Stranger Than Fiction-February 2020

February 2020

Finding Sherlock, Part 2: A New Idea of the Detective

By Dean Jobb


Arthur Conan Doyle was hoping to abandon his struggling medical practice for a writing career when he hit upon “a new idea of the detective.” (Image from author’s collection)

Each morning, a man emerged from the front door of One Bush Villas, a three-story house in the English Channel town of Southsea. He swept up the entranceway and polished a brass plate on the railing that separated the house from the sidewalk. DR. CONAN DOYLE, it announced, Physician & Surgeon. It might have been days, perhaps weeks, before neighbors realized the man doing the cleaning was the man whose name was on the brass plate.

Arthur Conan Doyle had set up a practice in the Portsmouth neighborhood in the summer of 1882. But patients were slow to trickle in and money was tight; he could barely afford his meals, let alone hire someone to polish his nameplate. He had been supplementing his income by selling articles to magazines since medical school. To pay the bills—and fill the idle hours—he wrote.

His stories were appearing in The Cornhill and other leading publications, but few magazines of the time identified their contributors. He yearned for the prestige of having his name on the cover of a book. The manuscript of his first novel, The Firm of Girdlestone—a fanciful story of a father and son who try to corner the global market in diamonds to stave off bankruptcy—did the rounds of London publishers, with no takers. It was “too reminiscent of the work of others,” he conceded in his memoirs. He wanted to write something original, “something fresher and crisper and more workmanlike.”

A detective story, perhaps? Conan Doyle thought of the French writer Émile Gaboriau and his novels featuring the police investigator Monsieur Lecoq and “the neat dovetailing of his plots.” He had read Edgar Allan Poe’s macabre tales as a boy and one of his literary heroes was Poe’s amateur sleuth, C. Auguste Dupin, who assisted the Parisian police.

Then he thought of his days in the outpatient department at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary, and Dr. Joseph Bell’s feats of deduction. He remembered his old teacher’s “eerie trick of spotting details” that told him so much about people before they had spoken a single word.

“It annoyed me,” Conan Doyle recalled decades later, “how in the old-fashioned detective story the detective always seemed to get at his results either by some sort of lucky chance or a fluke, or else it was quite unexplained how he got there.” An investigator who used logic and evidence to solve crimes, however, could demonstrate his methods and explain his theories—and draw readers into the story. “Science,” he explained, “would take the place of chance.”

Could he devise a character who used observation and deduction to solve mysteries and crimes? A detective able to read people like Bell, and analyze evidence like a scientist? “It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?” he remembered thinking. “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 wards.”

He had, he realized, stumbled upon something new—“a new idea of the detective.”

He picked up his pen.

*   *   *


Four of the most memorable actors to portray Sherlock Holmes in movie and television adaptations. (Image from author’s collection)

In handwriting as neat and disciplined as he was, Conan Doyle began to sketch two characters. He wrote down a name: Ormond Sacker, a veteran of the Afghan wars. Lived on Baker Street in London with “a consulting detective” who employed Joe Bell’s methods.

What should he call this detective, who would outshine his predecessors? Mr. Sharps? Mr. Ferrets? Conan Doyle rebelled against the practice of some writers, who gave characters a name that telegraphed their traits or professions. He jotted down two words: Sherrinford Holmes.

The surname likely paid homage to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the American doctor who had become a renowned writer—a career path Conan Doyle hoped to emulate. But Sherrinford? He never explained its origin, and soon discarded it (it was so obscure that even he misspelled it “Sherringford” in his memoirs). One of his schoolmates was Patrick Sherlock and he had played cricket against a player with that surname. Or he may have seen the name in the newspapers: William Sherlock, an inspector with London’s Metropolitan Police, often popped up in accounts of crimes and trials.

Sherrinford Holmes became Sherlock Holmes.

But this detective “could not tell his own exploits,” Conan Doyle reasoned. The roommate, Sacker, would play the role of Boswell. Holmes needed “a commonplace comrade as a foil,” as Conan Doyle put it, “an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them.”

He would be a doctor, allowing Conan Doyle to draw on his medical training and practice experience as he imagined mysteries and murders for his detective to solve. But the name Ormond Sacker would not do, either. He needed “a drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man.” Some real-life doctors likely provided the down-to-earth surname he was seeking. The most obvious was James Watson, an Edinburgh graduate, who practiced in Southsea and served with Conan Doyle on the executive of the Portsmouth Literary and Scientific Society. John Watson would represent the no-nonsense English everyman.

“And so I had my puppets,” Conan Doyle recalled, “and wrote my ‘Study in Scarlet.’”

*   *   *           


Conan Doyle’s original notes for his first Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet, featuring the characters Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker. He soon renamed his mystery-solving duo. (Image: Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Seven words launched one of the greatest friendships in literary history.

