The Best of Sherlock Holmes
A New View of Sir Arthur from the Conan Doyle Family Archives
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his autobiography in 1924 but kept private many aspects of his life. However, more than a thousand of his personal and revealing letters to his mother and family still survive. Much of this long-unavailable correspondence is now presented in Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley. This Edgar-winning annotated collection of Conan Doyle's previously unpublished letters provides a unique view of the creator of Sherlock Holmes and will be required reading for all Sherlockians.
Listen to online interviews with the editors about the book and hear an actual recording of Conan Doyle
Awards for Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters from the Mystery Writers of America, Malice Domestic, and Bouchercon
Conan Doyle letter to his mother about the Holmes stories
Photo courtesy of Jon Lellenberg
A virtual autobiography, this award-winning book sets down Conan Doyle's personal letters to paint an authentic picture of his life. They cover everything from a humorous talk on the use and abuse of medicine in fiction to the origin of the "Giant Rat of Sumatra." Spanning the period from 1867 to the death of Sir Arthur's mother in 1920, the letters are arranged chronologically and are merged with a connecting narrative from the editors that provides context and related information.
ed. by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley
First American Edition
Hardcover: 706 pages
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Available: November 1, 2007
List Price: US$37.95 / CDN$45.50
Information sheet (PDF)
Full dust-jacket (PDF)
First British Edition
Hardcover: 710 pages
Available: 17 September 2007
Information sheet (PDF)
Full dust-jacket (JPEG)
"These extraordinarily vivid letters are so marvelous in scope and so masterfully annotated that they make A Life in Letters not only an instant classic of biography, but the most important book recently—and likely ever—published about the man who was so much more than 'simply' the creator of Sherlock Holmes."
— Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist and The Italian Secretary
* Best critical / biographical book of the year - Mystery Writers of America
* Best non-fiction book of the year - Malice Domestic
* Best Critical Work of the year - Bouchercon
Read two letters from the book (PDF) in the information sheet
Listen to the National Public Radio interview of Daniel Stashower about the book
American Paperback Edition
Paperback: 720 pages
Available: September 30, 2008
List Price: US$18.00 / CDN$20.00
British Paperback Edition
Paperback: 710 pages
Available: 7 July 2008
First Japanese Edition
Title: Konan Doiru Shokanshu
Translator: Masamichi Higurashi
Hardcover: 738 pages
Publisher: Toyo Shorin (Tokyo)
Available: January 31, 2012
List Price: JYEN 6,000 (NET)
The Conan Doyle literary archive, including manuscripts and family letters, has a long and complex history. Sir Arthur died in 1930 and his widow died ten years later. They left the papers to their children Denis, Adrian, and Jean. However, the children never formally allocated the items and the material was locked away for many years. The two sons and their wives died between 1955 and 1990, leaving Dame Jean Conan Doyle and three heirs of Adrian's wife Anna Conan Doyle as owners of the archive. Finally, in the mid-1990s, the material was allocated.
Dame Jean took possession of a collection with more than 900 letters from Conan Doyle to his mother. She bequeathed this material and more to the British Library. Her estate delivered this part of the archive to the British Library in 2004.
In May 2004, the heirs of Anna Conan Doyle sent their "Conan Doyle Collection" to auction at Christie's in London. The British Library bid and won a considerable amount of material from the auction. My Census of The Conan Doyle Collection identifies the owners of many of the lots from this sale.
The core of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters is the correspondence to his mother that Dame Jean left to the British Library. However, it also contains other letters to family and friends, some of which were purchased by The British Library. Additional sources include the University of Minnesota, the New York Public Library, and the Fred Kittle Collection (to be placed at the Newberry Library in Chicago). The FAQ includes more details about the letters in this book. For access to materials used in preparing this book, see the note on research materials at the end of the Backgrounder section.
Conan Doyle Unveiled: Letters Bring Him to Life
by Randall Stock, 8 September 2007
While a biography, autobiography, and a book of letters may seem similar, they have important differences. A biography explores what others think about a person. An autobiography shows what that person wants others to know. A book of letters, in contrast, exposes the private details of a person's life. Numerous biographers have written about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and he published an autobiography in 1924, but the first book of his private letters offers a new perspective on the famous author.
Conan Doyle was a prolific letter-writer, and a complete set of his correspondence would span many volumes. This book focuses on letters to his family and includes more than 500 to his mother. These begin at age eight when he went to boarding school and continue for 54 years until his mother's death in 1920.
