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One Hit Wonder

Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, and that's enough.

Aug 25, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 46 • By BARTON SWAIM
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The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes

The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

by Andrew Lycett

Free Press, 576 pp., $30

Arthur Conan Doyle

A Life in Letters

Edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley

Penguin, 720 pp., $37.95

From almost the moment of his first appearance, in 1887, Sherlock Holmes overshadowed his creator. People would write to the author asking advice on solving mysteries, as though he were a detective rather than a writer. Indeed, some admirers--as we learn from Andrew Lycett's superb new biography--wrote directly to the nonexistent Holmes. The degree to which the detective became more famous than his creator is nicely symbolized by the fact that, while there are no statues of Arthur Conan Doyle in Edinburgh, the city of his birth, there is an enormous one of Sherlock Holmes.

Conan Doyle's literary productivity matched, or excelled, his famously prolific contemporaries. He wrote historical novels, science fiction, thrillers, works on spiritualism, histories and pamphlets on the Boer War and World War I, plays, collections of poems, and innumerable articles and short stories. Yet his reputation rests exclusively on the four novels and 56 stories of the Holmes oeuvre. Apart from those, not a single one of Conan Doyle's works is now read by anybody but academics and specialists.

The two works under review here represent literary scholarship of a high order: clearly and engagingly written, scrupulously accurate, extremely well researched. Yet neither attempts more than a cursory answer to the central question (as it seems to me) of Arthur Conan Doyle's literary career: Why is he remembered for Holmes--and for literally nothing else?

His mother, Mary Doyle, was the preeminent force in Conan Doyle's life. He seems to have written her about once a week from the time he left for preparatory school, aged nine, until her death a half-century later. She was, as he recalled in his fictional autobiography The Stark Munro Letters (1895), "the quaintest mixture of the housewife and the woman of letters." He could remember her stirring porridge "with the porridge stick in one hand and the other holding her Revue des deux mondes within two inches of her dear nose."

It was at the University of Edinburgh's medical school that he encountered Professor Joseph Bell, who taught his students the value of noticing the seemingly irrelevant details of their patients' conditions. Bell would serve as the model for Holmes, whose dazzling powers of deduction made him, as his colleague Dr. Watson put it, "the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen."

By the time Conan Doyle set up his medical practice in 1885, in Portsmouth, he had spent a year of schooling in Austria, six months on a whaler as a ship's doctor, and another four months as a surgeon on a steamer bound for West Africa. When his medical practice failed to bring in sufficient funds, he found he could turn his travels to profit by writing swashbuckling adventure stories. The first of these, A Study in Scarlet (1887), the second half of which is set among Mormons in America, earned Conan Doyle a meager £25. (He had sold the copyright, a mistake he wouldn't make again.) His second book, Micah Clarke (1888), a historical novel set during the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion, did slightly better.

The most profitable idea of his life came to him in September 1889: "I shall give Sherlock Holmes of A Study in Scarlet something else to unravel," he wrote to Joseph Stoddart of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. "I notice that everyone who has read the book wants to know more of that young man." The result was The Sign of Four (1890). Urged by his publishers to produce more Holmes material, he began writing short stories in which Holmes and Watson remained the lead characters--a literary device original with Conan Doyle. Soon he found he could name his own price, so addicted had the public become to this famous detective's adventures.

At some point in 1892 he realized he could give up his medical practice and support his family--by this time a wife and two children--on writing alone. "I should at last be my own master," he later recalled. "No longer would I have to conform to professional dress or try to please any one else." He wasn't his own master, however: Sherlock -Holmes was, as over time he would ruefully acknowledge. Conan Doyle's other literary works would earn him money, but only Holmes kept him wealthy.