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Diagnosing Crimes Instead of Patients 

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The greatest deductive mind in literary history was found in a doctor, not a detective: a bored doctor with a struggling practice who scribbled stories while waiting for patients. These scribblings transformed the face of mystery writing and created an iconic character who still appears on page and screen today.

He was born  into a prominent English family in Edinburgh in the middle of the nineteenth century. Respected in the art world and admired for their intellects, his father’s side of the family had wealth and prestige, although his father, a hopeless alcoholic, was the black sheep of this impressive lineage, and had moved to Scotland with the hope of distinguishing himself.

But the bottom of a bottle proved more tempting than employment for his father, so the young son spent his formative years watching his mother struggle to make ends meet. He found solace with his mother, who amused her son by telling him fanciful stories with wild plots and characters. He grew obsessed with his mother’s favourite stories: tales of chivalrous knights and virtuous maidens. When he learned to read, he discovered America through books about the Wild West.

Sent to a strict Jesuit boarding school at 9, the boy found himself adrift without his mother and her stories. Bullied by his classmates, he found comfort in stories and the academics, becoming a model student. Soon, he used his storytelling abilities to enthrall younger classmates. He found himself to be a natural athlete and writer, joining the rugby team and writing for the school’s newspaper.

When it was time to choose a profession, he allowed his mother to make the decision.

She urged him into medicine, a field he was totally ambivalent towards. Still, an outstanding learner, the medical student excelled in his classes. He was especially inspired by Professor Joseph Bell, a world-renowned physician who also taught deductive reasoning.

Nearly through with his medical training and ready for adventure, the 20-year-old student doctor took a medical position on a whaling ship bound for the Arctic and Africa. His diary from that expedition would fuel a few short stories filled with icy adventure.

Returning to Britain obsessed with spiritualism, he abandoned Catholicism entirely, which provoked his well-connected family to disown him, and they refused to help him find a position upon his graduation.

Without connections or family to set him up in an established practice or open his own offices, the doctor was desperate to find a position that would secure a good income. He struggled to build a profitable practice, writing short adventure stories and selling articles to newspapers to supplement his income. It was during this time that he tried his hand at mystery writing, penning a story featuring a scientific detective who used deductive reasoning, inspired by his medical school professor, Professor Bell.

However, finding no market for mysteries, the doctor sold the story for twenty-five pounds to a Christmas Annual. Though the story was well received, it didn’t garner popularity. The doctor decided to go back to writing scientific articles and romances to help pay the bills.

Medicine was never the doctor’s passion, and though he moved practices several times, it never provided a comfortable living for his family. The final straw in his medical career came when he opened a practice in London and not one single patient came in. After that he officially retired from medicine to become an author.

Hard at work writing a historical romance, it shocked the doctor to find out that his little detective story had been republished in another annual. This time, London fell in love with the brilliant detective and publishers demanded more stories featuring the character. Considering mysteries to be a lower form of fiction, the doctor wasn’t thrilled to continue with the character, but he saw an opportunity to make money.

Still, after writing 36 short mysteries, the doctor decided he was ready for better things. He killed off his famous character and informed publishers that he would be writing an opera or a significant drama next.

Though he was ready to move on, the public was not. The whole of London went into mourning: fans wore black armbands, and angry letters were written. But the doctor stood firm. It was nearly a decade before he acquiesced to public and publishing demands, and revived the character in a series of novels.

He published several other novels, both fiction and non-fiction, and became a well-regarded member of London’s literary society, but nothing captured the public’s attention like his beloved detective. The doctor decided to use his reputation as “the man behind the detective” to help others. He successfully worked to get two men released from prison, using deductive reasoning to point out the flaws in the government’s cases.

Though he wrote in support of the Boer War and the First World War, both conflicts weighed heavily on his family, with his eldest son dying from war wounds. In the wake of the horror of war, the doctor threw himself wholeheartedly into spiritualism. He sought evidence of fairies, ghosts and more, often participating in séances and readings.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died in his home of heart failure in 1930. He had requested that his family bury him standing up, as spiritualists believed that to be a better position to enable the spirit to escape the body more easily.

When his first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet”, was published, Doyle changed the face of mystery writing. His genius detective with his keen mind and sharp tongue became the template for writers of mysteries. From films to TV to books, Holmes’ and Doyle’s imprint can be felt in nearly all aspects of pop culture, not to mention in the development of the forensic sciences and investigations.

 

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Diana Beechener has a BA in Liberal Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied literary analysis and film history. A proud member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association, she is a journalist and film reviewer for Bay Weekly. She is also a PR blogger and consultant, helping businesses improve their written communications and social media relationships. Contact Diana on LinkedIn.