The letters include details of everyday life that biographers never bother to mention. At boarding school he collects stamps, eats lobster and sardines, and at age eleven drinks sherry, port, and claret. He struggles in his first years as a doctor, at one point even lacking funds for a stamp to send a letter, and sometimes asks his mother for money.
Although he created the world's most famous scientific detective, Conan Doyle didn't care for the language of science. Before entering Edinburgh University he writes that it was "a very great consolation to know that I will never more need mathematics. Classics I like, and I shall always try to keep up my knowledge of them, but mathematics of every sort I detest and abhor." It's no surprise that he frequently makes errors with numbers in his Holmes tales, or that Professor Moriarty, his most famous villain, is a mathematician.
Conan Doyle's letters also clarify events that many biographers tend to gloss over, such as the death of his son Kingsley and his brother Innes at the end of the First World War. It's often stated that their deaths drove him to embrace Spiritualism. In actuality he discusses Spiritualism in letters with both Kingsley and Innes, and publicly declares his beliefs more than a year before the end of the war.
Some letters contain new information about the Sherlock Holmes stories. One significant revelation is that his first two Holmes tales drew the attention of the Lord Chief Justice of England and an internationally recognized Scottish physician. Their admiration showed Conan Doyle that there was potential in the Holmes tales even if they had yet to be very successful. Thus encouraged, a few months later he began the Holmes short stories which brought him fame and fortune.
In other letters his ambivalent feelings towards Sherlock Holmes stand in sharp contrast to his typical enthusiasms. He views the Holmes tales rather unemotionally, recognizing their monetary value more than their literary merit. Yet he retains his pride of authorship and strives to make them as good as possible.
There are some gaps in the events covered by the letters. The editors typically fill these gaps with excerpts from Sir Arthur's hard-to-find autobiography. This maintains the narrative flow in Conan Doyle's characteristic style and broadens the book's appeal for a wider audience.
Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that a book of letters could be so interesting and engaging. I'd expected it to be a rather dry and academic work more suitable for reference than reading straight through. Instead the editors selected and presented the letters in a way to encourage the ordinary reader. Footnotes are kept to a minimum. Annotations and commentary blend in smoothly with the letters, adding to a reader's knowledge but not distracting from Conan Doyle's narrative.
As the first and only book of Conan Doyle's private letters, libraries will find this to be an essential resource that complements their holdings about the author. Anyone doing research on Conan Doyle or Sherlock Holmes will want to consult this volume. Students doing book reports on a Conan Doyle biography can compare the biographer's statements with Conan Doyle's actual words, in context, in his private correspondence.
These letters add a new and more human dimension to the depictions found in his biographies. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters provides a very personal, intimate, and unvarnished portrait of the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
The Conan Doyle letters FAQ includes more details about the book and letters, as well as reading recommendations and facts about the British and American editions.
The News & Press Reports section has links to other reviews.
The editors are well-known Conan Doyle experts. Jon Lellenberg, U.S. agent for the family's Conan Doyle Estate Ltd., has written about Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes for more than 30 years. Some of his books include The Quest for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a study of how his life has been treated biographically), Nova 57 Minor (the story behind the supposed Sixty-First Adventure of Sherlock Holmes), and six volumes of The Baker Street Irregulars History series (including Mid-Forties, Late Forties).
Daniel Stashower is a two-time Edgar Award-winning author who wrote Teller of Tales, a widely praised biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Some of his other recent books include The Beautiful Cigar Girl and The Boy Genius and the Mogul: The Untold Story of Television.
Charles Foley is the great-nephew of Arthur Conan Doyle and the executor of the Conan Doyle Estate.
You can listen to online audio interviews with the editors in the Book Talk section.
Jon Lellenberg offers this inside look at Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters
Arthur Conan Doyle's father, Charles Altamont Doyle, came from a family of artists and was one himself. As a young man in the 1850s, he went from London to Edinburgh to take a position with its Office of Works. There he met and married Mary Foley, an Irish girl only seventeen years old. They began to build a large family, but Charles Doyle also began to fall prey to alcohol, and more and more the burden of raising the children fell on his wife—entirely upon her, eventually. As Charles lost his livelihood in the 1870s, and then in 1881 entered the first of the sanatoria and asylums where he would spend the rest of his life, it was she who held the family together, and raised the five girls and two boys.
Mary Foley Doyle was diminutive in stature, but strong in personality, and she was better educated than women tended to be in Victorian Britain. She spoke French (and taught it to the children), did heraldry for a hobby, was greatly interested in genealogy and history, and passed a talent for story-telling on to her oldest son, Arthur, upon whom her hopes for the family's future rested. Arthur Conan Doyle, born May 22, 1859, had a very close relationship with his mother, to her death on December 30, 1920. He admired her greatly and she was his principal confidant. When he went away to boarding school in 1867, he started writing the frequent letters that continued for fifty-four years.
