Adventures in the Strand by Mike Ashley review – Arthur Conan Doyle beyond Sherlock Holmes

Pirates, skiing, science fiction and bare-knuckle boxing were among the topics tackled by Sherlock Holmes’s creator. But what was his masterpiece?

Anyone who attempts to write about the creator of Sherlock Holmes faces two challenges. The first is that Conan Doyle’s life has already been picked over by so many critics that the evidence has become grubby with their fingerprints. The second is Holmes himself, who is a hard act to follow when it comes to piecing together biographical clues.

“You appeared to read a great deal upon her which was quite invisible to me,” blusters Dr Watson in “A Case of Identity”, and receives the cool reply, “Not invisible but unnoticed.” Whether penetrating disguises at a glance, or zooming in on details such as a scuffed toecap, Holmes makes other characters notice everything they had previously ignored. It is difficult to imagine anyone performing the same trick on Doyle’s life (his surname was “Doyle” rather than “Conan Doyle”, as commonly thought). As a result, his biographers have usually ended up sounding like a whole tribe of Watsons – solid, dependable and just a little dull.

Mike Ashley’s aim is different. Whereas most biographers tend to focus on Doyle’s creation of Holmes, treating his other characters as a crowd of literary extras, Ashley sets out to describe the shape of his whole career. From the early manuscripts that Doyle called “paper boomerangs”, because they were returned to him so quickly, to his later fame and riches, the writer who emerges from this account is a restless figure who both enjoyed and slightly resented his most famous creation. Like many writers who hit a public nerve, he seems to have been surprised by his success, before spending the rest of his life trying to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.

If there was a centre to Doyle’s literary life it was the Strand magazine, founded in 1891, where most of his writing originally appeared. By the end of his 40-year collaboration with publisher George Newnes and editor Herbert Greenhough Smith, Doyle had produced more than 250 pieces for the magazine, including 120 stories, 9 serialised novels and dozens of miscellaneous items. Next to his two marriages it was probably the most important relationship of his life, bringing him a huge readership and creating a hazy glamour around the magazine itself. Ashley claims that it worked “rather like a prism, splitting Doyle’s career into the spectrum of his passions and then re‑forming them back into his life”, and the results were certainly diverse.

Skiing holidays, bare-knuckle boxing, the first world war, pirate tales and science fiction were just some of the topics he tackled. If he was adept at switching between genres, he also found room for some of his more private obsessions. Many of his stories reveal a keen interest in torture, including one in which the narrator dreams of a woman being punished by having three pails of water poured down her throat. He was also a big fan of cricket and could boast of having once dismissed WG Grace while playing for the MCC.

Almost nothing he wrote disclosed a trace of humour, which is probably why a later writer, PG Wodehouse, found stories such as “The Poison Belt” such a source of inspiration. It did not require more than a nudge of irony for the final exchange between Doyle’s hero and his butler to be transformed into the comic rhythms of Jeeves and Wooster: ‘‘‘I’m expecting the end of the world to-day, Austin.’ ‘Yes, sir. What time, sir?’ ‘I can’t say, Austin. Before evening.’ ‘Very good, sir.’’’

Arthur Conan-Doyle, c1912.
Arthur Conan Doyle, c1912. Photograph: EO Hoppe/Corbis

Most of this work now possesses only a sort of guttering half-life in university libraries, and Ashley makes a valiant effort to reclaim it for a wider readership. He certainly cannot be faulted for a lack of enthusiasm: in his introduction, he claims that when Holmes entered the pages of the Strand, “the Earth moved”, and when he was temporarily killed off in 1893 “there was such an outpouring of grief you would think it had been the end of the world”. Well, perhaps.

Ashley is also a fair-minded guide to the more awkward aspects of Doyle’s personality, such as his strangely credulous attitude towards spiritualism and his stiff-lipped imperialism. If there is something rather sweet about the creator of Holmes – who would have seen through such nonsense at a glance – falling for a hoax such as the Cottingley fairies, after two girls photographed themselves frolicking with cardboard fairies they had propped up with hatpins, it is far more uncomfortable to read Doyle enthusiastically expressing his belief in the value of weaker races being exterminated “by some more virile stock”.

Faced with novels such as The Lost World, in which one race attacks another with their eyes “shining with the lust of slaughter”, it is not surprising that Ashley takes refuge in pieces of literary trivia such as the origin of Holmes’s famous deerstalker and curved pipe (both featured in an early theatrical adaptation), and Doyle’s fondness for jokes such as “Though he might be more humble, there is no police like Holmes”.

Will this book attract new readers to the full range of Doyle’s work? It seems unlikely, despite Ashley’s valiant attempts to act as a cheerleader for neglected Strand stories such as “Sir Nigel” as “Doyle’s masterpiece”. When it turned out that Holmes hadn’t in fact been killed at the Reichenbach Falls, many readers wrote in to express their joy, but nobody seemed very surprised – probably because they had long since realised that Doyle’s most famous character could never die. As WH Auden pointed out, we can imagine new adventures for characters such as Holmes because he no longer seems bound to his original stories. That is why it is entirely possible to update his escapades, as the BBC has so successfully done, without changing anything other than a few trivial historical details. Sherlock Holmes is immortal. Compared to him almost everything else Doyle wrote is so much wastepaper.

To order Adventures in the Strand for £20 (RRP £25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

The GuardianTramp

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