5 Works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Beyond Sherlock Holmes

While Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered for his tales of Sherlock Holmes, he preferred to spend his time writing works of historical and science fiction.

Jul 27, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature
sir arthur conan doyle works


Now best remembered as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in fact, had a deeply conflicted relationship with his most famous literary creation. As time went by, Doyle came to feel that the demand for Sherlock Holmes stories was such that he was continually distracted from writing what he considered to be “better things.” Focusing on his longer works of fiction, here we will shine a spotlight on some of those “better things” Doyle managed to find the time to write, ranging across science fiction, murder mysteries, and historical fiction.


1. The Mystery of Cloomber (1888)

arthur conan doyle eira exploration ship
Photograph featuring Arthur Conan Doyle (third from left) aboard the Eira arctic exploration ship, 1880, via Conan Doyle Collection


Published in the Pall Mall Gazette one year after the publication of A Study in Scarlet (Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel), The Mystery of Cloomber was, in fact, written before Doyle created the character of Sherlock Holmes, though he struggled to find a publisher for the novel as a young and relatively unheard of writer. While he came to resent the way in which writing Sherlock Holmes stories prevented him from working on other writing projects, the success of his Holmes material also launched his career, allowing him to publish other works, including The Mystery of Cloomber.


The novel is narrated by John Fothergill West. Having moved from his native Edinburgh to Wigtwonshire to supervise a relative’s estate, West soon finds himself neighbors with General John Berthier Heatherstone, formerly of the Indian Army, who moves into the long uninhabited Cloomber Hall.


General Heatherstone, it becomes clear, is suffering from paranoia, which seems to be linked to his time in the Indian Army. When three Buddhist priests are shipwrecked off the bay, however, the General’s past seems to have caught up with him. He therefore instructs his son, in the event of his death or disappearance, to give West his personal papers, meaning West is the only person to solve the mystery of Cloomber. Bearing many of the hallmarks of his later Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Mystery of Cloomber makes an ideal starting place for fans of Doyle’s Holmes tales who are keen to explore more of his oeuvre.


2. The White Company (1891)

sir arthur conan doyle drawing
Reproduction of a pastel drawing of Arthur Conan Doyle by M. Menpes, 1901, via History Today

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The White Company was published serially in The Cornhill Magazine in 1891. A work of historical fiction, it is set in the years 1366 and 1367 and takes place during the Hundred Years’ War, which Doyle had become fascinated by and was inspired to research after having attended a lecture on the Middle Ages in 1889.


The novel follows the exploits of Alleyne, who, at the beginning of the narrative, leaves the safety of the abbey where he has spent his childhood in order to make his way in the world. On the very same day, the bishop has banished John of Hordle, and he and Alleyne meet at the Pied Merlin inn, where they also meet Sam Aylward, who is looking for recruits for the White Company of mercenaries. Aylward must also travel to Christchurch in search of Sir Nigel Loring, who is to take charge of the White Company. The men carry on to Christchurch, with Alleyne making a quick detour to visit his cruel brother, during which he rescues a maiden called Maude, who, it turns out, is Sir Nigel’s daughter. Alleyne becomes Sir Nigel’s squire and Maude’s tutor. They make their way to France, and Maude and Alleyne secretly confess their love for one another.


Once in France, they make their way to the court of the Prince of Wales in Bordeaux, embarking on various adventures along the way. During this time, Sir Nigel receives a letter informing him that Alleyne’s brother died while trying to besiege his castle, meaning that Alleyne is the new socman of Minstead. However, while he may now have a sizeable inheritance, Sir Nigel is quick to let Alleyne know that, in true courtly love fashion, he must prove himself in battle before he can take Maude’s hand in marriage.


3. Sir Nigel (1905-1906)

sir arthur conan doyle
Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, c. 1904, via Sweet Cherry Publishing


Though published serially in The Strand over a decade after the publication of The White Company, Sir Nigel was conceived as a prequel to the events of Doyle’s earlier historical novel, focusing on the exploits of one of the novel’s major characters. Covering the years 1350 to 1356, the events of Sir Nigel take place in the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War and the shadow of the Black Death.


