Known for his sharp mind, astute observations, and remarkable skills of deduction, Sherlock Holmes is the most influential and beloved detective in literary history.
Written between 1887 and 1927 by Arthur Conan Doyle, the Holmes stories were a turning point in the evolution of crime fiction, with the original Holmes universe spanning an impressive 40 years across four novels and 56 short stories.
The detective’s obsessive personality, unrivalled intelligence, and cold, calculating demeanour are combined with his exceptional skills of observation and deduction, making him a remarkable sleuth but an almost unbearable person to be around. Despite this, the community of Holmes fans stretches to every corner of the globe over a century after the detective’s first story was published. So, what makes the character so widely loved? And how did the Victorian London setting, combined with the author’s tragic personal life, influence the character? Explore the legacy of Sherlock Holmes and examine the detective’s story beyond his fictional adventures.
The Legacy of Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle
Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 22nd May 1859 to Charles and Mary Doyle. His father struggled greatly with depression and alcoholism, and in 1864, the family were separated. Forced to live across the city with various family friends due to Charles Doyle’s drinking habits, it wasn’t until 1867 that the family came together again to live in squalid tenement flats. In 1876, Charles Doyle was dismissed from his job and sent to a nursing home for alcoholics, where he developed epilepsy.
This troubling background of alcohol abuse and addiction crept from Conan Doyle’s personal life into his writing. Holmes himself is seen using cocaine and morphine (both of which were legal at the time) in many of his stories. The detective’s knowledge of chemistry and anatomy is utilised to manage his usage, but Conan Doyle doesn’t attempt to hide the drug-induced mania that many addicts suffer from.
In the same year as his father’s admission to the rehabilitation centre, Conan Doyle began studying at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. While studying, he met the man who would become the inspiration for Holmes’s iconic character. Doctor Joseph Bell (1837–1911) was a Scottish surgeon and lecturer and was considered a forensic science pioneer. He mesmerised Conan Doyle with his remarkable ability to deduce a stranger’s occupation and ailments by simply observing them. While working as Doctor Bell’s clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, Conan Doyle beheld the surgeon’s skills and considered the potential such abilities held outside of diagnosis. The seed of a remarkable idea was forming, and in 1887, Conan Doyle wrote the short story often considered the Sherlock Holmes prototype. The protagonists of the early piece, ‘Uncle Jeremy’s Household’, Hugh Lawrence and John H. Thurston, work together as an amateur detective duo and bear a strong resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson.
The Creation of Sherlock Holmes
Just months later, Conan Doyle altered the course of his life with the publication of the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887). It was printed in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, and although it didn’t bring the author instant success, it was the springboard he needed. In 1889, the Managing Editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine invited Conan Doyle to dinner, along with the prolific Irish writer Oscar Wilde. The three dined together, and both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and the second Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four (1889), were commissioned in a single evening.
Conan Doyle’s real breakthrough came in 1891 when he discovered The Strand Magazine. Proposing a series of short stories detailing a masterful detective’s adventures, he published the first short Holmes tale, ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, in the literary magazine, then quickly signed a contract to provide one story per month. Abandoning his medicinal practices, he was able to devote himself to his writing.
Despite Holmes’ cold and often selfish persona, his fanbase grew rapidly as Conan Doyle’s short stories continued to be released. Each issue of The Strand was available for sixpence, which was half the cost of similar publications, making the magazine an accessible form of literature. Set in the heart of fog-shrouded Victorian London, the serialised stories often highlight the drastic class divide of the nineteenth century. Holmes’ adventures stretch from the grand houses built on the wealth of the British Empire to the Dickensian side of the city, where cholera and typhoid ravaged the population and children made a living for their families in the workhouses. Despite Conan Doyle only living in the capital for a total of four years (and often presenting misinformation regarding London in his work), he successfully captured the rapidly transforming city. London is as vivid a character in the stories as the detective himself.
Sherlockians and Holmesians
Holmes is a protagonist like none other in literary history. His remarkably sharp mind and renowned skills of deduction and observation are juxtaposed with his emotional incapabilities and complete lack of empathy. Yet he remains a true Victorian gentleman, consistently taking care of his appearance and working to preserve social order. Not only does he have detailed knowledge of science, literature, and law, but he also excels in fencing and boxing and is a talented violinist. His combination of inconceivable brilliance and calculating coldness makes him fascinating.
To this day, the name Sherlock Holmes remains more famous than Arthur Conan Doyle’s, and fans widely believed that the detective was a real individual. This possibly arose due to the stories being narrated by Doctor Watson, Holmes’ trusted companion and sleuthing partner. The author often received fan mail addressed to Holmes alongside requests for his autograph and letters asking him to find their missing possessions. Avid readers began identifying as Sherlockians or Holmesians, and the more stories Conan Doyle produced, the deeper the fans’ faith in the detective seemed to go.
