1000 novels everyone must read: Andrew Lycett on Arthur Conan Doyle

Andrew Lycett: Arthur Conan Doyle alighted on the modern detective novel in haphazard fashion

A Study in Scarlet (1887)
The Sign of Four (1890)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

Arthur Conan Doyle alighted on the modern detective novel in haphazard fashion. As a young doctor, he juggled medicine and literature. When not attending patients, he turned out stories, often with a fashionable supernatural theme, for magazines such as the Cornhill.

After marrying in 1886, he felt he needed his name on the back of a volume. So, studying the market, he opted for crime fiction - combining the sensationalism of Wilkie Collins with the sort of solo detective who had been attempted by Edgar Allan Poe (Dupin) and Émile Gaboriau (Lecoq). As Kate Summerscale showed in The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the spectre of crime was looming. Conan Doyle added his own ingredient: a consulting detective who used empirical reasoning to solve crimes. A mixture of questing individualism and science: what could be more late Victorian?

His first effort, A Study in Scarlet, combined two yarns - a murder in London and a romance in Mormon Utah - in a thinnish revenge plot. Its USP was characterisation: the brilliant, laconic detective Sherlock Holmes forming an engaging double act with his dim flatmate Dr Watson. Additional story ingredients such as detail, atmosphere and tension were spot-on.

Holmes was a trifle stiff in this initial outing. So, with a nod to contemporary decadence, he became more ambiguous, with moods, foibles and, famously, a cocaine habit, in Conan Doyle's second novel, The Sign of Four.

The success of this book allowed the author to quit medicine and write full-time. Again his timing was good because it coincided with the launch of Strand magazine, which published Holmes stories on a monthly basis. But Conan Doyle had other literary ambitions and, after 24 tales, killed off his detective at the Reichenbach Falls.

Holmes's revival nine years later in 1901 was again fortuitous. Conan Doyle had learnt from a friend about the legend of a ghostly black dog on Dartmoor. He talked of writing "a real creeper". But his editor at Strand wanted a more bankable Sherlock Holmes involvement.

The Hound of the Baskervilles revisits earlier occult themes. Its handling of the interplay between reason and the supernatural was subtly brilliant - reflecting a raging debate in Conan Doyle's own mind. Reason triumphs: the calculating Holmes emerges from the shadows to orchestrate a thrilling denouement to a book still regarded as one of the finest crime novels.

• Andrew Lycett's biography of Conan Doyle is published by Phoenix

Andrew Lycett

The GuardianTramp

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