The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes | Study Guide

Arthur Conan Doyle

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Arthur Conan Doyle | Biography

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Arthur Conan Doyle was born to a Catholic family in Edinburgh, Scotland, on May 22, 1859. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was an artist and the son of John Doyle, a famous political cartoonist and London society fixture. At age 23 Charles married Mary Josephine Foley, who was just 17 when they wed. Seven of Charles and Mary's nine children survived through infancy.

Arthur had a chaotic childhood; Charles didn't make enough money to adequately support the family, and he became an alcoholic. Arthur received a good education with the help of financial assistance from his relatives, but he hated the strict and often violent disciplinary measures enforced at the Jesuit schools he attended. At his mother's advice he enrolled in medical school at the University of Edinburgh at age 17. He was intrigued by the scientific method and rationalism, and he was especially taken by one of his professors, Dr. Joseph Bell. To arrive at diagnoses the professor relied on observation and deductive reasoning—tools that would come to be wielded by Doyle's most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes.

While he was in medical school Doyle published his first short story, "The Mystery of Sasassa Valley." Influenced by Edgar Allen Poe, the tale reflected his interest in thrillers. After a series of adventures took him around the world, he moved to Portsmouth and set up his medical practice. In 1885 he married Louise Hawkins; they had two children. In 1888 he published his first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in the literary magazine Beeton's Christmas Annual. Between 1891 and 1893 he published new Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand Magazine. (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is a collection of the first 12 stories.) He grew weary of his famous character, however, and in 1893 he killed off Holmes in the story "The Final Problem." Doyle's fan base was so immense and so captivated by his stories that an estimated 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand in protest over Holmes's "death." The public outcry was so great, in fact, he resurrected the detective in a 1903 story.

Doyle's reason-wielding, crime-fighting sleuth has come to be one of the most well-known and influential figures in literary and pop culture history. From detective Sam Spade in Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel The Maltese Falcon to the CSI television franchise, the clue-hunting detective character has remained a permanent fixture in storytelling. Despite the many talented detectives he inspired, Holmes has not been eclipsed; the immense worldwide popularity of Sherlock, the British TV series launched in 2010, which recast Holmes's adventures in modern London, demonstrates his continued appeal. Holmes's influence on literature is so monumental that a literary journal dedicated exclusively to Sherlock Holmes criticism, The Baker Street Journal, was created in 1946 and is still around today.

Many commentators have even credited Sherlock Holmes with contributing to the development of crime forensics. His intelligence-gathering techniques, such as analyzing fingerprints, blood, secret codes, footprints, and other physical clues, as well as his use of chemistry, directly influenced modern-day crime solving. The 2013 work The Scientific Sherlock Holmes: Cracking the Case with Science and Forensics, written by Missouri State University chemistry professor James O'Brien, devoted an entire book to this topic.

In addition to mysteries Doyle wrote essays, historical romances, plays, and more. He was a bona fide literary superstar, admired worldwide, and he visited the United States and other foreign lands on speaking tours. In 1906 Louise died after a years-long battle with tuberculosis, and Doyle remarried Jean Leckie, a beautiful and aristocratic young woman with whom he had been having an affair; they had three children.

Toward the end of his life Doyle became fascinated with "spiritualism," an occult movement that believed one could communicate with the dead. He developed a serious heart condition and, despite doctors' warnings, traveled around the world to promote spiritualism. On a tour in 1929, his heart pains became so severe that he had to return home, where he remained mostly restricted to bed until his death on July 7, 1930.

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