There was just one problem, despite the overwhelming adoration the character had garnered, Conan Doyle couldn’t tolerate Holmes. The pressure to continually produce narratives featuring the detective weighed heavily on the author. Holmes had metamorphosed into Conan Doyle’s own version of Frankenstein’s monster, and the only plausible escape he could envision was to lay the detective’s storyline to rest permanently. He finally reached a breaking point when his father passed away after enduring a protracted period of medical intervention. In December 1893, just two months following his father’s death, ‘The Final Problem’ was published. The author was inspired to set the climactic battle between Holmes and Professor Moriarty at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, a location he had visited earlier in the year. When the battling pair appeared to have plunged to their demise, the public was outraged.
The fans’ love for Holmes was so ingrained they couldn’t come to terms with the idea of never reading another story featuring the detective. Conan Doyle was less affected by the death of his protagonist. The day he wrote the ill-fated scene, his journal entry simply read, ‘Killed Holmes.’ But he began receiving threats through the post, demanding he revive the beloved character. Londoners were even reported to be wearing black armbands in mourning. The impact of the fictional death was not only felt by the author but also inflicted a blow on The Strand Magazine. Reportedly, the number of readers who cancelled their subscription to the publication amounted to over 20,000, nearly causing it to go out of print.
The Great Hiatus
Over the ensuing eight-year break, there was an inordinate demand for more Holmes stories. Entreated by the fans, Conan Doyle released a new novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), featuring Holmes but set before the detective’s death. This period became known among readers as the Great Hiatus, and The Strand staff were reported to have referred to Holmes’ death as ‘the dreadful event’. The real comeback occurred in 1903 when ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ was first published in the magazine. In a long-awaited twist, the short story is set three years after Holmes’ supposed death. Featuring the detective’s revival, Holmes reveals to Watson that he faked the scene at Reichenbach Falls to delude and escape Moriarty’s vengeful henchmen.
The Strand published a further 12 stories before Conan Doyle again attempted to end the series in Holmes’ retirement. In an interview with the Daily Mail in 1904, the author stated that Holmes was moving to the countryside and taking up beekeeping, concluding that ‘there is not the slightest intention of his ever again entering on the work of the detection of crime.’ Yet, finding himself once more in the position of Victor Frankenstein, it was impossible for Conan Doyle to destroy the monster he had created. Three subsequent volumes of Holmes stories, including another novel, were published before the author’s death. Two are set prior to the detective’s retirement, and ‘The Last Bow’ details his service during the First World War. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927) concludes the series with a collection of short stories set before the war.
Exclusive Literary Societies
In 1930, Conan Doyle died of a heart attack in his home at the age of 71 as one of the best-paid authors of the time. Despite the detective’s tales having come to an indisputable end, the author’s death heightened the public’s fascination with Sherlock Holmes.
In 1934, the first official Sherlock Holmes literary society was founded by American novelist Christopher Morley. Eponymously named the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) after the group of young street urchins Holmes occasionally called upon for assistance, the group still regularly publish a range of scholarship dedicated to their favourite literary figure. Operating as an exclusive, invitation-only club, notable members include Isaac Asimov and Neil Gaiman. There were no female members until 1991, when Conan Doyle’s second daughter, Jean, was invested. The BSI has its own printing press dedicated to publishing volumes related to Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle. The Baker Street Journal is also released quarterly by the society featuring scholarly articles and pieces revolving around the Great Game, in which fans imagine and record character backstories and history not provided by Conan Doyle. The Great Game, also known as Holmesian Speculation and the Sherlockian Game, is based on the belief that Watson is the true author of the detective’s adventures. Members must avoid using Conan Doyle’s name when attending BSI meetings and events and instead refer to him as Watson’s literary agent. Other notable societies include the Sherlock Holmes Society of London (founded in 1951) and the Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, which was founded in the 1960s as an exclusive women’s society.
The Legacy of Sherlock Holmes
Over a century since Sherlock Holmes made his first appearance, the iconic character has become a cultural touchstone. Inspiring generations of fans, filmmakers, and writers, the detective has made an ineradicable mark not only on the literary world but wider pop culture. Conan Doyle’s work altered the way readers interact with literature, prompting the formation of many dedicated fan groups worldwide, including prestigious societies and printing presses. From the smoke-filled rooms of 221B Baker Street and the spirited streets of Victorian London to the rolling countryside hills and misty moors, the Holmes stories are a rich portrayal of nineteenth-century England and enhance our understanding of the social and cultural context of the time. Conan Doyle’s literary influence will continue to captivate and inspire for many decades to come. The legacy of Sherlock Holmes is a testament to the enduring power of great storytelling.
Discover the most effective reading order for all 9 Sherlock Holmes books:
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