The Surreal Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes was an odd character, but not as strange as the man who created the detective himself.


Conan Doyle harbored such a compulsive need for adventure that it almost killed him on several occasions. He loved hot air ballooning and racing fast cars (thought luckily, never at the same time), and as a young man, he made a habit of embarking on absurdly dangerous voyages. In 1880, while traveling on an Arctic whaling ship, he fell overboard into the icy waters so often that the captain nicknamed him "The Northern Diver." Conan Doyle was also an ardent patriot who wrote impassioned defenses of Britain's involvement in unpopular wars. In fact, after World War I broke out in 1914, Conan Doyle tried to enlist in the British Army. Of course, at age 55, he was considered too old to serve.


There's one big difference between Sherlock Holmes and his author-creator. While the detective was a man of science, Arthur Conan Doyle firmly believed in magic. Doyle regularly attended seances and traveled the world lecturing on the paranormal. In fact, his beliefs were often ridiculed; in 1919, The New York Times called them "pathetic."

But all that naysaying only seemed to strengthen Conan Doyle's convictions. In 1920, the author threw his considerable weight behind a series of photographs taken by two English schoolgirls, which showed fairies cavorting in a garden. Seeing this as an opportunity to prove the existence of spirits, he quickly sent the girls a new camera and had them take more photos. Although most people remained unconvinced, Conan Doyle believed he'd satisfactorily put the case to rest. It wasn't until 1981 that the girls (then in their eighties) admitted to the hoax, and the world finally learned how two kids with paper cutouts duped one of the world's most famous authors.


After six years of writing short stories about Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle became sick of his greatest creation. So he did something about it. In his 1893 story "The Adventure of the Final Problem," the author had Holmes tumble to a watery grave at the hands of his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty. The response was dramatic. Many readers were furious. Others mourned by wearing black armbands in the street. Meanwhile, Conan Doyle was regularly forced to defend himself in the London press.

Although the author wrote dozens of non-Holmes novels (including the seminal work of prehistoric fiction, The Lost World), nothing captured his readers' imaginations (or wallets) like Sherlock Holmes. As the years progressed, public pressure to resurrect the detective not only continued, but grew so strong that Conan Doyle finally caved. In 1903's "The Empty House," the author explained that the detective had faked his own death and fled to Asia. His readers quickly forgave him, and the dozens of Holmes stories that followed were hailed as instant classics.


In creating his most famous character, Arthur Conan Doyle found inspiration in a lecturer he had as a young medical student-a Scotsman named Dr. Joseph Bell. In fact, inspiration is too mild a term; personality theft is more like it. The doctor was a legend among his students for performing astounding feats of deduction as a kind of parlor trick. For instance, after a moment's conversation with a country woman during class, Bell turned to the students and said:
You see, gentlemen, when she said good morning to me, I noted her Fife accent, and, as you know, the nearest town in Fife is Burntisland. You notice the red clay on the edges of the soles on her shoes, and the only such clay within 20 miles of Edinburgh is the Botanic Gardens. Inverleith Row borders the gardens and is her nearest way here from Leith. You observed that the coat she carried over her arm is too big for the child who is with her, and therefore she set out from home with two children. Finally, she has dermatitis on the fingers of the right hand, which is peculiar to workers in the linoleum factory at Burntisland.

The speech reads like it was plucked from a Conan Doyle story, but in truth, the author lifted his style from Bell.


The article above, written by Ransom Riggs, is reprinted with permission from Scatterbrained section of the Jul/Aug 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!

Newest 1
Newest 1 Comment

"In fact, inspiration is too mild a term; personality theft is more like it. "

Personality theft? He was devoid of personality after it was stolen?

Authors have taken inspiration from real people since before pen was set to paper. The idea that everyone owns everything they ever said is seriously problematic.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"The Surreal Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More