Conan Doyle Turns 161

May 22, 2020 would have been Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 161st birthday. He was born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Doyle was a British writer, military officer, justice advocate, political campaigner, Freemason, spiritualist mystic, goalkeeper for the Portsmouth Association Football Club (under the pseudonym A. C. Smith), a keen cricketer, amateur boxer, golfer, billiard player, amateur architect (he helped design his home Undershaw near Hindhead, Surrey) and medical doctor.

Doyle is world renowned for creating the character Sherlock Holmes (who was modeled partially on his former university teacher Joseph Bell). Doyle wrote four novels and more than fifty short stories based on him, and, of course, his sidekick Dr. Watson. Interestingly enough many of the images you will find of Doyle resemble the description of his moustachioed Dr. Watson!

There are many details about Doyle but here are a few that might interest or even surprise you:

  • According to the editor of The Baker Street Journal “Conan was [Doyle’s] middle name…after he graduated from high school, he began using ‘Conan’ as surname…technically his last name [was] simply ‘Doyle.’ When knighted, he was listed as ‘Doyle’, not ‘Conan Doyle’.”
  • Doyle came from living in squalid tenement flats to being supported by his wealthy uncles. He was sent to England at the age of nine to study but school wasn’t easy for him, both in the teaching and threat of punishment he experienced.
  • While studying medicine he began writing short stories. In 1882 he joined a medical classmate and tried to build a practice but the relationship failed and Doyle left to set up his own practice. He was unsuccessful and while waiting for patients he returned to writing. In 1891, he attempted studying ophthalmology in Vienna but found German too difficult and returned home.

Even though his first work, A Study in Scarlet, amazingly written in just 3 weeks, Doyle struggled to find a publisher for it. Eventually, Ward Lock & Co bought it in 1886 paying £25 (£2700 in 2019). His work later appeared in periodicals and got good reviews. A sequel was commissioned in Lippincott’s Magazine in agreement with Ward Lock & Co., but Doyle felt exploited and left them. Later he published short stories in The Strand Magazine.

After a while Doyle became uncertain about his Holmes creation and wanted to kill him. His mother pleaded with him not to. Doyle then raised the price for his stories, hoping they wouldn’t be bought, but publishers were willing to pay. As a result, he became one of the best-paid authors of his time. Fast forward to 1893 when Doyle planned to spend more time writing historical novels so he killed off Holmes. Due to public outcry, he brought Holmes back, ending with the last story being published in 1927.

Doyle also published The Mystery of Cloomber, Mary Celeste and the unfinished Narrative of John Smith (published only in 2011). He wrote a collection of short stories including The Captain of the Pole-Star and J. Habkuk Jephson’s Statement. He wrote seven historical books, said to be his best work, nine other novels and later, five narratives, two novels featuring the scientist Professor Challenged. These stories include the best-known work after those featuring Holmes, The Lost World. Other works include Sir Nigel, The White Company and two collections set in the Napoleonic times.

Doyle was also a military man and wrote The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct. It is said because of this he received a knighthood. In 1900 he wrote another book on the war, The Great Boer War.

During his life Doyle converted from being Christian to Agnostic and later to spiritualism. His interest in the later inspired him to write The New Revelation, The Land of Mist, The Coming of Fairies, The Edge of the Unknown, The History of Spiritualism and The Vital Message. He would also become part of controversies regarding this belief. His relationship with Harry Houdini and The Piltdown Man Hoax of 1912 were two such situations. It is also said that his work The Lost World contains encrypted clues regarding his involvement. Deaths of those close to him including his son, brother and brothers-in-law affected him deeply and spiritualism gave him solace. As a result, he partook in seances, experiments in telephony and sittings with mediums to deal with it. Doyle traveled globally continuing with this work until his death.

He stood for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist in 1900 and 1906 and was the Deputy-Lieutenant of Surrey from 1902. He supported reform for the Congo Free State and in 1909 wrote The Crime of the Congo. He became acquainted with E. D. Morel, Roger Casement, and Bertram Fletcher Robinson, and it is said that they inspired characters in Doyle’s 1912 The Lost World.

Doyle was an ardent advocate of justice and curious of inconsistencies in cases. He personally investigated two, one which led to two men being exonerated (which is dramatized in the 1972 BBC TV series The Edwardians) and the other he paid most of the costs for the accused’s appeal.

Doyle has been honored in many ways. There is a statue of Holmes in Picardy Place Edinburgh, another one by the English Church in Meiringen, Switzerland and a statue of Doyle himself in Crowborough Cross, East Sussex. He received the Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy, Queens South Africa Medal, Knight Bachelor, Knight of Grace of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem and Order of the Medjidie, 2nd Class.

Curiously many try to follow in his footsteps. If you go to WPL’s NoveList or go to the bottom of a WPL catalogue record of a favorite Sherlock Holmes title you will find such read-a-likes in authors such as: Rex Stout, Manly Wade Wellman, Manly Wade, Andy Lane, Ian Eginton, George Mann and Michael Kurland. Conversely, you can find a miscellany of authors who base their main characters on the sleuthing powers of Sherlock Holmes but with a cozy twist. There’s Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and the Tommy & Tuppence books. Then there’s Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and P.D. James’ Adam Dalgleish. In addition to this there are a myriad of ‘spin-offs’:


For those wanting to know more about the man there many biographical and stylistic information in titles such as:

TV adaptations on Sherlock Holmes abound. There’s the all-time classic with Jeremy Brett in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes produced by Granada Television; Elementary the American-themed Sherlock; Sherlock the BBC production with Benedict Cumberbatch and our very own Canadian version in Yannick Bisson’s police detective in The Murdoch Mysteries.

There are so many other TV adaptations of the great British detective either in England or abroad. If you’re interested check out “detective and mystery television programs” as a search term in WPL’s catalogue and bingo the world is your oyster. You can tell I’m a big fan of mystery. I suggest giving this genre a try. It’s elementary my dear reader!

— Teresa N-P