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“Elementary” • 9 “Elementary” • Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (1859–1930) wasn’t knighted in 1902 for creating Sherlock Holmes, though many readers feel he should have been. The literary journalist Christopher Morley, founder of The Baker Street Irregulars, declared that he actually should have been sainted. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle only reluctantly added Sir to his name—for his services and writings during the Boer Wars—because his beloved mother talked him into it. On his books he austerely remained A. Conan Doyle “without,” as he said, “any trimmings.” Such modesty is characteristic of this altogether remarkable man, one who gave his own stolid John Bull appearance, down to the military mustache, not to his Great Detective but to the loyal Dr. Watson. Appropriately, Conan Doyle once named “unaffectedness ” as his own favorite virtue, then listed “‘manliness’ as his favorite virtue in another man; ‘work’ as his favorite occupation; ‘time well filled’ as his ideal of happiness; ‘men who do their duty’ as his favorite heroes in real life; and ‘affectation and conceit’ as his pet aversions.” It should thus come as no surprise that Conan Doyle’s books are all fairly transparent endorsements of 10 • the chivalric ideals of honor, duty, courage, and greatness of heart. In Javier Maria’s charming volume of essays called Written Lives, the Spanish novelist retells a well-known story about the writer and his family. Sir Arthur was traveling by train through South Africa and “one of his grown-up sons commented on the ugliness of a woman who happened to walk down the corridor. He had barely had time to finish this sentence when he received a slap and saw, very close to his, the flushed face of his old father, who said very mildly: ‘Just remember that no woman is ugly.’” While no man is on oath for lapidary inscriptions, nearly every student of Conan Doyle agrees that as man, writer, and citizen he strove to live up to the knightly words etched on his tombstone: “Steel true, blade straight.” Arthur Conan Doyle was born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, the third child and elder son of a large Irish family. Art ran in the Doyle blood, for his grandfather John, uncle Richard, and father Charles were all noted Victorian illustrators . But Conan Doyle’s immediate family was hardly rich and eventually quite poor due to his father’s alcoholism and general fecklessness. (Eventually Charles Doyle was committed to a “Elementary” • 11 mental asylum, though arguments persist over whether this was needed or simply convenient.) By his mother’s scrimping, young Arthur was nonetheless educated at the prestigious Jesuit school, Stonyhurst College, and eventually attended Edinburgh University, where he trained to become a doctor. By his early twenties, A. Conan Doyle had begun to publish short stories—many of them tales of mystery and the uncanny—and for several years balanced an averagely successful medical practice with part-time authorship. In 1887, the novella-length A Study in Scarlet introduced Sherlock Holmes to the world, though no special acclaim followed. Instead the young writer initially gained attention as a historical novelist, first with Micah Clarke (1889), set in the seventeenth century during the Monmouth Rebellion , and then with The White Company (1891). The latter—about a medieval cohort of English archers—was largely read as a thrilling work of escapism, much to the annoyance of its author, who insisted that it was intended to portray and instill all the most noble British values. A second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four, appeared in 1889; but only in 1891, when short stories about the consulting detective 12 • began to be serialized in the Strand Magazine— they were later collected as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)—did Baker Street mania finally sweep the public. By then Conan Doyle had launched himself as a full-time professional writer. Astonishingly, as early as 1891 he had already written to his mother that he was thinking of “slaying” Holmes because producing mysteries for the detective to solve kept him from working on “better things.” In 1893 Conan Doyle duly brought out “The Final Problem,” which became the last story in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1893). In its pages the great detective and his archenemy Professor James Moriarty meet on a mountain pass in Switzerland for “the final discussion of those questions which lie between us.” Grappling together, they eventually plummet to their deaths in the swirling waters of the Reichenbach...


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