Nigel Loring is a knight in the service of Edward III who has pledged to perform three feats of honor in order to win the hand of Lady Mary, daughter of Sir John Buttesthorn, in marriage. Along the way, he intercepts a French spy, goes on an expedition to Brittany (during which he is part of the English fleets that defeat a Spanish battle fleet), jousts (and is seriously injured), is made seneschal of the Castle of Vannes, and, during the historic Battle of Poitiers in 1356, overcomes King John II of France and is subsequently made a knight. As such, he can return to England and marry Lady Mary.


A chronicle of the fortunes of the Loring family and an imaginative account of combat and knightly honor during the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War, Sir Nigel offers a backstory to the events recounted in The White Company. It is also a testament to Doyle’s enduring interest in the Middle Ages and in writing historical fiction – a genre to which he was drawn even more strongly, perhaps, than murder mysteries.


4. The Lost World (1912)

lost world arthur conan doyle movie poster
Movie poster for the 1925 movie adaptation of The Lost World, via IMDb


Published in 1912, The Lost World is a work of science fiction in which Edward Malone, a reporter for the Daily Gazette, visits an area of the Amazon basin of South America where prehistoric animals have subsisted to the present day in a bid to impress the woman he loves.


He is charged with approaching the irascible Professor Challenger so that the paper can run a story on his recent expedition to South America. Unsurprisingly, however, Professor Challenger does not appreciate visits from journalists. Though Malone attempts to disguise himself as a scientific disciple of Challenger’s, the professor soon sees through his ruse and throws Malone out into the street, only to then change his opinion on Malone when he does not press charges against him when a policeman witnesses the assault.


Having now won his trust, Challenger confides in Malone that he has discovered living dinosaurs during his South American expedition. In order to verify his claims, get the scoop of a lifetime, and win Gladys’ heart, Malone accompanies him to the Amazon, along with Professor Summerlee and adventurer-cum-abolitionist Lord John Roxton. Here, the men must face a hostile climate, as well as the dinosaurs and “ape-men” they encounter there.


Will they survive and return to London as heroes? Will the adventure be enough for Malone to win Gladys’ heart? Not only is it a work of science fiction, but The Lost World is also a romp of an adventure story adapted as a film in 1925 and inspired Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park franchise.


5. The Narrative of John Smith (2011)

arthur conan doyle
Photograph of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Benington, 1914, via BBC Scotland


Though The Narrative of John Smith was written in 1883, it was not published until 2011, 81 years after Doyle’s death. In striking contrast with his later, heavily plot-driven novels, The Narrative of John Smith unfolds as a series of essay-like chapters, each covering a single day, as the eponymous John Smith recovers from rheumatic gout.


Confined to bed rest for a week on the doctor’s orders, Smith is encouraged by his physician to write a book: the very book, in true metafictional style, that the reader holds in their hand. Smith duly begins setting down his thoughts, observations, and discussions, including debates with his doctor. As such, the novel comes to encompass a range of topics, including science, literature, philosophy, morality, religion, war, politics, education, and the differences between men and women.


Moreover, the novel was never finished. The final chapter includes a conversation between doctor and patient in which disease is conceived as a battle; as the two men begin to discuss white blood cells, the novel abruptly ends. It is, nonetheless, an important text that demonstrates Doyle’s progress as a writer and his transition from short fiction to novels.


As mentioned earlier, Doyle came to feel that the high demand for Sherlock Holmes stories effectively prevented him from writing “better things.” While it is, of course, up to each individual reader to decide whether the work Doyle produced after 1887 unrelated to the Sherlock Holmes canon is indeed “better,” it is nonetheless certainly true that to appreciate the full range of Doyle’s body of work, one ought to read beyond the exploits of Holmes and Watson. And, ranging among science fiction and historical fiction, as well as the murder mysteries for which he is so famous today, Doyle’s oeuvre is certainly a diverse and engrossing one.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.