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Arthur Conan Doyle :: Crime, Scandal, Spectacle

Arthur Conan Doyle


Arthur Conan Doyle played a large part in the success of Holmes and the genre of detective fiction as a whole.  According to Martin Priestman, “Doyle expertly achieved the right balance of elements to provide the male middle-classes with relaxing reading […] by providing an intellectual adventure, while assuaging their anxieties about the modern world” (48).  By appealing to both reason and curiosity, Doyle captured the attention of readers of essentially all social classes.  Doyle was also able to present fiction as fact by creating the status of Holmes in the popular imagination and Holmes’s London as a stereotypical vision of Victorian London (Priestman 42-43).  With his strong Victorian attitudes, Doyle affirmed the traditional respected British values of solidity, morality, and eccentricity in his characterization of Holmes and Watson.  At the same time, his criminals often represented groups who threatened the traditional British order (Delamater and Prigozy 6).  Doyle played on popular feelings of the time and social distinctions to engage his readers.

Doyle’s own beliefs and values played a large role in creating the character of Sherlock Holmes and the stories in which he was presented.  While his first publications in the Strand were recollections of real-life crime tales from the early 1860’s, Doyle quickly became dissatisfied with these stories.  According to Ian Ousby, “the characterization of Sherlock Holmes changes, reflecting the development of Doyle’s own values as well as the different tastes of the various eras in which the stories first appeared” (151).  Doyle decided to return to fiction, which made real-life crime seem banal (Lycett 282).  Although science was progressing quickly at the time, dwelling on Freudian ideas and other radical concepts, Doyle wanted to refrain from delving too deep into the irrational mind (Lycett 284).  Doyle took a more serious literary endeavor with The Hound of the Baskervilles, but intertwined his religious beliefs with the idea that the hound might be supernatural.  Devoted to spiritualism, Doyle maintained a notion of life after death and physic abilities.  However, Holmes refused to get caught up in superstition and declared, “an investigator needs facts and not legends or rumors” (Doyle 875).  The fact that the hound in the Baskerville case appeared to be supernatural especially aggravated and motivated Holmes to discover the real truth behind the mystery.

Many people argue that the character of Sherlock Holmes is based upon Joseph Bell, Doyle’s teacher at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, and Doyle himself.  However, Martin Booth declares that this argument oversimplifies the situation because characters are generally created as composites.  Doyle surmised, “if Bell’s powers of observation and deduction which he used on his patients could be relevant to a doctor, then why should they not also be relevant to a detective?” (Booth 111).  If his powers of observation and deduction could lead to a real diagnosis, couldn’t they also lead to a fictional arrest?  Doyle also shares many similar characteristics with Holmes, although these may or may not have been consciously planned.  Booth asserts, “Like Charles Doyle, Sherlock Holmes was sometimes remote and almost manic in his activity, falling afterwards into lonely exhaustion” (113).  It is only expected that part of the characterization of Holmes derives from the inner workings of Doyle and the emotions he experienced throughout his lifetime.

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