Today, May 22, is the 156th birthday of Scottish physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle. Though he is now revered as the creator of “the world’s first consulting detective”, the one and only Sherlock Holmes, Doyle himself would have wanted you to know so much more about him. For instance, he was a historian, publishing an impressive account of the Boer War in 1900, and a history of the British army on the Western Front during the First World War. It was because of these writings that he was knighted in 1902 (not for the publication of The Hound of the Baskervilles, as many at the time thought).
He was also an avid (if not terribly gifted) athlete, and played on a cricket team with Sir J.M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, and A.A. Milne, among other literary celebrities. The team was called the “Allahakbarries”, which Barrie thought meant “Heaven Help Us” in Arabic. The team refused to practice on an opposing team’s pitch before a match because, as Barrie said, “It can only give them confidence.” The team never won a match, which is a polite way to say they were really, genuinely bad, but they apparently played with great enthusiasm, which has to count for something, right?
Speaking of his acquaintances, Doyle was quite the connected late-Victorian gentleman. He and Barrie had a long-standing friendship, and even penned a light opera together called “Annie Jane, or the Good Conduct Prize”. The show was a complete financial failure when it debuted in 1893, but that didn’t stop Barrie from writing a delightful, darkly funny Holmes pastiche entitled “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators”. You can read the full story in its absurd, surreal entirety here. He was also acquainted with Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula…though it seems that Doyle was not too impressed with the great Count. In “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire”, Holmes tells Watson, “Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”
Doyle was also something of a detective in his own right. Perhaps the most famous case in which Doyle involved himself was that of Oscar Slater, who had been falsely convicted of murder in 1909. Doyle, convinced of Slater’s innocence, publicly advocated for his release so adamantly that Slater actually smuggled letters out of prison to Doyle, who employed what he called the “Sherlock Method” to re-evaluate the evidence and re-interview witnesses, ultimately leading to Slater’s release in 1927. You can read more about the case here.
So, in tribute to the all-around intriguing man who was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we include here a reading list for those looking to know more about Doyle, and the generations of writers his work has inspired. Come into the library and check some out today!
Arthur Conan Doyle : a life in letters: Probably one of the best ways to get to know Doyle is through his own words, and this annotated volume of nearly ever letter he ever wrote is fascinating, and surprisingly engaging. Here you can meet Doyle as a student, as a struggling doctor, a family man, and as a world renowned author dealing with the weight of his own fame.
The Lost World: Michael Critchon owes every ounce of credit for his work to Doyle, who first came up with the idea of a remote island populated by ferocious dinosaurs. Doyle’s Professor Challenger stories are pulse-pounding, thrillingly imaginative science fiction stories that haven’t lost any of their fun over the years. Though the public may remember Sherlock Holmes, Doyle himself loved Professor Challenger, and even dressed up as him for press photos.
The Baker Street Letters: Not long after Sherlock Holmes first graced the pages of The Strand magazine, fans were writing letters to the nonexistent address 221B Baker Street. Michael Robertson’s novel begins when brothers Nigel and Reggie Heath open a law office at the famous address. When an eight-year-old girl writes to Sherlock Holmes in a desperate attempt to clear her father’s name, the hapless Nigel decides to take on the case, leaving an inconveniently dead body on the floor of his office, and forcing his brother and his part-time girlfriend to follow him to Los Angeles, where even further intrigue awaits. The follow-up novel, The Brothers of Baker Street, brings the Heath brothers back to investigate the murder of two tourists in London in a case complicated by the descendant of one Professor Moriarty. These books are delightfully clever and insightful tales that stand on their own, but will delight fans of the Holmes cannon who will recognize numerous inside jokes and references in the midst of this mystery.
The Patient’s Eyes : The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes: David Pirie’s series takes as its inspiration the relationship between Doyle and his mentor, the remarkably observant Dr. Joseph Bell, the man who would become the model for Sherlock Holmes himself. In Pirie’s work, the young Doyle finds himself involved in the case of a young woman who is troubled by the phantom image of a solitary cyclist who disappears whenever he is followed. Though Doyle doubts the seriousness of the case, Bell recognizes in the woman’s tale a far more sinister plot. Fans of historical mysteries will love the gritty, realistic details in this story, and fans of Doyle’s detective will recognize a good deal of Holmes’ methods in Bell’s investigations. The two other books in this trilogy, The Night Calls and The Dark Water continue to develop this uncanny relationship and hint to the development of Holmes in Doyle’s imagination.
Moriarty: Anthony Horowitz is one among a number of authors to develop the character of Holmes’ arch-nemesis, the nefarious genius Professor James Moriarty. In this particular adventure, Moriarty survives the Falls of Reichenbach only to find his criminal empire threatened by a potential rival. Desperate and under attack, the Professor finds himself in an uneasy alliance with a Pinkerton Detective, and a disciple of Holmes’ from Scotland Yard. Readers unfamiliar with Moriarty’s role in the Holmes stories will have no trouble falling into this story and its marvelous historic details, and those who know the Professor only through Holmes’ descriptions will delight in the way that Horowitz expands and develops the character into a three-dimensional and thoroughly engaging anti-hero. Horowitz also penned The House of Silk, the only Holmes’ pastiche to be sanctioned by Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate.
The Final Solution : A Story of Detection: Though Michael Chabon never mentions Holmes by name, the mystery featuring an elderly bee-keeper on the Sussex Downs will immediately recall the great detective in retirement to Holmes devotees. But you don’t need to know much about Holmes to appreciate the genius of Chabon’s bittersweet exploration of growing old, coping with loss, and making new friends, as young German boy, fleeing the horrors of World War II, arrives in England, and meets an old and weary man who used to be a famous detective…