During a recent bout of infirmity, I turned for solace to the greatest storyteller of modern times, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). If this sounds like excessive praise, I ask you—no, I defy you—to name his superior, or even his nearest rival, for that title.
Late in the Victorian era, Conan Doyle, a struggling physician, tried his hand at fiction. He wrote a novella, A Study in Scarlet, featuring an eccentrically brilliant detective, narrated by the admiring doctor who shares rooms with him in London. Sherlock Holmes was modeled on one of Conan Doyle’s teachers in medical school, a Dr. Joseph Bell, who’d had a knack for making startling deductions from tiny physical details of his patients’ appearance.
The book, first published in a London magazine in 1887, was not a great success. But two years later, its sequel, The Sign of Four, proved the most sensationally popular piece of fiction since Dickens, and Holmes’ further adventures only increased the reading public’s ravenous appetite for him, which has never abated.
Even today, needless to say, Holmes has countless admirers, many of them obsessive. He has had, and still has, a life of his own—in innumerable novels, movies, television productions, and, of course, imitators. He has spawned the enormous genre of detective fiction, in spite of critical neglect...