“A Tangled Skein”: The Complicated Literary Reputations of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes 

One of the possible titles Arthur Conan Doyle considered for the first of his tales about Sherlock Holmes was “A Tangled Skein,” a phrase capturing the convoluted strands of evidence, motive, and method for committing and solving a murder. The phrase might aptly describe the literary reputations of Doyle and Holmes as they have evolved over the past 140 years. 

When I set out to write a volume on Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary reputation, I knew I would also be writing about the reputation of his most famous character, Sherlock Holmes. What I did not realize was that one of the earliest critics of the Great Detective was his creator. 

In 1899 the American actor William Gillette convinced Doyle to allow him to produce a play about Holmes that Doyle had drafted but put aside. Hoping to make the play more appealing to theatergoers, Gillette wrote Doyle to ask if he would allow Holmes to marry. Doyle’s reply has become legend: “You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him.” 

Doyle’s terse dismissal captures the love-hate relationship between the author and his creation. Although the first two Holmes novels (A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) were only modestly successful, the appearance of the short story “A Scandal in Bohemia” in 1891 set off the literary equivalent of a feeding frenzy. The public could not get enough of Holmes. Doyle even tried to kill him off in 1892 but public demand – and the lucrative gains that could be made from a single story – kept Doyle coming back to his great detective. Between 1887 and 1927 he churned out 56 stories and 4 brief novels featuring Holmes. A handful of reviewers complained that in some of the later stories Doyle seemed to be writing on automatic pilot, but the public lapped up every tale. 

Yet Doyle felt the time he spent writing about Holmes could have been put to better use – like writing the historical novels for which he wished to be remembered. He wrote a handful of those, as well as adventure stories, tales of the occult, military histories, and numerous articles and even books on contemporary social issues. The online Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia credits him with 258 works of fiction and over a thousand nonfiction books and essays. 

Today, however, few of us can even name any of Doyle’s works outside the Holmes stories, while his detective has become the most recognized fictional character in the world. Sherlock Holmes Societies under various names are active in dozens of countries, devoted to study and speculation about Holmes, Watson, and the many characters and incidents that populate the tales. The “fan scholarship” produced by these Sherlockians, as they call themselves in America, displays a devotion to The Canon (their term for the collected works) with the reverence shown for the Christian Bible. Sherlockian publications could fill several rows of shelves in a research library – if any library would have them. 

But most won’t, because the academic community has largely dismissed this work as spurious pseudo-scholarship that presents what amounts to a clear and present danger to the serious study of Doyle’s fiction. At the same time, for years the academic community largely ignored Doyle’s work; neither his detective stories nor his other fiction generated much interest, and when they did, they were generally used as foils to demonstrate the higher quality of “more serious” and “better written” imaginative work by other writers.  

Only in the last decades of the twentieth century did academics begin to treat Doyle – and detective fiction in general – with any level of scholarly rigor. Today, one can find books and articles published by respected academic presses that explore the cultural, thematic, and technical aspects of the Holmes stories, the science fiction tales featuring Professor Challenger, and numerous stand-alone novels and tales that demonstrate the fecundity of Doyle’s imagination. Scholars have ‘discovered’ that Doyle not only had the ability to write page-turners; more often than not, he was able to use the medium of popular fiction to offer serious commentary on timeless moral issues and timely critiques of late-Victorian and Edwardian society.  

I have capitalized on this newfound interest in The Critical Reception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes and Beyond. Taking advantage of the wide array of fan scholarship and the increasing availability of newspapers and periodicals online, I have written a survey that blends discussions of academic scholarship with popular assessments, including ones dealing with the multitude of film and television adaptations of Doyle’s work. New scholarship continues to be published at what seems a rapidly accelerating pace. Hence, it’s likely that the scholar who conducts a study similar to mine at the end of the twenty-first century will find him – or herself having to make hard choices about what to discuss as representative of the wealth of criticism on Doyle’s contributions to literature. 

LAURENCE W. MAZZENO is President Emeritus of Alvernia University. His new book, The Critical Reception of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes and Beyond, is out now in hardback and ebook.  

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