He is such a quintessentially English writer, that it is still something of a surprise to discover that he was actually born in Scotland, of an Irish mother, and with a paternal Irish grandfather. Though he himself was a master of the written word he came from a long line of cartoonists. He was the nephew of the famous Punch magazine illustrator, Richard ‘Dickie’ Doyle, and another uncle, Henry, became director of the National Gallery of Ireland. As a writer, he was drawn towards his own historical novels, but nobody really cares for them that much and today, even fans of his work would be hard put to name a single one of them.
That’s because, in 1886, he created the immortal detective Sherlock Holmes. The first appearance of the master-sleuth, and his affable but somewhat dim-witted companion and chronicler, Dr. John Watson, netted Arthur Conan Doyle the not terribly princely sum of £25, though it was probably the best twenty-five quid the publishing company Ward Lock & Co ever spent. A Study in Scarlet united the two heroes of Doyle’s most enduring fictions. Subsequent stories, like The Sign of Four, The Valley of Fear and The Hound of the Baskervilles made him the best paid author of his day. By that time Watson’s old war wound, incurred in the Afghan war, had miraculously migrated from his arm to his leg.
Within five years Doyle was already profoundly sick of his creation. In 1891 he wrote to his mother. ‘I think of slaying Holmes,… and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.’ His anguished mother wrote back, ‘You won’t! You can’t! You mustn’t!’ He didn’t! She was, after all, an Irish mammy who must be obeyed in all things.
But two years later he defied even his poor Irish mother by having the cleverest Kerryman ever invented, Professor James Moriarty, toss Holmes over the Reichenbach Falls. ‘Good riddance’, said Doyle, ‘time to get back to the character who will really establish my reputation, Brigadier Gerard.’ Sadly, it wasn’t to be and today few people would even remember the estimable French Brigadier had a rather decent thoroughbred racehorse from the 1970s not been named after him.
After killing off his supersleuth Doyle had to endure the opprobrium normally reserved for figures like Rasputin, Kaiser Wilhelm and Dr. Crippen, the infamous wife killer. Reaction to the demise of Holmes was a bit over the top, apparently extending as far as death threats. But, ever the stoic, Doyle resisted all temptation for a Holmesian return. However, if the Stone Roses can make a comeback, so could Sherlock, and in 1901 Doyle reintroduced him in a pre-Moriarty novel, the gothic Hound of the Baskervilles. This was a prelude to bringing him back to life in a new series of stories in 1903. Mammy Doyle was beside herself.
In addition to his novels and short stories, Doyle was, of course, a medical doctor. He was also a failed politician, a Liberal Unionist—a fancy name for a Tory. Not even the creator of Sherlock Holmes could get elected in the two Scottish constituencies in which he stood in 1900 and 1906. He was also an accomplished sportsman, playing soccer for Portsmouth, and cricket for the MCC.
Doyle was also a noted mystic and spiritualist, whose unfortunate gullibility led him to accept the bona fides of one Elsie Wright in 1917 when, as a sixteen-year old, she took an infamous photograph of her nine-year old cousin Frances Griffiths with four alleged fairies. In the ensuing controversy surrounding the so-called Cottingley fairies, Doyle came down emphatically on the side of fairy-ness. He chose to believe that Elsie had managed to do what no one else had ever done before, to catch those shy and elusive creatures on camera. He was more than half a century dead before Elsie admitted, in the 1980s that it was all a hoax and that the fairies were cardboard cut-outs.
By the way, ‘Conan’ was his middle name, not part of a compound surname. His knighthood went to plain ‘Arthur Doyle’, though the man himself had begun to add the second barrel to his surname at an early age.
There is a commemorative statue in Edinburgh outside the location of the house—long since demolished—in which he was born. It’s of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle would have loved that!
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the immortal Brigadier Gerard, and the barely remembered Sherlock Holmes, died eighty-seven years ago, on this day.
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