SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE, SHERLOCK HOLMES, and DR. WATSON  

By

Francine Paino AKA F. Della Notte

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 mystery stories featuring the man who quickly became the favorite fictional super-detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sherlock Holmes, but in his years as a medical student, Doyle’s first efforts were short stories. 

The Mystery of Sasassa Valley was an adventure of two young men and a reported ghost that scares off the natives in South Africa.

In The American’s Tale, A quarrel between an Englishman, and a ‘Yankee’ in a bar, results in Jefferson Adams, an American in England, telling a strange story set in Montana involving Joe “Alabama” Hawkins, who’d “been captured and killed by a giant Venus flytrap in the gulch.” One might view these as early prequels to the mysteries fomenting in Doyle’s mind. 

While most readers have read at least one or two of Doyle’s creations, it is in the first two that we get a real sense of both Holmes and Watson, beginning with  A Study in Scarlet. Written in 1887, Doyle was a practicing doctor and botanist, which provided him with in-depth knowledge of plant poisons, anatomy, and physiology.  

The story begins with the narrator, Dr. John Watson, an ex-military man returning to London from the British war in Afghanistan, suffering from war wounds and in ill health. Unable to afford the hotel rates, he expresses his hope of finding rooms at a reasonable rate to a casual acquaintance known to the reader as Stanford. The latter then introduces him to Holmes, but first warns Watson that this gentleman, Holmes, also seeking a roommate to share expenses, is somewhat difficult.  

The reader meets Holmes for the first time along with Watson, and appropriately, in a laboratory.  The two men hit it off immediately and become roommates at  221B Baker Street, where they must accommodate one another’s needs, quirks, and habits. 

Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s idiosyncrasies.  As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s appalled at Holmes’s ignorance of so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Watson is shocked by Holmes’s rationale for why it wasn’t essential. Further, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.  Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s characteristics. As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s shocked at Holmes’s ignorance in so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Furthermore, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.

The good doctor is frustrated by what he thinks must be trickery for Holmes’s uncanny ability to guess so accurately. It is when Holmes is asked by detectives Lestrade and Gregson to help with a mysterious case, and Watson is invited to go along, that the doctor’s opinions change.

In the Lauriston Garden  Mystery, a man is found dead in an empty house. The deceased has no wounds, yet there is a message in blood scrawled on the wall.  In time, Holmes dubs this case A Study in Scarlet, reflecting “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life…”  Holmes unravels the case, and with each deduction, Watson develops a grudging admiration that evolves into genuine esteem and respect for the detective’s extraordinary powers of observation.

At the end of part one, the murder is solved, but the tale isn’t over. Doyle takes the reader to The United States for the backstory, explaining the details of the case, and why it ends in London.  

In the second novel, The Sign of Four, Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, who has become Holmes’s internal voice to the reader, are drawn into a new mystery.

Miss Mary Morstan arrives at Baker Street to ask for Holmes’s help in solving the mystery of her missing father and a mysterious annual and anonymous gift of pearls.  But now, she has received a letter asking to meet an unknown person that evening and is afraid to go alone. Holmes, of course, takes the case, and the adventure is on.

In The Sign of Four, the reader can discern many of Doyle’s personal experiences in the military as told through Watson’s narrative, as the detective tracks a hidden treasure and a murderer. In this story, the reader understands John Watson’s life and desires, and Holmes’s drug use is addressed directly. 

Doyle wrote two volumes worth of stories about Holmes and Watson, and it’s interesting to know that he often felt he was slogging through the work of continuing the character he’d created. In 1891, he threatened to kill off the now-famous Sherlock Holmes, but his mother, the woman who inspired his imagination, was furious. And, of course, Conan Doyle did no such thing. Instead, he pressed the financial success of his books, urging publishers to pay more for his Holmes stories, which they did. 

In his biography, Doyle admits the influence of his mother in his early childhood, “as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.” And the facts were not happy ones.

Though well respected in the art world, Doyle’s father was an alcoholic with little impact on his son. At the age of nine, Arthur was shipped off to boarding school in England to Hodder Place, then Stonyhurst, a Jesuit prep school, where he was bullied and ridiculed by his peers and feared ruthless corporal punishment by the Jesuits. It was his ability to hide in his fantasies that got him through.  

After graduating from Stonyhurst College in 1876, Doyle pursued a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. There, he met his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose very keen powers of observation inspired the Holmes character. 

While struggling to make his name as a writer, he married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1893, Louisa was diagnosed with TB, and after her death, Doyle married Jean Leckie, with whom he had two more sons and another daughter.

In addition to his medical practice, which he gave up when the writing became successful, Conan Doyle took it upon himself to visit South Africa after the Boar war to investigate and defend his nation against charges of war crimes. He wrote a “pamphlet” of 60,000 words entitled The War in South Africa, Its Causes and Conduct, which the Crown found enlightening. In 1902 and 1903, Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted—twice for his service to the Crown. 

However, through his adult years, there was the thread of spiritualism, and he believed it was “the most important thing in the world.” Later in his life, he was diagnosed with a heart condition, but that didn’t stop him from making a spiritualism tour through the Netherlands. When he returned home, his chest pains were so severe that he was almost completely bedridden until he died in 1930. 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collapsed and died in his garden, clutching his heart with one hand and holding a flower in the other. Although his life ended on that July day, his stories have survived and continue to thrill readers with adventures in the world of criminology and crime-solving. Reading his beliefs, remarkable life, and brilliant writings, it is easy to conclude that Doyle, Holmes, and Watson were three dimensions of the same man. 

Resources:

The Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

BIOGRAPHY: Arthur Conan Doyle, https://www.biography.com/writer/arthur-conan-doyle 3.10.22

THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO READING THE SHERLOCK HOLMES BOOKS

http://reedsy-com/discovery/blog/sherlock-holmes-books 3.10.22

WHERE TO START WITH SHERLOCK HOLMES

http://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2020/september/wehre-to-start-with-sherlock-holmes.html  

CONAN DOYLE INFO

https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/Honours_And_Awards

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