems to have eventually tired of all the attention the stories attracted, and resented how much of his time was taken up by writing them. In a letter to a friend he wrote:
“I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”
He wanted to be known for, and have more time to work on, his other literary endeavours, like his historical novels. At one point he even asked his publisher for a what he thought was a ridiculous raise, hoping to discourage them from wanting any more Sherlock Holmes stories. Instead, he became one of the highest paid writers at the time.
When Holmes died in the short story “The Final Problem”, many fans were outraged (a reaction that sort of reminds me of how certain fandoms can blow up these days when a popular TV- or movie-character bites the dust). Readers, and Conan Doyle’s publisher, pestered him for years to write new stories about Holmes. Eventually, he relented and brought Sherlock back to life: Plot twist! He wasn’t really dead after all! He had just tricked everybody (including poor old Watson).
In total, Conan Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes. The novels are good (The Hound of the Baskervilles is my favourite Holmes-novel), but it’s really the short stories that are the meat and potatoes of Sherlock Holmes the character and Holmes-lore, at least to me. And I think the best short stories are the first ones, the ones that are included in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (made up of short stories published 1891-1892), and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (short stories published 1892-1893).
There are so many classic short stories in these collections: “A Scandal in Bohemia” with the devious Irene Adler, the rather lighthearted “The Red-Headed League”, strange cases like “The Engineers Thumb” and “The Silver Blaze, and “The Yellow Face” where Holmes actually comes to the wrong conclusion. Throughout, Doyle masterfully manages to keep you hooked on Holmes’ investigations into all these baffling mysteries and crimes, weaving in atmospheric details of old-school London and England (hansoms! hats! opium dens!), and astonishing the reader with Holmes’ amazing skills of observation and deduction.
In my mind, Doyle’s best invention and most effective literary device is Sherlock Holmes himself. Even today, that kind of “Sherlock Holmes-ian character”: a brilliant crime-solver with odd habits and a somewhat superior manner, is a staple of crime fiction, both in movies and books. And his methods, like gathering and analyzing evidence from the crime scene, and studying the details of a person’s behaviour and appearance to draw conclusions about them, are now standard police procedure, of course.
Another thing I really appreciate about Holmes is that he is not really all that likable. Some writers make the mistake of writing their protagonists as too-perfect. They are everything, all the time: insightful, kind, funny, good-looking, strong, etc. Conan Doyle on the other hand makes Holmes a rather arrogant and overbearing genius who doesn’t always treat even his good friend Watson (or his loyal housekeeper!) in the best way. And he has bad habits, like being very untidy, excessive pipe-smoking, and cocaine use. Dr Watson is more likable, of course, and provides the reader with a more regular human perspective on Sherlock Holmes, the complex investigations he becomes involved in, as well as the strange methods he uses.
The combination of these two personalities, and the rock-solid friendship and partnership between them, is a key to why these stories work so well, I think. While the mysteries themselves are interesting, my main joy when I read Conan Doyle’s short stories is that I get to spend time in the company of Holmes and Watson.
It is well worth revisiting these old short stories: they remain highly readable and hugely enjoyable more than a century after they were written. Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories are available in many different editions, for example: