Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859 - 1930), one of the most popular and prolific English writers of the Victorian & Edwardian eras, is best remembered as the creator of the master detective Sherlock Holmes. He is believed by some to have single-handedly created the modern detective novel.
Born to highly literate parents (his father was a celebrated London caricaturist), Conan Doyle was infused early on with a sense of his aristocratic ancestry. Doyle attended public school (the Jesuit Stonyhurst School in Lancashire) where he was exposed to and reveled in athletic pursuits and romantic history. He studied to be a doctor in Edinburgh University, and spent long difficult years in apprenticeship to various doctors throughout England. He eventually established a small private practice in Southsea. In private life, Conan Doyle was the archetypal Victorian family man, and a great lover of athletics and sport -- he is said to have introduced the sport of downhill skiing to Switzerland.
Money was tight, and as a way of supplementing his income, Conan Doyle began writing stories published in local newspapers and London. However, in 1887 Beeton's Christmas Annual published a A Study in Scarlet featuring his newest creation, a master sleuth called Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. John Watson, M.D. Though critics complained about Holmes' apparent similarity to Poe's detective, Dupin, the story and its characters were instantly popular; Conan Doyle began writing full time and within a few years abandoned his medical practice. From 1887 to 1927 he wrote 60 Holmes adventures, including four novels: A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901), and The Valley of Fear (1915). Sherlock Holmes, the master detective, had just the right combination of Victorian heroic qualities and strange eccentricities to ignite the interests of readers of the time. His intrepid companion and chronicler, Dr. Watson, is widely accepted to have been modeled on none other than Conan Doyle himself. By 1892, Conan Doyle was tired of his character and, much to the dismay of his fans (including Conan Doyle's own mother), killed off Holmes in a battle with his arch nemesis Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem.
Rid of the burden of Holmes, Doyle could now turn to what he described as his first literary passion, historical romance. Even before Holmes' literary death, Conan Doyle had begun to produce what would become a large body of painstakingly researched historical novels, including Micah Clarke (1889), The White Company (1890), Sir Nigel (1905) and the Brigadier Gerard chronicles. Though somewhat popular, the books were never as well received as his detective stories, and in 1901, Conan Doyle bowed to public pressure and revived Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles -- set before the character's death. One year later, Conan Doyle revived his character for further adventures starting with The Adventure of the
Empty House. Perhaps due to his growing resentment of his star character, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most wildly inconsistent characters in serial fiction, his very nature seems to change from story to story. But this subtle sabotage never affected the public's appetite for Holmes' exploits, and when Conan Doyle finally retired the character in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes (1927), he was more popular than ever.
A great supporter of the military and the Empire, he served as a physician in the Boer war. Subsequently, Conan Doyle wrote two treatises, The Great Boer War (1900) and The War in South Africa: Its Causes and Conduct (1902), defending the war to a public which became increasingly vocal in its opposition to Britain's participation in the South African conflict. Doyle's patriotism earned him a knighthood. His participation in Britain's military continued into World War I where, to old to serve, he acted as correspondent, writing History of the British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916).
Having lost a son in World War I, the formerly Catholic Conan Doyle turned to Spiritualism, a semi-religious movement that swept England. As families dealt with the horrible loss of life brought about by the Great War, spiritualism's belief that the living could communicate with the dead became increasingly popular, and Doyle was a great proponent. Having created the character of Professor Challenger (another classic mix of intellectualism and physical adventure) in The Lost World (1912) Conan Doyle used his new creation to explore Spiritualism in The Land of Mist (1926). In addition, Conan Doyle wrote several monographs and conducted public speaking tours on the subject. Conan Doyle's last effort was his autobiography Memories and Adventures (1924). He died on July 7, 1930, and was buried at his home, Windlesham. On his oaken tombstone his epitaph sums up the spirit of both his times and his writing: "Steel True, Blade Straight."
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was nothing if not a product of his times, and his writing both reflected and promoted the Victorian ideals of manly adventure and liberal imperialism singular to that period in British History. However, despite Doyle's efforts, the ingenious character of Sherlock Holmes transcends Doyle's time and views. Inspiring countless movies, novels, and plays, Sherlock Holmes helped revolutionize modern popular fiction and remains today one of the most recognizable figures in popular culture, and is the last and greatest legacy of Conan Doyle's career.