“I THINK what’s kept people interested in Holmes is the ambiguity. You want to read this person but you can’t tell what he’s about.”

St Andrews University’s Dr Meha Pande sums up Sherlock Holmes perfectly: he explains everything to us, all the world’s little intricacies and minute details invisible to the untrained eye, but we ultimately know very little about him.

Dr Pande studied 19th-century Victorian Literature for her PhD of which Holmes and his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle formed a big part of the research. “He’s as much of a mystery as the crimes he’s trying to solve. People still love a good mystery and that’s why he’s still so loved,” she adds.

There’s no denying Holmes makes for great reading. You get a certain satisfaction from seeing things from his faithful companion John Watson’s point of view. As Dr Pande says, “there are things the character deduces which are very easy to understand once they’re explained but we can never guess them. I feel like we are always Watson in the story because when I was reading them I wanted to ask the questions.”

However, Conan Doyle makes for just as interesting a story as any Study in Scarlet or Scandal in Bohemia. Born in Edinburgh in 1859, May 22 will mark the Scot's 163rd birthday. His father was involved in creating caricatures whilst his maternal grandfather was a doctor. Doyle chose to go to Edinburgh medical school to practice as a surgeon and it was during his medical training that he wrote his first story – The Mystery of Sasassa Valley. He was also a keen amateur photographer which was a subject he often wrote about in the British Journal.  

The National: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is 163 years old on May 22nd.Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is 163 years old on May 22nd.

For Dr Pande, that mix of art and science was what gave birth to Holmes. He’s such a creative character and yet someone who boils everything down to the rational, to a single fact which explains everything no matter how improbable – "whenever you’ve eliminated the impossible" and so forth. It was in 1887 that the author’s most famous creation was born. Holmes first appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in A Study in Scarlet. That was followed by three more novels and 54 short stories up until the author’s death in 1930. He proved to be one of the most popular characters ever created and remains so to this day.

He’s so popular in fact that there remains a whole society dedicated to him – the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. “There was a society back in the 1930s which lasted for a couple of years but then folded largely due to the advent of the Second World War. We regard ourselves as a direct inheritor of that society and we were formed in 1951,” says the society’s current chairwoman Catherine Cooke.

That’s a long time to dedicate to anything, let alone a single character but there’s something about the stories that people keep coming back to. “The stories have got a good atmosphere. I think even when they were published they were nostalgic. There are very few mentions of motorcars or telephones, it’s always a telegram. The whole atmosphere of these mysteries going on under the surface of this ordered society does appeal to people,” Cooke adds. Dr Pande says that the book advertised itself as being so ingenious that the people who put it down “were neither impressionable nor curious.”

The society organises lectures, hosts dinners and plans different trips together. They also do film screenings. What about all those adaptations? Screen renditions of fan-favourites come under more scrutiny than most but Holmes seems to have proved a hit amongst casual and hardcore fans alike.

The famous detective has been given the Hollywood treatment twice by Guy Ritchie; a modern makeover starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and he’s even been ‘Disney-fied’ when he served as inspiration for 1992’s The Great Mouse Detective. He moved to America in the TV series Elementary in which Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu took on the role of Holmes and Joan Watson. In 2020, Netflix released Enola Holmes, with Millie Bobby Brown starring as the sleuth’s sister. “He’s such a variable character. I tend to like them when they’ve been done in a way that’s faithful. Benedict Cumberbatch was very good – the more you knew about Holmes and the original stories, the more you got out of that,” says Cooke.

As well as inspiring big-budget blockbusters and Netflix hits, Conan Doyle left behind another legacy - spiritualism. In the west end of Edinburgh, you’ll find the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre. It’s an educational institution which offers lectures and workshops on spiritualism and mediumship. The building was originally constructed for brewer and philanthropist William McEwan in 1881 but now operates as a centre which provides space for "spiritual discovery".

The National: The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre is located in Edinburgh's west end.The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre is located in Edinburgh's west end.

Despite only being founded in 2011, the history of the organisation dates back to the mid 1990s. Its founder Ann Treherne, originally a banker, abandoned her normal life when she discovered she had pre-cognitive and psychic abilities. The current chairman, Professor Lance Butler, says that Treherne’s inspiration for the centre came from Conan Doyle himself with whom she was able to communicate from beyond the grave. “In a series of seances, she kept getting some hints – a picture of Edinburgh University, a surgeons hall, a man with a moustache and an Arthurian knight. Somebody eventually realised it was Conan Doyle that was speaking to her because of all this – he was a surgeon in Edinburgh, he had a moustache and was knighted towards the end of his life.”

Treherne even went so far as to publish a book about her communication with the author titled Arthur and Me. It was Doyle who showed her a vision of her standing in a grand building which now operates as the centre. “The place was haunted when she moved in, it’s not nearly so haunted now but that’s normal with empty buildings,” Professor Butler says.

Whatever anyone’s thoughts on communicating with the dead, Conan Doyle was a huge advocate for spiritualism during its heyday in the 19th century. He travelled across America and Britain giving talks on the supernatural and attending seances before eventually writing The History of Spiritualism in 1926.

Ultimately though, Conan Doyle’s most popular legacy will always be Holmes and Watson. The former has become the benchmark to which so many literary detectives are often held. The character couldn’t even find peace in death. Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect Holmes after he seemingly fell to his death in The Final Problem, such was the demand from fans to see him solve more mysteries.

Looking to the immediate future, it’s hard to see the popularity of the stories declining at any stage soon. “I think he’s here to stay but I think it’s going to be a long time before we get another television Holmes. There were 40 years between Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch,” says Cooke. Dr Pande agrees. “They have bits and pieces you can relate to and lend themselves to all kind of adaptations. I don’t think he’s going anywhere.”