Over his writing career, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels which make up what is often referred to as “the canon” of Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes writings. Here, we will explore the four Sherlock Holmes novels and two of the short stories to trace the arc of the canon as well as Doyle’s changing and increasingly ambivalent attitude towards what is arguably his greatest literary creation.
1. A Study in Scarlet (1887)
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson made their debut appearance in A Study in Scarlet when it was first published serially in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. Before writing A Study in Scarlet – in just three weeks – Doyle had struggled to get his writing published. And while Ward, Lock & Co. did agree to publish A Study in Scarlet (or A Tangled Skein, as it was then titled), Doyle was only paid £25 for the story and all rights to it. When the novel did appear in print, it garnered relatively little public interest, though it did receive some positive reviews. Overall, these are fairly humble origins for the canon, given that Holmes and Watson would go on to become the most famous literary crime-solving duo of all time.
The story begins in 1881 when, after returning to London after the Second Anglo-Afghan War, Watson is in need of a place to live and (against the advice of an old friend) moves into Holmes’ flat at 221B Baker Street. Holmes is soon summoned to the scene of a murder at Brixton Road in the south of the city, where both Watson and the reader are treated to a display of Holmes’ deduction skills for the first time.
Here, they find the murder victim, the American Enoch Drebber, whose face is contorted in a look of horror, but there are no marks on the body, leading Holmes to deduce that he was poisoned. On the wall, however, is written the word RACHE (“revenge” in German), which Holmes believes is meant as a red herring to confuse the police. When the police arrest a man whom Holmes believes innocent on circumstantial evidence alone and another man is murdered, there is mounting pressure for him to discover who the real killer is.
2. The Sign of the Four (1890)
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While A Study in Scarlet had attracted relatively little public interest (given how popular Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes writings would go on to become), the positive reviews it received led to Ward, Lock & Co. commissioning a further Holmes novel. Doyle then wrote The Sign of the Four, which was first published serially in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890.
In response to Watson’s remonstrances and reproaches concerning his cocaine habit, Holmes claims that he is simply restless, bored, and in need of a new case to solve. And then, in something of a deus ex machina moment, Mary Morstan turns up with the strange case of her missing father, Captain Arthur Morstan.
After arriving back in London, Captain Morstan had asked his daughter to meet him at the Langham Hotel, but he was not there when Mary went to meet him. She then made inquiries as to his whereabouts, asking Major John Sholto, who had known her father, if he knew anything. Sholto, however, denied having any knowledge, and Mary had not heard from her father since.
Four years later, however, Mary answered an anonymous advertisement placed in a newspaper by someone seeking to learn her whereabouts, and since then had been sent a highly valuable pearl in the post once every six years. With the sixth pearl, she was sent a letter in which the writer told her she had been “wronged” and asked to meet her. Thus she refers the case to Holmes, who gladly takes it on. Mary, Holmes, and Watson then embark on a perilous adventure and get to the bottom of this disquieting family mystery.
3. & 4. Two Short Stories: “The Final Problem” and “The Adventure of the Empty House”
Though Doyle described the evening on which Joseph Marshall Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, commissioned him to write The Sign of the Four as a “golden evening,” he was also eager to focus on other writing projects and came to feel that the demand for tales of Sherlock Holmes got in the way of his other literary ambitions. It was as a result of his growing sense of resentment towards Holmes that he wrote “The Final Problem” in 1893. As the title suggests, it was intended to put an end to the Sherlock Holmes saga, as both Holmes and his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, fall to their deaths on the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland.
This story, however, did not go down well among Doyle’s readership. The Strand – the magazine in which “The Final Problem” had been published – lost so many subscribers as a result of the story that its future as a publication was put in jeopardy. Such was the public outcry, in fact, that Doyle was forced to revive his most famous character, going on to write two further novels and many stories.
Among these stories is “The Adventure of the Empty House” of 1903, which adds some further context to the events described in “The Final Problem.” Set three years after Holmes’ supposed death, it is revealed in “The Adventure of the Empty House” that only Moriarty fell to his death: in the struggle between the two adversaries, Holmes pushed Moriarty over the edge of the waterfall while staging his own death in order to evade any of Moriarty’s henchmen.
5. The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)
Published serially in The Strand from August 1901 to April 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles is, for the most part, set on Dartmoor in Devon in 1889. The novel’s setting is significant, as the eponymous hound is supposed (in the story) to be native to the wild moorland of Dartmoor. In writing the novel, Doyle drew inspiration from the local legend of Sir Richard Cabell of Brook Hall in Buckfastleigh, Devon, who was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil and, upon his burial, a ghostly pack of hounds were said to have come across the moors to howl at his grave. These hounds – emissaries of the devil – then became his pack, and he led them across the moors to go hunting on the anniversary of his death.
In the novel, the Baskerville family is said to be plagued by a curse, which appears to have reared its head as Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead. Like Enoch Drebber, Sir Charles’ face is contorted into a look of horror, and large pawprints have been found near the body. According to legend, since the English Civil War, the Baskerville family has been plagued by a demonic hound that has caused the deaths of many heirs to the Baskerville estate.
Holmes takes on the case, though, ever the rationalist; he is skeptical of the legend of the hound and instead believes that Sir Charles’ murderer was, in all likelihood, human. But will reason triumph over the seemingly supernatural? Does Holmes have a new adversary on his hands? Playing with the gothic genre, The Hound of the Baskervilles captured the imaginations of its first readers at the turn of the twentieth century and continues to do so for modern-day readers, too.
6. The Valley of Fear (1914-15)
The fourth and final Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, is a tale of secret societies that drew inspiration from the real-life Molly Maguires of Ireland and the American Pinkerton agent James McParland. After receiving an encrypted message sent by Fred Porlock, a mole within Moriarty’s criminal network, Holmes and Watson learn of a plot against a country gentleman named Douglas.
Inspector Macdonald then arrives with the news that Douglas has been murdered at his country estate, Birlstone House. The three men travel there, where Douglas himself had retreated out of fear for his life. But when it turns out that Douglas had been a Pinkerton detective in Chicago before retreating to his English country pile, the plot thickens, and Holmes and Watson discover that they may be after the wrong man…
Published serially in The Strand between September 1914 and May 1915, The Valley of Fear blends Doyle’s commentary on contemporary American and Irish politics with broader questions on ethical relativism and uncertainty.
As the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was an assured literary success. Nonetheless, he harbored a deeply ambivalent attitude towards his most famous creation, whom he thought distracted him from writing “better things”. In some respects, however, this ambivalence worked to Doyle’s advantage. Not wanting to write more Sherlock Holmes stories, he would demand large sums of money from literary magazines looking to commission such stories – which, to Doyle’s surprise, they were invariably happy to pay, such was the demand. Despite his own ambivalence, this is surely a mark of the greatness of his creation: Holmes and Watson are, to this day, the greatest literary crime-solving duo, and the Sherlock Holmes canon has inspired not only countless spin-off books, films, and television adaptations, but a legion of fans across the world.