“Elementary, my dear Watson.”
While it’s commonly believed that Sherlock Holmes uttered those words, you won’t find that quote in any of the published stories that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about the famous English consulting detective.
Nor will you find any forensic evidence of Sherlock Holmes’s existence, beyond the words in the four novel-length cases and the 56 short stories that originally brought him to life for millions of readers.
May 22 marks the 150th birthday anniversary of Doyle, the creator of the character often called the world’s first modern deductive detective.
Doyle, born in 1859 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a prosperous Irish-Catholic family, was educated in England at a Jesuit boarding school where he realized he had a talent for storytelling, often amazing younger students with created tales.
While his family would have liked him to pursue an artistic career, Doyle broke with tradition and pursued a medical one and carried out his medical studies at the University of Edinburgh. While there, he met other university students who would go on to become noted authors, such as James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson.
However, the individual who influenced Doyle the most was a teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, a master of logic, observation, deduction and diagnosis. Doyle’s later Sherlock Holmes character would incorporate all of these qualities.
During his medical studies, Doyle began writing short stories, getting several published in various journals and popular magazines. He also spent a number of months aboard a whaling ship in the Arctic as ship’s surgeon, and later returned to the university and graduated with a medical degree.
After a brief stint as the medical officer of a West African coast steamship, Doyle settled in Portsmouth, England, and opened his first medical practice. He married in 1885 and a year later began the novel that would catapult him to fame, “A Study in Scarlet,” which introduced the world to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. James Watson.
Doyle gave up his medical career in 1891 and concentrated full time on his literary efforts, turning out a prodigious amount of novels and short stories in the ensuing years.
In a surprise decision, Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes with a plunge into Switzerland’s Reichenback Falls in a December 1893 story called “The Final Problem.” He then traveled the world, visiting the United States, Egypt and South Africa, but longed to continue his prior success with the Holmes character.
In August 1901 Doyle resurrected Holmes in the novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles” to the delight of thousands of frustrated fans. Doyle would continue writing about Sherlock Holmes until the last dozen stories about the detective’s cases were compiled in 1928 in “The Casebook of Sherlock Homes.”
Today, the Arthur Conan Doyle Society, founded in 1989 by Christopher Roden in Ashcroft, B.C., Canada, brings together individuals interested in scholarship and research about the author. The Society publishes a Journal, as well facsimile editions of various Doyle editions.
“Many of the publications we produce were to coincide with events, such as a Society conference in Edinburgh or Toronto,” Roden said. “We also were fortunate to produce the first printing of a previously-unpublished Doyle ghost story, ‘The Haunted Grange of Goresthorpe,’ the manuscript of which was held in the National Library of Scotland.”
Roden thinks the enduring popularity of Doyle rests chiefly with the Sherlock Holmes stories, which he believes will continue.
“Professor Challenger will remain reasonably popular with readers who like ‘The Lost World,’ and the Brigadier Gerard and supernatural stories should continue to be available, but in the main, Doyle will remain popular because of Sherlock Holmes,” he said.
Another Doyle organization is the Friends of Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto (Canada) Public Library. The collection of Doyle material, begun in 1969, is housed in a Victorian-style room replete with evidence of Sherlock Holmes’s habitation — a deerstalker on a hat rack, a Persian slipper stuffed with tobacco on the fireplace mantle, a coal scuttle filled with cigars by the fireplace.
Period furniture fills the room and the Collection’s walls are covered with original artwork by Sidney Paget and Frederick Door Steele, as well as Sherlockian memorabilia.
The Friends of ACD were established in 1997 to provide support for the collection, said Clifford S. Goldfarb, a Toronto attorney and chairman of the Friends.
“The Friends were formed to help raise the public’s consciousness of the Collection and of the life and works of Conan Doyle,” Goldfarb pointed out. “Part of our mission is to help raise money so the Collection can acquire items not normally covered by the budget of a municipally-funded public library.”
The Friends, which currently have about 200 members, publish a newsletter, Magic Door, have a speakers program, and run a conference every few years.
Goldfarb said that “while some scholars damn Doyle with faint praise as a ‘popular writer,’ many of Doyle’s works, especially some of his short stories, are first-rate literature.”
For instance, he continued, “‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ is always listed among the top literary works of the 20th century. Doyle was, above all, a superb storyteller and virtually anything he wrote will give pleasure to the general reader, even today.”