Classic Crime

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It is amazing that after over one hundred and twenty years since the first appearance of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes, that we still have a fascination with the man to this very day. Recently on the big cinema screens around the world and now on DVD, millions of people have seen the new movie Sherlock Holmes as played by Robert Downey, Jr and directed by Guy Ritchie. Holmes is the most portrayed character on the silver screen as well as on our TV’s. Many great actors have played him from Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Tom Baker and to my mind the man who I feel captured Holmes completely, Jeremy Brett. And now we have his latest re-incarnation. Even Disney have stepped in to the ring with their cartoon, Basil, the Great Mouse Detective which was so obviously Holmes complete with a villain rat called Professor Ratigan (voiced by the marvellous Vincent Price). And now Holmes has been brought to a new generation of young fans. The Sherlock Holmes Society have reported that new members joining has risen significantly since the release of the latest film. With many new editions of the man’s adventures being released, whole collections of his entire adventures which include four novels and fifty-six short stories are being printed and bought by new fans.

So, what is it about Sherlock Holmes that fascinates us even after his creator has been dead for so long? Ah yes, maybe we should speak about Holmes’ creator – something that happens to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when one is speaking about Sherlock Holmes - even to this very day post is still written to 221b Baker Street. What is it that makes us semi-believe that Holmes was a real person and not a figment of Conan Doyle’s imagination? Even Conan Doyle had enough of the man to send him to the bottom of the Reichenbach Falls for a decade – to the intense outcry of the general public which was foretold to Conan Doyle by his very own mother when he told her of his plans. (As with Christie, she was determined to kill off Poirot as she disliked the man so much by the end of her life). And so under pressure, Holmes was brought back from the dead in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 – 1930) was himself a very interesting man. Twice married – his first wife, Louisa suffered from TB and it was a very protracted illness before she finally died in 1906. He had struck up a friendship with another woman, Jean Elizabeth Leckie which was purely platonic while Conan Doyle administered to his sick wife. Once she had passed away, he married Jean in 1907. From his two wives, the author had five children. The same with Holmes, Conan Doyle was brought to action when he felt that a great injustice had been carried out. His most famous case involved George Edalji who was imprisoned for who allegedly penned poison pen letters and maimed animals. Even when he was imprisoned the attacks on animals continued. A fictionalisation of their relationship was highlighted in Arthur and George by Julian Barnes.

In his later years and having lost several members of his family over a very short period of time, Conan Doyle became a great follower of the latest craze to take Britain – the séance. His forays in to the supernatural and his continuing search for communication which his departed loved ones is well documented. As is his fascination and belief in the Cottingley Fairies which were exposed as a hoax many decades later. But for Conan Doyle he believed in it wholeheartedly and published The Coming of the Fairies in 1921.

Besides his Sherlock Holmes work, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a huge range of novels and other works. Another very famous book of his is ‘The Lost World’ about a group of travellers led by Professor Challenger finding a hidden world full of dinosaurs. It is claimed by experts that Conan Doyle planted many clues and ciphers in his work about his leanings towards Spiritualism and other aspects of his beliefs. It is also claimed that Conan Doyle was involved with another hoax, the Piltdown Man and that in The Lost World there were many clues which pointed to Conan Doyle claiming himself as the perpetrator. However, as with all these things, it is all ‘elementary, my dear Watson’. Something else Holmes never said in his novels. Whatever the man got up to he has left behind a legacy which is still entertaining the masses and bringing young people to read something they wouldn’t necessarily have thought about before.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have thought he had bred a beast in Sherlock Holmes that threatened to overwhelm him. However, both had their parts of play. For Holmes it was to become a ‘real’ person in many people’s minds. For Conan Doyle, Holmes has given him longevity and a solid standing in the annals of time as the true master of the Golden Age of Crime.

Review: Sherlock Holmes

Normally I review a book that is my favourite of the man or woman who has been showcased in Classic Crime. However, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the big question is – what one do I choose? Everyone has their own favourite and readers have for years – and will for many years, decades or centuries to come, argue which is the best Holmes novel or short story.

Nobody can ever forget The Hound of the Baskervilles. As you turn those pages you can feel the mist of the moors of Dartmoor creeping in to the room and circling you as you read of Holmes’ most famous case.

However, for me my favourite is the collection of short stories, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Why? Is it because it was the first book I read of Conan Doyle’s when I was first introduced to Holmes? A book bought by my brother for Christmas many moons ago. And yet I still have that same edition which has followed me on many a house move! And one I still go to just to read a story or two. My favourites? Well, easily is ‘The Speckled Band’ which has to be the best short story ever! Then you have ‘The Red-Headed League’, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, ‘The Five Orange Pips’, ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ and ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’. For me, this is the perfect collection of short stories to set anyone off in search of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s other Sherlock Holmes novels. As a team, these two men were unstoppable. To spawn films, (some not even from Conan Doyle) as well as constant TV adaptations (I ask anybody to find another novel which has been adapted more times than The Hound of the Baskervilles!). Then other authors have written about Holmes, great authors like Michael Dibdin in his brilliant novel, ‘The Last Sherlock Holmes Story’ among many, many others. He has even appeared in comics – one of the most famous of which is in The Joker issue no. 6, published in 1975.

The best edition I have found recently is the Wordsworth Edition of The Illustrated Sherlock Holmes which holds all Holmes’ cases along with original drawings in one very reasonably priced volume.

So we can only be happy that this new craze for Sherlock Holmes is a blessing. It means that Conan Doyle gains a new and younger audience and that they will continue with their show their offspring the marvels of the world of the great detective that is Sherlock Holmes!

Reviewed by: C.S.

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