It is nearly impossible to separate the author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from his creation, Sherlock Holmes. And there are many who insist Doyle was simply Watson’s literary agent and so many people believe Holmes to be a living person that he even requires a secretary, despite his advanced years.
We don’t know where he went to school or what degrees he attained, although Dorothy L. Sayers in Sayers on Holmes suggested he attended Cambridge, rather than Oxford.
Holmes claimed to be the world’s first “consulting detective” and often worked with the police although his aims did not necessarily coincide with theirs. He frequently let criminals go and put his faith in a higher power to see that justice would be done. His clients include the rich and famous and poor and desperate. He often worked for free and famously said “I do not vary [my fees], save when I remit them altogether.”
His friend and biographer John H. Watson, in their first adventure together, summarized his friends accomplishments:
- Knowledge of Literature — nil.
- Knowledge of Philosophy — nil.
- Knowledge of Astronomy — nil.
- Knowledge of Politics — Feeble.
- Knowledge of Botany — Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
- Knowledge of Geology — Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
- Knowledge of Chemistry — Profound.
- Knowledge of Anatomy — Accurate, but unsystematic.
- Knowledge of Sensational Literature — Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
- Plays the violin well.
- Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
- Has a good practical knowledge of British law.
Over time, however, we come to believe that Watson’s assessment was flawed and that Holmes may have misled Watson.
His most famous quote: “Elementary, my dear Watson,” was never actually said, although there are close variants. The most famous quote he did say: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Holmes burst onto the scene in 1887 in A Study in Scarlet. The author was Arthur Conan Doyle, a Scottish physician who based his creation on Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle worked at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Fortunately we know far more of Doyle, having been born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22,1859, to Charles Altamont Doyle and his wife Mary Foley. He was the third of ten children. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and began his practice as a doctor, somewhat unsuccessfully, in Portsmouth in 1882. He began writing and found succes with A Study in Scarlet and eventually wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes.
However, he hoped to be known for his historical novels, in which attempt he failed, and even went so far as to “kill” his detective in the 1893 story The Final Problem. But popular demand forced him to return Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901, although that adventure was dated before the detective’s death. He later fully resurrected Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House.
Doyle involved himself in a number of causes and even ran for Parliament. He also emulated his detective in proving two men innocent, and the ensuing publicity spurred the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of Holmes, Doyle also created another well-known character, Professor George Edward Challenger, introduced in The Lost World in 1912 and featured in four other books.
In his later life, Doyle, at odds with Holmes’ own attitude regarding the supernatural, turned to spiritualism. He was friends with Harry Houdini, who had earlier been an advocate of spiritualism, but who later worked to debunk spiritualists.
Doyle died July 7, 1930, at age 71. Holmes lives on.