The Doctor and the Detective - Arthur Conan Doyle's Creative Journey

By Morrow, Laurie | The World and I, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Doctor and the Detective - Arthur Conan Doyle's Creative Journey


Morrow, Laurie, The World and I


Laurie Morrow, a former English professor, is the cohost, with Kelsey Bush-Nadeau, of the talk radio show True North, broadcast weekdays on 1390 AM, WKDR (Burlington, Vermont). The president of Evening Star Grants and Development, Morrow lives in Montpelier, Vermont.

It has been said that the three most widely recognized fictional creations are Santa Claus, Tarzan, and Sherlock Holmes. To mystery fans, the fame of the last is no mystery. While Edgar Allan Poe may have invented the detective story with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and the mystery detective with Auguste Dupin, it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes that popularized mystery fiction, making it one of the great literary genres of modern times. All the varied fictional detectives--the cozy Miss Marple, the aggressive Mike Hammer, the polite Charlie Chan--can be said to owe their existence to the popularity of Doyle's observant Holmes.

Why was he such a success?

The late nineteenth century was a time of scientific advances. In every field, careful, laborious study was creating a more understandable, healthier, richer, and easier world. Whereas patient endurance had been the virtue best suited to life's tribulations in earlier ages, now there was hope that clever men and women could change the world for the better. Sherlock Holmes, armed with his magnifying glass and a head filled with esoteric knowledge of cigarette ash and the calluses produced by various occupations, was a perfect embodiment of the scientist as problem solver. Find an inconvenient dead body in the parlor? Call Holmes. He can deduce the intricate evil conspiracy responsible from the most trivial facts.

The creation of Sherlock Holmes, the scientific detective, rose from the events of his creator's life.

Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, one of ten children born to Mary Foley Doyle and her husband, Charles Altamont Doyle, was born May 22, 1859, at 11 Picardy Place in Edinburgh, Scotland. The son of the renowned political cartoonist "H.B." and the brother of Henry Doyle, manager of Dublin's National Gallery, and Richard Doyle, who did the cover design for Punch, Charles was a frustrated artist who labored as a civil servant in the Edinburgh Office of Works. Eventually, Charles would be permanently confined in a mental institution, having lost his battles with alcoholism, depression, and epilepsy, then an untreatable condition.

Though Doyle's father was unable to offer much guidance, Doyle's mother, to whom he referred as "the Ma'am," was a firm polestar. To put bread on her children's table, she took in boarders at their home. And to put pride and hope in her children's souls, she told them tales about medieval knights and ladies. Though the world might disdain the young Doyles as the impoverished children of a drunken madman, she reminded them that they were the descendants of great men and women--of the Percys of Northumberland (immortalized in Shakespeare's Henriad) and the Plantagenets. She told her children stories about knights exhibiting chivalric virtues such as fortitude, courage, and honor, consciously employing the stories to shape their character. Arthur Conan Doyle would later reflect that "it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I began weaving dreams myself." The Ma'am's influence is especially evident in Doyle's historical novels, The White Company, Sir Nigel, and Micah Clarke.

Mary was determined that her children would receive a good Catholic education. Doyle was educated by Jesuits. Although he would reject Catholicism, the disciplined intellectual training and habits inculcated in Jesuit schools remained with him and helped structure the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Doyle studied medicine from 1876 through 1881 at the University of Edinburgh, receiving his medical degree in 1885. There, he met two men whom he would immortalize in his fiction: the bearded, barrel-chested, resonantly voiced William Rutherford, professor of physiology, who would be the model for Professor George Edward Challenger in The Lost World; and Dr. …

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