Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

’s Influence On Twentieth Century Detective Literature Essay, Research Paper

There are many different books, in many different genres. There are

horror novels, love stories, suspenseful books, and detective stories. The

detective story’s evolution has been a long and eventful process. The man

responsible for the biggest leap in the detective story was Arthur Conan

Doyle. He gave the world Sherlock Holmes, who could be considered the

greatest investigator in detective story history. Holmes was unique in

detective story history. “… The reader’s interest is captivated not only by

the detective’s “unique methods,” but to perhaps to even a greater degree

by “the singular personality of this remarkable man” (Sayers 10). Doyle

also gave the world Dr. Watson, Holmes’ sidekick. Other authors could

have written about this pair, but none could match Doyle. “Doyle was a

master storyteller” (Snow, 8). Without Doyle the detective story would

never have been what it is now. Cresterton states, “With Conan Doyle, the

detective story at last came to full fruition” (Cresterton, 170). This

statement is true. All detective stories after Doyle’s had some of the

aspects of his stories. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle shaped the way detective

stories were written in the twentieth century by using a third person limited

perspective, using a structured plot line, and by having Holmes investigate

crimes other than murder.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first detective story author to make

good use of the third person limited perspective. Holmes’ sidekick Watson

is a smart man, but he could not compare to the brilliance of Holmes.

When Holmes was figuring out a mystery, he often left Watson very

confused. Holmes would do things that, to Watson, would make no sense.

At the end of the story, however, Watson would see the logic behind

Holmes’ actions. This quote is Watson thinking about the case he and

Holmes were working on. “Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen

what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly

not only what happened, but what was about to happen, while to me the

whole business was still confused and grotesque” (Doyle, 35). This displays

Watson’s confusion over the case of “The Red-Headed League.”

In “The Red-Headed League”, the case is so bizarre that most of the

readers, like Watson, don’t have a clue as to what is going on. It is

comforting to know that Watson is as confused as the readers are. In “The

Red-Headed League” there is a point in the story where Holmes and Watson

walk up to the pawn shop and talk to Mr. Wilson’s assistant. After he shuts

the door Watson asks Holmes why he wanted to see the assistant. Holmes

says that he wanted to see the knees of the assistants trousers (Doyle, 34).

It is obvious by Watson’s reaction that he has know idea why Holmes

wanted to see the assistants knees. At the same time the readers are left

pondering that very question.

The whole scene in front of the pawnshop also display another way

that Doyle uses the third person limited perspective well. At that point in

the story Holmes has pretty much figured out what happened. By telling

Watson where he was looking, Holmes was dropping a hint to Watson to see

if he could figure out what Holmes already had. During his stories Doyle

would leave hints as to who committed the crime. This made the story

more interesting for the readers.

Another way Doyle uses Holmes in his stories is as a teacher to

Watson. In the very beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia” Holmes deduces,

from a quick glance, that Watson had gotten wet lately, and had a clumsy

servant girl. He deduced all of this by merely looking at Watson’s shoes.

He then asked Watson how many steps led up to his apartment. Watson

could not say, even though he had walked up those stairs countless times

(Doyle, 12). This is one of the examples of Holmes teaching Watson about


The only way that Holmes’ observations make sense in the story is if

the story has a structured plot line. Doyle made all of Holmes’ stories have

plots that follow a logical structure. “You have reasoned it out

beautifully…It is so long a chain, and yet every link rings true” (Doyle 40).

In the story Holmes figured out that Mr. Wilson’s assistant was using his

pawn shop to tunnel his way into a nearby bank and rob it. Holmes figured

out all of this just by looking at the assistants pants and pounding his

walking stick in front of the pawn shop (Doyle 26-40). If Holmes had not

done this during the story, both Watson and the readers would be left

having no idea as to how Holmes figured out who committed the felony. By

putting clues into the story, Doyle distanced him self from the other

detective story writers of the time.

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia” Holmes did not rely as much on

his powers of deduction, as he did in “The Red-Headed League.” Instead

Holmes relied more on good old fashioned detective legwork. He also had

to rely on his brilliance. In the story the king told Holmes that Irene Adler

was blackmailing him and that he needed the pictures that she was

blackmailing him with. Holmes went to Irene Adler’s home and followed her

to a church. There she and her boyfriend got married. Holmes later asked

Watson to help him figure out where she was hiding the pictures. He asked

Watson to throw a smoke bomb into her house and he would to the rest

(Doyle 11-25). “When a woman thinks her house is on fire, her instinct is

at once to rush to the thing she values most” (Doyle 22). He used this to

find where Mrs. Adler was hiding the pictures. In both of these stories

Doyle used logical plot lines in which the reader could guess as to who

committed the crime. This made detective stories much more interesting.

Another way Doyle made his stories more interesting was by focusing

on crimes other than murder. “Some of the most interesting (of Holmes’

stories) do not treat of crime in the legal sense at all, but with human

perplexities outside the scope of the law” (Symons 20). This is most aptly

displayed in “The Red-Headed League.” In this story Holmes says “As far as

I have heard, it is impossible for me to say whether the present case is an

instance of crime or not, but the course of events is among the most

singular that I have listened to” (Doyle 27). This makes the story a lot

more interesting because if the crime was mundane, it would have been a

lot easier for Holmes to figure out who the criminal was. That’s why Doyle

used more structured plot lines then the rest of the detective stories of the

time. Those stories were more mundane and unexciting, and that is one

reason that Doyle’s stories stood out above the rest.

In the story “A Scandal in Bohemia” it was obvious that there was

actually being a crime committed, and that crime was blackmail. While

blackmail is a serious crime, it is not considered as severe as murder. This

time, however, it was very severe because it involved the King of Bohemia.

This was another way that Doyle interested the readers. He would use

uncommon crimes in his stories, and have them involve high ranking

officials. In “A Scandal in Bohemia” the King was being blackmailed by a

woman with whom he had an affair with many years earlier. She had

pictures of them together, and the King hired Holmes to retrieve those

pictures (Doyle 11-25). This is one of the more unusual setups that Doyle

has created. These unusual setups are one of the many things that has

made Doyle one of the most beloved authors of all time.

Detective stories today would be nothing without Sir Arthur Conan

Doyle’s influence. There is no doubt that he shaped the way detective

stories have been written in the twentieth century. As Murch said,

“…(Sherlock Holmes) became the ancestor of almost all the outstanding

twentieth-century detective heroes in English fiction” (Murch 167). All

detective heroes in the twentieth century have some aspect of Sherlock

Holmes in them. With Doyle, the detective story form was nearly perfected.

He Helped bring the detective story more respect as actual literature.

Without Sir Arthur Conan Doyle the detective story would still be considered

a lower form of literature and would be an unimportant part of the literary



Cresterton, G. K. “Sherlock Holmes.” A Handful of Authors: Essays

on Books and Writers. Ed. by Dorothy Collins. N.p.: Sheed and

Wand, 1953.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Classic Illustrated Sherlock Holmes.

Stamford, CT: Longmeadow Press, 1987.

Murch, A. E. “Sherlock Holmes.” The Development of the Detective

Novel. N. p.: Philosophical Library Inc. ,1958. 167-91.

Sayers, Dorothy. “Introduction.” The Omnibus of Crime. N. P.:

Harcourt, 1961. 9-38. Discovering Authors. Vers. 1.1.

CD-ROM. Detroit: Gale, 1996.

Snow, C. P. The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. N.p.: Jonathan

Cape, 1974. 7-12.

Symons, Gulian. Portrait of an Artist: Conan Doyle. N.p.: Whizzard

Press, 1979.


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