One summer evening in 1889, a young medical school graduate named Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle arrived by train at London’s Victoria Station and took a 1)hansom cab two and a half miles north to the famed Langham Hotel on Upper 2)Regent Street. Then living in the coastal town of Southsea, near Portsmouth, the 30-year-old 3)ophthalmologist was looking to advance his writing career. The magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual had recently published his novel, 4)A Study in Scarlet, which introduced the private detective Sherlock Holmes. Now Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Monthly, a Philadelphia magazine, was in London to establish a British edition of his publication. At the suggestion of a friend, he had invited Conan Doyle to join him for dinner in the Langham’s5)opulent dining room.
Amid the 6)bustle of waiters, the 7)chink of 8)fine silver and the hum of dozens of conversations, Doyle found Stoddart to be “an excellent fellow,” he would write years later. But he was captivated by one of the other invited guests, an Irish playwright and author named Oscar Wilde. “He had a curious precision of statement, a 9)delicate flavour of humour, and a 10)trick of small gestures to illustrate his meaning,” Doyle remembered. For both writers, the evening would prove a turning point. Wilde left with a commission to write his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which appeared in Lippincott’s June 1890 issue. And Doyle agreed to produce a second novel starring his 11)ace detective; 12)The Sign of Four would 13)cement his reputation. Indeed, critics have speculated that the encounter with Wilde, an 14)exponent of a literary movement known as 15)the Decadents, led Conan Doyle to deepen and darken Sherlock Holmes’ character: in The Sign of Four’s opening scene, Holmes is revealed to be addicted to a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine.
Conan Doyle was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of Charles Doyle, an alcoholic who would spend much of his later life in a mental institution, and Mary Foley Doyle, who loved literature and, according to biographer Andrew Lycett, 16)beguiled her children with her storytelling. Marking the 17)sesquicentennial of Conan Doyle’s birth, Edinburgh held a marathon of talks, exhibitions, walking tours, plays, films and public performances. Harvard University sponsored a three-day lecture series examining Holmes’ and Conan Doyle’s legacy. And last December, of course, Holmes took center stage in director 18)Guy Ritchie’s Hollywood movie Sherlock Holmes.
A persuasive case can be made that Holmes exerts just as much hold on the world’s imagination today as he did a century ago. The Holmesian 19)canon—four novels and 56 stories—continues to sell 20)briskly around the world. The coldly calculating genius in the 21)deerstalker cap, wrestling with his inner demons as he solves crimes that 22)befuddle 23)Scotland Yard, stands as one of literature’s most vivid and most alluring creations.
Conan Doyle’s other alluring creation was London. Although the author lived only a few months in the capital before moving to the suburbs, he visited the city frequently throughout his life. Victorian London takes on almost the presence of a character in the novels and stories, as fully realized—in all its fogs, back alleys and shadowy 24)quarters—as Holmes himself. “Holmes could never have lived anywhere else but London,” says Andrew Lycett. “London was the 25)hub of the empire. In addition to the Houses of Parliament, it had the sailors’ hostels and the opium 26)dens of the 27)East End, the great railway stations. And it was the center of the literary world.”
Conan Doyle first encountered London at the age of 15. Escorted around the city by his uncles, young Conan Doyle took in the Tower of London,28)Westminster Abbey and the 29)Crystal Palace, and viewed a performance of Hamlet at the Lyceum Theatre in the West End. And he went to the Chamber of Horrors at 30)Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, then located in the Baker Street 31)Bazaar (and on Marylebone Road today). Doyle viewed with fascination wax models of those who had died on the 32)guillotine during the French Revolution as well as 33)likenesses of British murderers and other 34)arch-criminals.
More than a decade later, having graduated from medical school in Edinburgh and settled in Southsea, the 27-year-old physician chose London for the backdrop of a novel about a “consulting detective” who solves crimes by applying keen observation and logic. Conan Doyle had been heavily influenced by Dr. Joseph Bell, whom he met at the Edinburgh Infirmary and whose diagnostic powers amazed his students and colleagues. Also, Conan Doyle had read the works of 35)Edgar Allan Poe.
Between 1891 and 1893, at the height of his creative powers, Conan Doyle produced 24 stories for 36)The Strand. As the stories caught on, The Strand’s readership doubled; on publication day, thousands of fans would form a crush around London bookstalls to 37)snap up the detective’s latest adventure.
Although Holmes made his creator wealthy and famous, Conan Doyle quickly wearied of the character. According to 38)David Stuart Davies, Conan Doyle “wanted to prove that he was more than just a mystery writer, a man who made puzzles for a 39)cardboard character to solve. He was desperate to cut the 40)shackles of Holmes from him,” so much so that in 1893, Conan Doyle sent Holmes 41)plummeting to his death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland along with42)Professor Moriarty.
But less than a decade later—during which Conan Doyle wrote a series of 43)swashbuckling pirate stories and a novel, among other works, which were received with indifference—popular demand, and the promise of generous 44)remuneration, eventually persuaded him to 45)resuscitate the detective, first in the masterful novel 46)The Hound of the Baskervilles, which appeared in 1901, then in a 47)spate of less well-regarded stories that he continued writing until he died of a heart attack in 1930 at age 71. In addition to the Holmes stories, Conan Doyle had written some 60 works of nonfiction and fiction, including plays, poetry and such science-fiction classics as 48)The Lost World. “Conan Doyle never realized what he’d created in Sherlock Holmes,” says Davies. “What would he say today if he could see what he 49)spawned?”