Ask anyone to name a famous fictional detective and they will probably say, “Sherlock Holmes.” Even people who have never read Conan Doyle’s work know who Holmes is. In Doyle’s first novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes identifies himself as a “consulting detective”; he seems to be a cross between a private investigator and amateur detective (19).
Like Holmes’s famous sidekick Dr Watson, Conan Doyle was a medical doctor. Inspired by the detective stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Émile Gaboriau, Doyle eventually left his practice and became a full-time author.
Doyle wrote three full-length novels and six books of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. The Adventures of Sherlock Homes, Doyle’s first book of detective short stories, is a collection of twelve tales. In his introduction to the Oxford edition of the novel, Richard Lancelyn Green calls the collection, “Conan Doyle’s greatest masterpiece” (xxxv). These stories were initially serialized. Doyle recognized that the use of self-contained stories featuring series characters would provide continuity from tale to tale, thereby hooking readers. “I think I may fairly lay claim to the credit,” Doyle said in an interview for Tit-Bits, “of being the inaugurator of a system which has since been worked by others with no little success” (cited in Green 1993, xiv).
What is most memorable in these tales is the character of Sherlock Holmes. P. D. James describes him as “the unchallenged Great Detective, whose brilliant deductive intelligence could outwit any adversary, however cunning, and solve any puzzle, however bizarre” (2009, 27, 29). The detective’s reasoning power in solving cases is extraordinary yet he is no boring intellectual. Holmes’s wild eccentricities and bohemian ways make him a fascinating and unpredictable character.
And what better way to reveal Holmes’s eccentric genius than to present it through the eyes of a stolid but average character who acts as a foil to him? The faithful Watson is so impressed with Holmes’s intellect that he chronicles his cases – a masterful touch that increases the realism and believability of the stories.
In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” Holmes tells Watson, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles” (95). Although Poe introduced the figure of the detective as supreme observer and reasoner, it is Doyle who popularized it. Holmes makes the process of deduction appear effortless. In “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Watson tells him:
When I hear you give your reasons . . . the thing appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled, until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours. (7)We as readers are lulled into thinking that if we just observe more closely, we can solve the case before the detective.
In the story, “The Red-Headed League,” Homes says, “I know, my dear Watson, that you share my love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of every-day life” (49). One of the strong appeals of these stories is their depiction of strange and extraordinary events. The eerie, Gothic-like atmosphere and setting in “The Speckled Band,” “The Engineer’s Thumb,” and “The Copper Beeches” increases the mystery and suspense surrounding the events. Symons claims that Doyle is not only a skilled creator of atmosphere and scene but also the inventor of the best detective short stories of all time (1992, 76, 78).
Doyle wrote over 70 books during his lifetime. He quickly tired of Sherlock Holmes and tried to kill him off in one story but the public demanded he resurrect him. Ironically Doyle never thought much of his Sherlock Holmes stories, but they are what he is remembered for today.
Doyle, Conan. A Study in Scarlet. 1887. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
------. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. 1892. Introduction by Richard Lancelyn Green. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
James, P. D. Talking About Detective Fiction. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. New York: Mysterious Press, 1992.