While celebrating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 158th birthday, Boski Gupta delves into the author’s contentious synonymity with his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes
One would think that Arthur Conan Doyle got ‘Sir’ added to his name for his most famous fictional character; the one who is today synonymous to being the best detective. And one would be wrong. King Edward VII knighted Doyle in 1902, not for Sherlock Holmes, but for writing a pamphlet about defending Britain’s actions during the Boer War.
Anti-climactic? Not for Doyle, whose heart was into ‘serious’ writing. “If I had never touched Holmes, who has tended to obscure my higher work, my position in literature would at the present moment be a more commanding one,” Doyle had once complained publicly.
Apart from Sherlock Holmes, Doyle also wrote science fiction, historical novels, plays, romance, poetry and non-fiction. Believe it or not, Doyle was not a writer by profession. He had a respectable degree in ophthalmology and even set up a medical practice by 1882. Unfortunately for him — but thank goodness for us readers — his medical practice didn’t take off. He started writing to kill time while waiting for the patients who never came.
A Star Is Born
Sherlock Holmes first appeared in 1887 in the novelette, A Study in Scarlet. No top publisher was willing so it was eventually serialised as a Christmas giveaway in a magazine. And, it turned into a sleeper hit. “Before Sherlock, thriller as a genre was popular because of its muscular heroes, sexy heroines, cat-and-mouse chases and shootouts. It was Sherlock who proved that brain is mightier than brawn,” says author Archana Sarat. Doyle followed that with another Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, which was also well-received.
The reclusive detective became a household name after Doyle wrote six short stories in the Strand magazine featuring him, raising the writer’s stature to the level of Edgar Allan Poe! Dr Prem Kumari Srivastava, a professor of English Literature at Maharaja Agrasen College, Delhi University, says Sherlock changed the way mystery and thrillers were written and read at that time. “Instead of action, for the first time, logic and reason became predominant. Brain gained dominance over physical attributes. It was the victory of mind over matter,” she explains as one of the reasons for the success of the series.
Life After Death
Sherlock’s popularity notwithstanding, Doyle himself was not a big fan of the character. So much so that he once even accepted that he had ‘an overdose of Sherlock Holmes’. No wonder the writer killed off the detective in 1893 in The Final Problem. Doyle may have washed his hands of the character, but the readers were not ready to accept the death. Fan frenzy reached such a limit that thousands wrote to Doyle to bring back Sherlock. Giving in to popular demand, Doyle wrote The Hound of Baskerville, the events of which happened before Sherlock Holmes fell to his death in The Final Problem. But this was just the beginning.
“Doyle has authored various other books, plays and poems. He has written in other genres, too, but I doubt if he would have gathered this kind of recognition had it not been for Sherlock,” says Sarat. This implies that while Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes, the latter killed the former. “Doyle is only remembered because of Holmes. As the American pop culturalist Leslie Fiedler also said, ‘One of the attributes of popular literature is that characters are remembered and creators forgotten’. Readers remember Tarzan more than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Similarly, Sherlock remains in public memory more than Doyle,” says Srivastava.
And He Lives On…
The four novels and 56 stories featuring Sherlock Holmes have never been out of print, not to mention the movies, plays and television series that they have inspired. Moreover, there’s an entire field of mystery and crime fiction that still is getting inspired by them. Actor-director Akash Khurana who staged The Hound of Baskerville as a comedy thriller says, “There’s not much left to be said about one of the greatest mystery novels of all time, written by a master storyteller. Small wonder that the original has inspired writers world over and spawned myriad versions on film, television, and stage.” The stories have helped producers make big bucks and catapulted actors’ careers. Be it Guy Ritchie’ movies or BBC’s Sherlock or CBS’s Elementary, everything that Holmes touches turns into gold!
The Human Connect
“One unique attribute of the Doyle novels is that the perspective is always Watson’s. The famous almost clichéd exchange between Sherlock and his friend Watson is, ‘Excellent said I’. ‘Elementary said he’. This makes Sherlock a man with high intellect, and readers were much in awe of him. Reading about that stimulated the reader’s intellect and their mind started walking with him,” says Srivastava. Sarat can’t agree more. “What makes Sherlock so popular is that we can identify with him. While we hold him in awe, we still carry this hope that we could have solved the crime had we been a bit more observant. The way Sherlock draws broad conclusions with just a few minute observations enthrals us. It makes us aspire to be him without realising that ‘dear Watson’ is what we have become!” she says. And despite not being treated with respect by his own creator, Holmes brought much glory to Doyle. Despite the myriad popular detectives created after him, Sherlock remains the king.
Lesser known facts about Doyle
The writer died, at 71, while in his garden. He collapsed, clutching a flower, and reportedly whispered his last words to his wife: You are wonderful.
Without Doyle there would be no Jurassic Park! At the time Doyle wrote The Lost World, the term dinosaur hadn’t even been around for two centuries.
Arthur Conan Doyle is technically a medical doctor, but he never had a single patient visit his ophthalmology practice in Portsmouth, England.
Although Holmes was such a strange, eccentric figure, he was indeed based on a real person: Doyle’s former professor, Dr Joseph Bell
Unwittingly anticipating James Bond by decades, Doyle sent a cartoon of himself upon graduating medical school to his mother with a caption that read: Licensed to kill.