“You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

The moment a mutual friend introduces Holmes to Watson is pure Joe Bell. As Holmes later explained to the bewildered doctor, he instantly pegged him as “a gentleman of a medical type” who had “the air of a military man.” A deep tan showed he had served in a warm climate and the awkward way he held his left arm suggested an injury—indeed, Watson had been shot in the shoulder in battle. “Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.”

A Study in Scarlet established the universe that would become familiar to millions of readers. The mystery-solving duo share a flat at 221B Baker Street, where they receive a succession of desperate clients and befuddled Scotland Yard detectives. Holmes is an expert in chemicals and poisons and a walking encyclopedia of crime. “He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century,” Watson notes. As their adventures unfold, they dart through the sinister, fog-shrouded streets of Victorian London in two-wheeled hansom cabs.

As the novel opens, Watson learns that Holmes is a consulting detective, perhaps “the only one in the world.” When police and private detectives are stymied, they send their cases and clients to him. “They lay all the evidence before me, and I am generally able . . . to set them straight.” On cue, two Scotland Yard inspectors, Lestrade and Gregson, contact him with “a puzzler”—a man’s body has been found in an empty house in South London. A card in the man’s pocket identifies him as Enoch J. Drebber, an American, but there are no wounds to suggest the cause of death. Holmes eagerly accepts the challenge.

As Watson and the bemused detectives look on, he uses a magnifying glass and measuring tape to scrutinize footprints and other marks at the scene. After sniffing the dead man’s lips and detecting the sour smell of poison, Holmes collects cigar ash from the floor near the body. Lestrade draws his attention to a word on the wall, written in blood: RACHE. The inspector assumes the murderer was writing the name Rachel but was scared off before adding the final letter. Holmes examines the word through his magnifying glass, then pronounces his verdict. The murderer “was more than six feet high, was in the prime of life, had small feet for his height, wore coarse, square-toed boots and smoked a Trichinopoly cigar.” He arrived in a four-wheeled cab, drawn by a horse with three old, worn shoes. As well, the murderer likely has a florid face and long fingernails on his right hand. The victim was poisoned, he adds, almost as an afterthought. And RACHE is not part of a name—it is the German word for revenge.

Back at Baker Street, Holmes explains how he reached his amazing conclusions. Wheel ruts and hoof prints revealed the type of cab and the horse’s worn shoe, Watson learns, and footprints that did not match the dead man’s shoes must have been made by the murderer’s square-toed boots. The word RACHE was printed six feet above the floor, at the eye level of the writer, and scratches surrounding the letters were made by an untrimmed fingernail. A detailed study of cigar ash—Holmes has published a short book on the subject—enabled him to identify the brand the killer smoked. It is Dr. Bell’s talent for drawing conclusions from physical evidence, transplanted from the consulting room to the crime scene. “You have brought detection as near an exact science,” notes an admiring Watson, “as it ever will be brought.”

A second murder adds urgency to the hunt for the killer Holmes has so vividly described. To flush out the culprit, Holmes inserts a notice in the agony columns of the London papers (the personal advertisements of the day) and recruits his “Irregulars” (a collection of street children who serve as his informants) to lure a suspect to Baker Street. In a dramatic climax, Holmes handcuffs the double-murderer—the driver of the mysterious cab that delivered Drebber to the house where his body was found—and hands him over to the Scotland Yard detectives. “There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life,” Holmes tells Watson, explaining the book’s title and leaving open the possibility of more investigations to come. “Our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.”

A Study in Scarlet was short—less than fifty thousand words—and took Conan Doyle just six weeks to complete. “I knew that the book was as good as I could make it,” he recalled, “and I had high hopes.”

*   *   *


Caption: Sherlock Holmes’s debut story, A Study in Scarlet, appeared in the December 1887 edition of Beeton’s Christmas Annual magazine. (Image: Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

He dispatched the manuscript to publishers in the spring of 1886. At least three said no, and another returned the submission unread. Almost as a last resort, he mailed it to Ward, Lock & Co., a London house that specialized in—as much as it pained him to admit it—“cheap and often sensational literature.”

Ward, Lock responded with an offer to publish that left him with little reason to celebrate. He would have to surrender the copyright in exchange for a mere £25. Conan Doyle, who already had one rejected manuscript stashed in a desk drawer, was reluctant to give away his creation for a pittance. But he was convinced his detective would open doors for him. He had to get Holmes into print, no matter how distasteful and one-sided the publishing contract.

A Study in Scarlet appeared in the December 1887 issue of a Ward, Lock magazine, Beeton’s Christmas Annual—and received top billing, with the title dominating the top half of the cover and printed, fittingly, in scarlet ink. An advertisement promised readers they would be introduced to “a supremely ingenious detective, whose performances, while based on the most rational principles, outshine any hitherto depicted.”

