Saturday, May 22, 2010

The 151st Birthday of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It was on 22 May, 1859 that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Not only would he become a pioneer in detective fiction, but he would also create one of the earliest superstars in pop culture, the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle's writing went well beyond Holmes, however, as he also wrote historical novels, science fiction, romances, and poetry. He also created another memorable character in the form of Professor Challenger.

Born to a father of Irish descent, Victorian artist Charles Doyle, and a mother who was Irish, Mary Foley, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of ten children  He attended the Jesuit school Hodder Place, Stonyhurst, and then Stonyhurst College. Although educated by Jesuits, by the time he left Stonyhust College in 1875, he had become an agnostic. From 1876 to 1881 he studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. It was during this period that he first started writing short stories. In 1879 he sold his first short story, "The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley," to Chambers Edinburgh Journal.

In 1881 he set up a medical practice at Plymouth with a classmate, George Budd, but their partnership would not last. It was only after a few months that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set up his own practice at Elm Grove, Southsea. With only a very few patients, Conan Doyle took to writing again. It was in 1887 that his novel A Study in Scarlet would be published in Beetons Christmas Journal. The novel marked the first appearance of consulting detective Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick and biographer Dr. John H. Watson. It would also be the first novel in which a magnifying glass is used as  a tool in a crime investigation. Surprisingly for so historic a work, A Study in Scarlet attracted very little attention when it was first published.

Despite the fact that A Study in Scarlet drew little notice, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a second novel featuring Holmes and Watson. The Sign of Four was published in the February 1890 issue of  Lippincott's Montly Magazine under a slightly different title, The Sign of the Four. Since Lippincotts Montly Magazine was published on both sides of the Pond, the novel debuted in both London and Philadelphia at nearly the same time. Once the novel was serialised in other journals and when it was published in book form in both the United Kingdom and the United States, it was given the title by which it is now known: The Sign of Four. Surprisingly, it also met with little success.

Fortunately for both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, their fortunes were about to change. Starting with the January 1891 issue, publisher Sir George Newnes began publishing a new magazine called The Strand. Conan Doyle's agent A. P. Watt struck a deal with the new magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. The first short story featuring Holmes to be a published in The Strand would also become one of the most famous stories in the Canon. "A Scandal in Bohemia" first appeared in the July 1891 issue of The Strand. It would be the short story which would introduce a character whom Dr. Watson would eventually describe as the only person to have beaten Holmes and an individual Holmes referred to as The Woman: Irene Adler. While both A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four went unnoticed, Conan Doyle's short stories featuring Holmes which appeared in The Strand became incredibly popular. The stories would appear in the New York edition of The Strand, usually the month following their appearance in London, in addition to being syndicated to newspapers across the United States. Sherlock Holmes was soon a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not have to look far for the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had worked for Dr. Joseph Bell while a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Dr Bell was a pioneer in the field of medical diagnoses who utilised close observation, even of the smallest details, and logic to make his diagnoses. It is to Dr. Bell that Holmes owes his keen powers of observation. While Dr. Bell was the primary inspiration for Holmes, another sources of inspiration came from a similar, fictional character. The first was C. Auguste Dupin, the first detective to ever appear in fiction, created by Edgar Allan Poe in the short story "Murders in the Rue Morgue, " first published in 1841. In fact, in A Study in Scarlet, Watson even compares Holmes to Dupin. The second fictional character who may have served as inspiration for Sherlock Holmes may have been Monsieur Lecoq, created by Émile Gaboriau in the story L’Affaire Lerouge in 1866. He is also mentioned in A Study in Scarlet, although Holmes describes him as "a miserable bungler." Both Dupin and Lecoq were in turn inspired by a real life individual, Eugène François Vidoccq. Vidoq was the first director of France's La Sûreté Nationale and the founder of the first known detective agency, Le bureau des renseignements.

The phenomenal success of Sherlock Holmes brought Conan Doyle both fame and wealth. Unfortunately, he also felt restrained by that success. As early as 1891 he wrote to his mother and told her he was considering killing Holmes off, as "He takes my mind from better things." Those "better things" were his historical novels. Conan Doyle's first historical novel, Micah Clarke, was published in 1888 and followed the character of title in adventures during the Monmouth Rebellion. His second historical novel, The White Company, was published in 1891 and followed a free company of archers during the during the years 1836 and 1837 when Prince Edward sought to restore Peter of Castile to the throne of Castile. Conan Doyle would publish five more historical novels.

