Arthur Conan Doyle’s Birthday, and Black Dogs

An Appreciation

One hundred and fifty years ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the most loved and best known detective figure of all time, was born in a suburb of Edinburgh Scotland. In excited celebration of this event, gatherings of all kinds—dinners, symposiums, exhibitions, re-enactments and entertainments—have taken place throughout 2009. In the UK, Conan Doyle’s innovative science fiction novel The Lost World has been part of the 2009 Great Reading Adventure, sponsored by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership. Special editions have been published, including a children’s version. Everyone in the UK was urged to read Conan Doyle in 2009.

Last July, the University of Hull, in Britain, sponsored a conference on Doyle and Holmes. In India, a film featuring the character of Holmes is being shot—the role played by a British diplomat. In the US, Harvard’s Houghton Library hosted a symposium to honor the author, coinciding with the opening of a major exhibition at Houghton: “Ever Westward: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in American Culture.”

In Scotland, the ancient and dying sycamore tree under which Conan Doyle played as a child was chosen for a special honor. Its wood was used to make a violin styled after the one played by Sherlock Holmes, and the tree’s stump carved into a Holmes memorial.

It is true that in the course of writing fifty-six stories and four novels about the Great Detective, Conan Doyle developed a weary resentment towards his obsessively observant hero, referring to him at one point as “a monstrous growth.”  But the public was enamored, and Conan Doyle’s effort to annihilate Holmes by fictionally flinging him and his nemesis, the arch-criminal Moriarty, to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls, met with such resistance that the author resurrected the pair. Conan Doyle, the physician turned author, is eternally caught in the web of his own magic.

Although numerous works on a variety of subjects flowed from his pen—science fiction, travel, memoir, passionate spiritualism—Sherlock Holmes is the figure on which Conan Doyle’s enduring fame overwhelmingly rests. The author’s ability to weave together folklore and science, logic and superstition—to distract the reader for instance, in The Hound of the Baskervilles with a haunting tale of a ghostly Black Dog while leading to a believable realistic ending—set the standard for great mystery writing.

The acerbic, logical Holmes, his affable companion, Watson, and the rooms in Baker Street, form an indelible part of our culture. From school kids reading the tales late at night when they are supposed to be asleep, to mature Sherlockians revisiting the adventures for the hundredth time, we all treasure the literary hearth ACD bequeathed us.


Dr. Watson - registered as Wagners' The Game's Afoot - photo by W.R.Wagner

Note: Most likely it was Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles that started my long fascination with black dogs. In some folk traditions they are considered to bring good fortune, in others they are believed to be harbingers of disaster and death. I avidly collect these tales. (For more about mythical Black Dogs, such as Old Shuck and the Galleytrot, as well as the 1945 Black Dog Murder in Lower Quinton, see chapter 2 of The Science of Sherlock Holmes.)  My family and I happily share our lives with black dogs, our current Resident Labrador Retriever being ”Dr. Watson.”  But years before he arrived, there were others. . . .

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