The year was 1877, Dr. Joseph Bell, a brilliant surgeon and lecturer at Scotland’s prestigious Edinburgh University Medical School, was standing next to one of the hospital’s patients. His students – including an 18-year-old named Arthur Conan Doyle – stood around him as he motioned to the patient and systematically ticked off his first observations about the case. “You’ll notice, gentlemen,” Dr. Bell began, “that the man is clearly a left-handed cobbler.”
How could Dr. Bell tell a man’s occupation, and the fact that he was left-handed, from a single glance at someone he had never met before? Doyle and the rest of the students were amazed. And this wasn’t the first time, either. Bell made these amazing deductions every time he examined patients in front of the class.
Dr. Bell continued with his observations, this time pointing to the man’s pants. “Notice the worn places in the corduroy breeches where a cobbler rests his lapstone.” It was the pants! Dr. Bell read the man’s life story from a patch of worn corduroy. It was amazing, and Arthur Conan Doyle would never forget it.
Nine years later, in 1886, Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, who had put himself through medical school largely through the sale of short stories, turned again to writing to try to save his failing medical practice. He decided to write a detective story using Dr. Bell as a model. “I thought of my old teacher,” Doyle later recalled, “and his eerie tricks of spotting details. If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating by unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction? It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it, such examples as Bell gave us every day in the (hospital) wards. The idea amused me.”
Originally, Doyle named his detective Sherrinford Holmes, after Oliver Wendell Holmes, and named Holmes’s sidekick Ormand Sacker. But during the three weeks it too to write the story, Doyle renamed the characters. Sherlock Holmes, after a cricket player he had once played against, and Thomas Watson, after Patrick Watson, a colleague of Dr. Bell’s.
Doyle sent the manuscript for A Study in Scarlet to a publisher. . .but it was returned unread. So he sent it to a second, a third, a fourth, and a fifth. . .and was rejected each time. Finally, Ward, Lock & Company agreed to publish it in a magazine called Beeton’s Christmas Annual, where it was read by the English public and quickly forgotten.
Fortunately for Doyle, a pirated version of the story was printed in Lippencott Magazine. “The wife of the editor of Lippincott liked Study in Scarlet,” says Sherlock Holmes expert Ely Liebow, “and her husband arranged to dine with Doyle and a writer named Oscar Wilde” when he was visiting England. It was one of the most productive business meetings in the history of English literature, Liebow recounts. “At the end of the meal, the editor had commitments from Doyle for his second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, and from Wilde for The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
But it wasn’t until 1890 that Doyle made enough money from his writing to enable him to shut down his medical practice, and it wasn’t until the story Scandal in Bohemia was published in Strand magazine in 1891 that he really made it big. “That story established his reputation,” Liebow says. “Sherlock Holmes became very popular, and the money started pouring in.”
Just as actors resent being typecast, so too did Doyle come to resent Sherlock Holmes. His interests turned to more “serious” works. . .but the public continued to clamor for Holmes tales. In 1893, Doyle decided to kill Holmes off. He sent him over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls wrestling with arch-villain Professor Moriarity. Called The Final Problem, the story killed both characters. The public was outraged, more than 10,000 people cancelled their subscriptions to the Strand, but Doyle still hoped it would be the end of Sherlock. “I am weary of his name,” he sighed to a friend.
It wasn’t the end. Public demand for Sherlock Holmes stories continued unabated. Doyle succumbed to the pressure in 1902 and published The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Watson discovers a manuscript describing a previously unknown Holmes case.
But even this partial resurrection wasn’t enough for Holmes fans, so in 1903 Doyle gave in and brought Holmes back to life in The Adventure of the Empty House. Why the change of heart? An American magazine offered him $5,000 per story, and a British publisher offered him almost $3,000 per story for the British rights, unheard of sums in those days.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would write a total 56 short stories and 4 novels featuring Sherlock Holmes, and, just as he feared, the general public came to associate him exclusively with that body of work. Still, his fate wasn’t that terrible, his 1902 historical study of The Great Boer War won him great praise from historians and earned him a knighthood, and his 6-volume history of World War I is considered a masterpiece, even though it never won him the fame his novels did. Doyle became a very rich man, by the 1920s he was the highest-paid writer on earth, and he left an estate so huge that his heirs were still suing each other over it well into the 1990s.
How good a real-life sleuth was Dr. Joseph Bell? So good, at least according to legend, that he correctly identified “Jack the Ripper.” “The story,” says Dr. Ely Liebow, “is that bell and his friend analyzed the Ripper killings and put the name of the killer in an envelope. They gave the envelope to the Edinburgh police, who sent it to London, where the crimes occurred. The contents of the envelope were never divulged, but there were no more murders after they named the killer.”