“Considering these various journals with their disconnected stories it had struck me that a single character running through the series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind the reader to that particular magazine.”
–Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Wiltse 105)
The new era of detective fiction that Doyle pioneered was the genre of the serial short story. His stories are well-written and entertaining in their own right, but Doyle strategized as well, deliberately playing the media market in order to attract the largest readership possible. He already wrote for a bourgeois magazine, and he catered his purposefully non-sensationalist writing style to fit an audience concerned with respectability. However, pursuing a career as an author meant more than attracting a readership once or twice. A small but very important part of the interaction between Doyle’s stories and the reading public was his manipulation of popular culture – that of mass media – in order to maintain readership and make a profit in the fiercely capitalist Western society of nineteenth century. In order to make money, Doyle had to create a demanding audience while at the same time produce quality work on a regular basis. This was a difficult balance to strike, due to the high frequency of weekly magazine publications and quick turnaround needed between the initial idea for the story and the written story itself.
Doyle solved this problem easily through creating the serial short story. His Sherlock Holmes stories differed from past serial publications because they did not follow a specific plot line. Instead, each story contained only one adventure in the lives of Sherlock Holmes and his partner Dr. John Watson without making esoteric references to previous or future plot points that only dedicated readers would understand. Though the stories generally contained smaller overarching plots in form of relationships between characters – the developing friendship between Holmes and Watson, Watson’s marriage, and the antagonism between Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarty – they served to make readers more attached to the characters rather than confusing them (Wiltse 106-8).
Doyle also marketed his literature based on the name of Sherlock Holmes alone. According to author Ed Wiltse, a character is a much more effective “brand name” than any title or author could be (Wiltse 108). In fact, this strategy backfired. It did not take long for Doyle to become bothered by his over-devoted fanbase. He often received letters from fans who refused to believe Holmes was fictional. Readers grew so attached to Sherlock Holmes that when Doyle killed him off in a battle with Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls, his fans became excessively upset. Some wore official mourning crepe, as if a real person had died, and others created “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs (Wiltse 108). Doyle only killed Holmes off because he was tired of keeping up with the fierce demand his readership provided. However, he eventually succumbed to the pressure from Sherlock Holmes fans by bringing the beloved character back to life ten years later (Jaffe 9-10).
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle successfully struck the balance between maintaining the contiguous quality of a series with the independence of standalone short stories. Each one of Doyle’s stories was successful individually because it contained a plot of conflict and resolution and therefore satisfied readers in its own right. Doyle did not feature cliffhangers keeping readers at the edge of their seats until the story’s next installment, but instead focused on making his characters accessible to anyone who might pick up a copy of The Strand on a given day. However, Doyle did not sacrifice accessibility for entertainment value or quality. In this way, by utilizing the combination of an easily accessible plot line and an excessively popular character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a “series” as opposed to a “serial proper” (Wiltse 108).