Bell’s method of observation and rapid-fire deduction, embodied in the brilliant Holmes, was a revelation in an era when crime detection and forensic science were in their infancy. “As entrancing a tale of ingenuity in tracing out crime” as any written by the great Edgar Allan Poe, noted a critic for The Scotsman, Conan Doyle’s hometown newspaper in Edinburgh. “The author shows genius,” it added, and “has shown how the true detective should work by observation and deduction.” London’s Graphic trumpeted the creation of a new kind of fictional detective, a supersleuth able to solve “a seemingly impenetrable crime by means of severely logical deductions from apparently unconnected and well-nigh imperceptible traces.”

It took time for the Great Detective to attract a following. A Study in Scarlet was published as a standalone novel and a new adventure, The Sign of the Four (soon rechristened The Sign of Four) appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. Conan Doyle almost abandoned Holmes and Watson so he could focus on historical novels until lucrative offers from London’s Strand Magazine convinced him to write a dozen new, shorter stories. Published monthly, beginning in June 1891, they created a sensation. In one of these stories, “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Holmes spots a clue in the handwriting of a note. “It is, of course, a trifle,” he declares, echoing Bell’s admonition to his medical students, “but there is nothing so important as trifles.”

Newsstands and booksellers were besieged by readers eager to pay sixpence for the latest instalment. “The scenes at the railway bookstalls,” one onlooker recalled, “were worse than anything I ever saw at a bargain sale.” Libraries adjusted their hours to accommodate the growing legions of Holmes fans, staying open late on The Strand’s publication day so patrons could devour the latest instalment. By one estimate, two million people—out of a literate population of about seventeen million in England—were reading The Strand and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

A sleuth modelled on a doctor and the writer who created him were on their way to becoming the superstars of the detective genre.



a man emerged  Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures and Western Wanderings (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 42-3.

patients were slow to trickle in  “A False Start,” in Alvin E. Rodin and Jack D. Key, eds., Conan Doyle’s Tales of Medical Humanism and Values: Round the Red Lamp: Being Facts and Fancies of Medical Life, with Other Medical Short Stories (Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Co., 1992).

too reminiscent of the work, the neat dovetailing and eerie trick of spotting  Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 51.

It annoyed me and a new idea of the detective  William Fox newsreel interview with Conan Doyle, 1927, available online at

Science would take the place  “Conan Doyle Speaking (First Record),” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, His Master’s Voice (The Gramophone Co. Ltd., 1930), quoted in Richard Lancelyn Green, comp., The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1983), 145.

began to sketch two characters  Conan Doyle’s handwritten notes for A Study in Scarlet are reproduced in Janet B. Pascal, Arthur Conan Doyle: Beyond Baker Street (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 61.

Sherrinford Holmes  The notes for A Study in Scarlet, cited in the previous endnote, record the name as Sherrinford but when Conan Doyle wrote his autobiography decades later, he remembered Holmes’s original name as Sherringford (Memories and Adventures, 51). Biographers accept Sherrinford as the correct spelling. See Daniel Stashower, Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999), 75, and Andrew Lycett, The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: The Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (New York: Free Press, 2007), 121.

The surname likely paid homage  Conan Doyle quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes in his memoirs and believed few authors had written “more charmingly of England.” See Memories and Adventures, 38 and “England and America,” Conan Doyle’s letter to the editor of the Times of London, January 7, 1896.

One of his schoolmates  The origins of the names Sherlock and Holmes are traced in Michael Sims, Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), 114-15. Conan Doyle mentioned the cricket player as a possible source of Sherlock (“I think the name … impressed itself on my mind”) in a 1921 speech quoted in Donald A. Redmond, Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Sources (Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1982), 303.

could not tell his own exploits  Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 51.

James Watson, an Edinburgh graduate  Watson, who presided at the literary society’s farewell dinner, in December 1890, when Conan Doyle left Southsea, served as president and Conan Doyle was secretary. See Stashower, Teller of Tales, 76, 115, and “Farewell to Dr. Doyle,” Evening News (Portsmouth), December 13, 1890.

And so I had my puppets, as good as I could make it and cheap and often sensational literature  Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 51-2.

surrender the copyright  The letters exchanged between Ward, Lock and Doyle are cited in Sims, Arthur & Sherlock, 146-47.

a supremely ingenious detective  Times of London, November 25, 1887. The advertisement appeared on page two.

a tale of ingenuity  These reviews are reproduced in Mattias Boström and Matt Laffey, eds., Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in the Newspapers, Volume 1, 1881-1892 (Indianapolis: Gasogene Books, 2015), 13-6, 19-22.

literary dignity  Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures, 52.

scenes at the railway bookstalls  Quoted in Julian Symons, Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (Harmondsworth, UK: Viking, 1985), 73.

Libraries adjusted their hours  Reginald Pound, The Strand Magazine 1891–1950 (London: Heinemann, 1966), 92.

By one estimate, two million people  Christopher Sandford, The Man Who Would be Sherlock: The Real Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle (Stroud, UK: History Press, 2017), 28.


Dean Jobb’s new book recreates the hunt for Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a Victorian-era serial killer who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, England and Canada – a true tale of crime and madness told against the backdrop of the birth of forensic investigation. Coming in Spring 2021 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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