It was in December 1893 that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did the unthinkable--he killed off Holmes. In the story "The Final Problem" Sherlock Holmes faces his archenemy, Professor Moriarty, for the first and only time in the Canon. In the climax of the story Holmes and Moriarty struggled atop Reichenbach Falls, only to fall to their apparent deaths. Public outcry was swift and immediate, so much so that Conan Doyle found he could not escape his creation so easily. After several years of pressure from the reading public, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was forced to write about Sherlock Holmes again. In 1902 a new Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was serialised in The Strand. The novel was set before the events in "The Final Problem." It was in 1903 that Conan Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead. The short story "The Adventure of the Empty House" is set in 1894, a year after the climactic battle between Holmes and Moriarty. In the story it is explained how Holmes survived the fight with Moriarty and faked his death to protect himself from enemies other than Moriarty. In the end Conan Doyle would write over thirty more short stories featuring Holmes and one more novel, The Valley of Fear (published in 1914). The last short story by Arthur Conan Doyle to feature Sherlock Holmes was "The Adventure of Shoscombe Place," published in 1927.

Sherlock Holmes would not be the only famous character created by Sir Conan Doyle. He also created the character of Prof. George Edward Challenger. Professor Challenger first appeared in the novel The Lost World, published in 1912. Challenger was a very different character from Holmes, although both could be called scientists. While Holmes was reserved and contemplative, Challenger was outgoing, more than a bit arrogant, and even aggressive. Like Holmes, however, he was also a genius. He had studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he majored in medicine, zoology, and anthropology. While he could be impolite and even demeaning to others, he also had a keen mind which could figure a way out of any situation. He was also incredibly loyal to his friends and hopelessly devoted to his wife.

Like Holmes, Professor Challenger was based on a real person. While at the University of Edinburgh Conan Doyle studied under William Rutherford, Professor and Chair of Physiology . Rutherford was a brilliant lecturer, a fact for which Conan Doyle and other students admired him. Like Challenger , Rutherford was also a large man with a booming voice. And like Challenger, his behaviour was not always socially acceptable in Victorian Scotland.

While Sherlock Holmes was featured in mystery stories (although at times they bordered on horror, as in the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles), Professor Challenger's adventures could best be described as science fiction. In The Lost World Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in South America where prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs, still live. In the novella The Poison Belt, published in 1913, the earth passes through a belt of poisonous ether, a fact which only Challenger seems to know. In The Land of Mist, published in 1926, Challenger is only a peripheral character and the work deals primarily with spiritualism. In the story "When the World Screamed," published in 1928, Challenger is convinced the earth's mantle is a sentient being and sets out to prove it. In the story "The Disintegration Machine," published in 1929. Challenger encounters a scientist who has developed a machine which can disintegrate and reassemble any object, including human beings.

In addition to his writing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also politically active. After the Boer War, when the world condemned the United Kingdom for its actions, Conan Doyle wrote the pamphlet he War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, in which he argued that the UK's action were justified. He also wrote a book on the war, The Great Boer War, published in 1900. He also ran for Parliament twice and fought for reform of the Congo Free State.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also a fervent supporter of justice. Because of his efforts, he successfully had two men exonerated of the crimes for which they had been convicted. It was in part Conan Doyle's efforts to correct miscarriages of justice that led to the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

Later in his life Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became interested in Spiritualism. Eventually he would even write a book, The History of Spiritualism, published in 1926. Convinced that the Cottingley Fairies appearing  in series of photographs taken by Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were real, he brought the photos to the attention of The Strand, who published the photos alongside an article by Conan Doyle on fairies in the magazine's Christmas 1920 issue. His book, The Coming of the Fairies was published in 1921. It was in the Eighties that the photos were proven to be a hoax.

At the age of 71 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died from a heart attack on 7 July, 1930. He left behind a legacy which few writers can boast. Sherlock Holmes became one of the first pop culture superstars. By 1894 Holmes had already appeared in two stage plays. At the turn of the century actor William Gilette would have enormous success with the play Sherlock Holmes, or The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner. In 1900, the first film was made featuring Sherlock Holmes, a one reeler released by American Mutoscope and Biograph Company enitled Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900. By the time Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appeared as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in 20th Century Fox's production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes had already appeared in close to 100 films. As of 2009 Holmes has appered in around 200 films. The only pop culture figure to appear in more movies is Dracula.

 Not only was Holmes popular, but he has also been influential. Although not the first fictional detective, he would prove a role model for many of those who followed, from Hercule Poirot to Nero Wolfe. Conan Doyle's novels and short stories featuring Holmes also brought forensics to the forefront of mystery novels and short stories, so that in some respects Holmes is the forerunner of such police procedurals as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. The Sherlock Holmes novels and stories also provided character archetypes who would reappear in the mystery genre. The exceedingly loyal and less intelligent assistant, Dr. Watson, would be the forerunner of Poirot's frequent sidekick Arthur Hastings and Nero Wolfe's legman Archie Goodwin. The less imaginative and intelligent police officer, Inspector Lestrade, would be the ancestor of all police baffled by crimes in mystery novels from his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet onwards.

In creating Sherlock Holmes and his milieu, then, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a character who would be incredibly influential and whose stories would impact nearly every mystery written ever since. Indeed, only last year, the year of Conan Doyle's 150th birthday, yet another Sherlock Holmes movie was released. It would seem that as we move towards Conan Doyle's 200th birthday, his creation continues to an important force in pop culture.

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