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Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle

A Brief History

Sherlock Holmes is not only the 'greatest detective of all time' but also the world's most famous literary character. Sherlock Holmes first appeared in A Study in Scarlet published in the Beeton's Christmas Annual in 1887. Holmes and Dr. Watson were introduced during Watson's search for lodgings, 'You have been to Afghanistan I perceive' remarked Holmes on their first meeting. This became Holmes' stock in trade not just in Conan Doyle's original stories but also the countless adaptions, parodies and films.
Arthur Conan Doyle originally wrote the story as a means of supplementing his then meagre income, though it met with little immediate success both in Beeton's and when published in book form by Ward Lock in 1888. That could easily have been the end of Holmes but thankfully American publishers Lippincott arrived with a timely contract which saw Holmes return in The Sign of Four published in 1890.

It was not, however, until Sherlock Holmes began to appear in a series of short stories published in the Strand Magazine that he truly 'took off.' The first series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, was a huge success and both the public and publishers clamoured for more. Despite the success, and much needed financial benefit, that Holmes brought Doyle he decided he would kill off the character in the second series, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.


For this purpose Doyle introduced the 'Napoleon of Crime' and the greatest of all criminal masterminds, Professor Moriarty. Holmes and Moriarty eventually plunged to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls, in Switzerland, during 'the final discussion of those questions which lie between us.'

There was an unprecedented public outcry, some people even wore black armbands in the streets. The pressure was immense on Doyle to resurrect Holmes not only from the public but also from publishers whose offers became evermore lucrative. Doyle did relinquish eventually and Holmes returned, although not from the dead but, in a retrospective story The Hound of the Baskervilles. Hound is a masterclass in detective fiction and whilst arguably not the ultimate Holmes story for purists it still remains the most famous of all crime fiction stories.

Eventually Holmes did return from the dead in The Adventure of the Empty House pitting his wits against Colonel Sebastian Moran, Moriarty's second in command and 'the second most dangerous man in London.' The stories, as before, were initially published separately in the Strand Magazine before being collected and published in book form as The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1905.
Doyle did return, though infrequently, to Holmes in subsequent years but with an ever increasing reluctance. When he did so, it seems he was motivated more by financial gain than by any affection for the character.

There have been huge amounts written about Sherlock Holmes as well as the countless pastiches and parodies. The enduring appeal of Holmes over the years has doubtless been helped by his cinematic and dramatic outings. Basil Rathbone became inextricably linked to Holmes (to the future detriment of his career), though whilst the first two films were particularly good a change of studio and war propaganda saw them decline badly in the eyes of most purists.
Jeremy Brett gave us the ultimate portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the Granada television series. His depiction and acting were sublime. Whilst they clearly benefited from superior casting and sets, a huge plus for many was their close adherence to the original stories. This brings us neatly back to the original books which have proven to be as enjoyable to subsequent generations as they were to the original readers of the Strand Magazine

'Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective that never lived and who will never die'

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The origins of detective fiction      Hard boiled crime fiction      
AC Doyle Bibliography

Text © 2004 R.D. Collins

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