(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories and novellas featuring Sherlock Holmes became enduring classics of the mystery and detective genre. Doyle is credited with refining and developing the formula first realized by Edgar Allan Poe in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” In so doing, he created a form for the detective story that remained enormously popular until World War II and that remained the supreme example of crime fiction throughout the twentieth century. According to John G. Cawelti, this form makes a mythic game of crime; the criminal act becomes a manifestation of potential chaos in the self and society, but the detective asserts reason’s power over this element, reassuring the reader of control over the self and safety within the social order. The continuing popularity of Doyle’s stories is evidenced by their remaining in print in an abundance of competing editions, the scholarly activity they stimulate, and the proliferation of film and video adaptations—as well as new Holmes tales by other authors.

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Arthur Conan Doyle’s more than one hundred published works include novels, autobiography, political treatises, plays adapted from his fiction, and works on spiritualism as well as his short stories, for which he is best known. His character Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of innumerable films, plays, and radio scripts and has become the archetype of the conventional detective hero.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

While Doyle was not the first to write short stories featuring a detective with great analytical powers, and while he acknowledged his debt to such writers as Edgar Allan Poe andÉmile Gaboriau, who had written tales of intelligent amateur detectives solving crimes through logical deduction, in Sherlock Holmes, Doyle created a character who has entered the popular imagination like no other. Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most famous and popular character in detective fiction, if not in all modern fiction. Doyle’s stories were a strong influence on writers such as Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and the many others who create tightly constructed puzzles for their detectives to solve with clearly and closely reasoned analysis. Societies such as the Baker Street Irregulars have sprung up around the world to study Doyle’s stories, and the name of Sherlock Holmes has become synonymous with deduction, while “Elementary, my dear Watson” is a catchphrase even among those who have never read the stories.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In his lifetime, Arthur Conan Doyle (doyuhl) was far better known for his short stories than for his novels. Until he became interested in science fiction (a medium he found better suited to shorter fiction) after 1900, Doyle concentrated his creative energies on his novels, those works by which he felt posterity would judge him, and took a purely monetary interest in the short-story format. Ironically, contemporary readers and critics continue to value the Sherlock Holmes short stories and largely ignore Doyle’s historical novels.

One of the most prolific in an era of prolific authors, Doyle also dabbled in the theater. The most commercially successful of his dramas was the stage version of Sherlock Holmes, first produced in 1899, starring William Gillette. Doyle frequently financed his own plays, such as the violent and realistic The Fires of Fate (pr. 1909, from his novel The Tragedy of the Koroska), a dramatization of a river-pirate raid on a party of English tourists in Egypt, an adventure based—like so many of Doyle’s works—on his own experiences.

Doyle’s nonfiction was largely polemical. He chronicled and defended the course of the British involvement in the Boer War in his The Great Boer War, published in 1900, and The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct (1902). His efforts at defending government policy, as well as his own medical service during the war, were largely responsible for his knighthood. Doyle also wrote extensively about other causes: the reform of the divorce laws, the denial of the vote for women, the abolition of ostrich-feather hats. He reserved his greatest energy, however, for his popularizing and propagandizing of spiritualism, a doctrine with which he had toyed from his youth and to which he became devoted after the death of his eldest son in World War I. Indeed, the last fifteen years of his life were spent in furthering the spiritualist cause through writings and lectures.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

“Come, Watson. The game’s afoot.” Few words by any author evoke a clearer picture in the public’s mind. Individuals who have never read a Sherlock Holmes story can immediately conjure up a vision of two distinctive figures leaving the fog-shrouded entrance to 221-B Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes, tall and skeletal, pale from his sedentary existence and haggard from his addiction to cocaine, wearing his famous deerstalker cap; Dr. Watson, short and stolid, though limping from an old bullet wound, one hand nervously hovering over the pocket that holds his trusted revolver. Indeed, few, if any, imaginary addresses have received the bulk of mail that continues to be sent to Holmes’s Baker Street apartment; few fictional characters have been the subject of even a single “biography,” let alone the great number of books that purport to document the life of Sherlock Holmes; and certainly few authors have cursed the success of one of their creations as much as Arthur Conan Doyle did that of Sherlock Holmes.

When the struggling young Portsmouth physician first wrote down the name of “Sherringford Hope,” soon changed to “Sherlock Holmes” in honor of the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, he did not dream of fame or literary immortality but merely of some means of augmenting his income, for he had a wife as well as a younger brother and an impoverished mother to support. In fact, as soon as A Study in Scarlet had been sent off to a prospective publisher in early...

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Arthur Conan Doyle

(19th-Century Biographies)

Early Life

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born into an artistic Catholic family and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, a Protestant stronghold. His grandfather and his uncle were illustrators; Richard, his uncle, gained fame drawing for Punch. Doyle’s father, Charles, became clerk of the Board of Works in Edinburgh, but he also drew. He illustrated the first edition of his son’s A Study in Scarlet (1887), the first tale of Sherlock Holmes. Charles suffered from mental illness and alcoholism and was institutionalized from 1879 until his death in 1893. Doyle’s mother, Mary Foley, was an Irish Catholic. She reared seven children, of whom Arthur was the fourth. Ever a practical woman, she oversaw...

(The entire section is 2806 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What evidence suggests that as a writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not obsessed by, or confined to, detective fiction?

What character traits of Dr. Watson make him an ideal partner for Sherlock Holmes?

There are a number of similarities between Doyle’s detective stories and those of Edgar Allan Poe. What are the most striking dissimilarities?

What traits of Doyle’s detective fiction survive among the more traditional sleuths in modern detective fiction?

Have changes in the technology and resources of detection curtailed modern readers’ capacity to enjoy the Sherlock Holmes stories?

Arthur Conan Doyle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The British Library owns nearly a thousand letters that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to his mother, Mary, from the time he went away to boarding school at the age of eight until her death more than fifty years later in 1920. This correspondence comprises the bulk of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters, though editors Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley have included some letters that Doyle addressed to others and the occasional letter that others wrote to him. They have supplied links between the letters that, taken together with the correspondence, make the work in effect a biography. Lellenberg worked as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Author of The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan...

(The entire section is 1671 words.)


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Akinson, Michael. The Secret Marriage of Sherlock Holmes, and Other Eccentric Readings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Attempts to read Holmes’s stories in the manner in which Holmes himself might read them. “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” is read in terms of the philosophy of Kundalini yoga; “A Scandal in Bohemia” is read in terms of its use of traditional romance motifs and its debt to Edgar Allan Poe; Jungian psychology is used to read A Study in Scarlet; and Derridian deconstruction is used to read “The Adventure of the Copper Breeches.”

Baring-Gould, W. S. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street:...

(The entire section is 1139 words.)