Having met a many authors, I can reveal many are just like you and I. But Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, born 150 years on 22 May 1859, could never be described as ordinary and there’s a lot more to this writer besides Sherlock Holmes.
Inventing Holmes and helping to shape the whole crime writing genre are just a couple of his more high profile achievements. He was also a doctor (who luckily had time for writing books between his appointments), a useful goalkeeper, a pretty good golfer, a handy cricketer who played 10 first-class matches for the Marylebone Cricket Club, a failed ophthalmologist in Vienna, a vocal supporter of the Boer War in South Africa, a failed parliamentary candidate, a keen advocate of judicial law who investigated two apparent miscarriages of justice, and a believer in spiritualism and fairies.
Holmes’ enduring place in popular culture is assured - a huge number of books have been written about the character, analysing everything from the detective’s methods, his sexuality, his travels to his drug-taking. And then there are the movies and TV adaptations, the museums and the societies. To some diehards, Sherlock Holmes has become a way of life.
But Sherlock Holmes, Baker Street, and Moriarty are just one piece of the complicated jigsaw that was Conan Doyle’s life. Leaving aside his most famous creation, Conan Doyle also wrote science fiction, historical novels, plays, romances, poetry and non-fiction.
One of Conan Doyle’s most significant creations was Professor Challenger, who starred in his science fiction novels. The author’s sci-fi work included The Lost World (1912) where prehistoric animals survived into the modern age, The Poison Belt (1913) where the Earth was subjected to deadly gas, and When the World Screamed (1928) where Professor Challenger drills into the Earth’s core. Challenger, a forthright and aggressive figure, did not resemble Holmes in any way.
Conan Doyle’s historic novels are varied and worth dipping into. Micah Clarke (1889) is set in the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 – an attempt to overthrow James II. The White Company (1891), a tale of archers, swords and maces, is set during the Hundred Years' War between France and England. Sir Nigel (1906) is another novel set during the same period and describes the early life of Sir Nigel Loring in the service of King Edward III. Rodney Stone (1896) is a Gothic boxing mystery – a remarkable combination of genres.
In terms of non-fiction, Conan Doyle wrote a pamphlet called, The War in South Africa: Its Cause and Conduct, which attempted to justify Britain’s role in the bloody misadventure of the Boer War. He was so convinced of the war’s righteousness that he penned a book entitled The Great Boer War.
Never one to be restrained by genre, Conan Doyle even wrote about the existence of the little people in The Coming of the Fairies (1921). Two Yorkshire lasses in the village of Cottingley claimed to have photographed a couple of Tinkerbells and Conan Doyle investigated the whole thing. Was Conan Doyle, a man of supreme intelligence, taken for a ride or simply conducting a private joke? We’ll never know.
He also wrote The History of Spiritualism (1926) – it had been a subject that had fascinated him for more than a decade. The Edge of the Unknown (1930) is a collection of essays on spiritualism - only 909 copies were printed, making it a very collectable book.
Conan Doyle died at the age of 71 at his home in Sussex on 7 July 1930. Although always remembered for his masterful detective, he left a literary legacy few authors have been able to match.