This book draws from over a thousand of his letters to her, and from his letters to other family members as well, touching on everything that happened in his eventful life. They were among papers of his that were locked away for over fifty years because of family disagreements about their disposition. They finally came to Conan Doyle's last child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle (Lady Bromet), not long before her death in November 1997, and were left by her to the British Library.
Putting this book together was a serious challenge, even though Jon Lellenberg and Dan Stashower had both done books about Conan Doyle's life before, and Charles Foley is the author's grand-nephew. Of the more than a thousand letters, over ninety percent of them are undated, and getting them into chronological order, based on the stationeries, handwriting, return addresses, and internal evidence, was a great and protracted struggle. (Conan Doyle's "clear as print" writing that so impressed his longtime Strand Magazine editor, H. Greenhough Smith, is actually seldom in evidence in the letters. Instead, Conan Doyle repeatedly employs the phrase "excuse scrawl.")
Finally the work of getting the letters into chronological order was followed by the writing of an interconnective narrative, since only a few of his mother's vivid, sometimes heated letters have survived. (When she argues passionately, but unsuccessfully, against his serving in the Boer War, however, her forceful personality stands out unforgettably.) The final result makes this book read like a far more candid autobiography than the one that Conan Doyle actually published in the 1920s, Memories and Adventures—which was long on the adventures, but rather guarded where memories were concerned. For the first time now, the reader may peer directly into the mind of the man who created Sherlock Holmes, and did so much more besides.
And they are wonderful letters—full of charm and humor, with a pervading sense of optimism even when things look blackest for Conan Doyle. For example, he had a very difficult time getting a medical practice of his own going at the age of only twenty-three, barely earning enough to furnish some of the rooms in the house he rented, and to feed himself and his younger brother Innes, who came to live with him. (A diary kept by ten-year-old Innes in 1882 speaks of having only potatoes for dinner one night, and them "the last six potatoes we had in this world.") Simultaneously, Conan Doyle also had a hard time getting started as a writer, mourning that "literature is a hard oyster to open." But his spirits never flagged for long, and his letters home about his struggles and adventures are so upbeat and entertaining that they could have been written by P. G. Wodehouse.
In the course of putting Conan Doyle's letters into chronological order, and researching countless references in them, the editors found themselves making new discoveries every day that were in addition to, and even in contradiction of, the existing knowledge about Conan Doyle's life and career. One discovery was Conan Doyle's only known example of advertising copywriting, written for a life insurance company when he was struggling as a young doctor. Another discovery was a hitherto unknown talk that Conan Doyle gave in the years of his great success, a humorous look at the use and abuse of medicine in fiction, even by M.D.s like himself —telling his mother afterwards that "My speech last Tuesday before the Prince of Wales and 400 medicos was the most successful of my life." Both will be published for the first time in this book.
Sherlock Holmes cognoscenti will recognize many incidents in these letters of Conan Doyle's as the origins of intriguing things in his Sherlock Holmes stories. For example, when Arthur, fourteen years old at the time, reports from school of visiting Wombwell's Menagerie and seeing "the largest rat ever caught, it was found in the Liverpool docks, it was about the size of a small bulldog," they will recognize the origin of "the giant rat of Sumatra, a story," Holmes told Dr. Watson, "for which the world is not yet prepared." A story for which the world is finally prepared to hear, on the other hand, is what happened in October 1890 to make Conan Doyle resurrect Sherlock Holmes in short-stories when his two earlier Holmes tales, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four, had been failures, causing him to turn, much more successfully, to writing historical novels instead.
A set of the research and production materials for this book has been donated by co-editor Jon Lellenberg to the Newberry Library, Chicago's independent humanities research library, to become part of the C. Frederick Kittle Collection of Doyleana there. For information, contact Jon Lellenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or Newberry curator Martha Briggs at email@example.com.
More background from Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower is available in the Book Talk section.
Frequently Asked Questions
A separate letters of Conan Doyle FAQ page covers a number of topics, including:
- Details about the book and letters
- Other biographies and recommendations
- British and American editions
Podcasts and streaming audio let you listen to reports and interviews about A Life in Letters.
Conan Doyle speaks about creating Sherlock Holmes
The British Library Sound Archive has an 8-minute recording of Conan Doyle, and provides a streaming online 2-minute excerpt of this actual recording of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking about Sherlock Holmes. If this link does not work for you, try searching for "NP3794" in the BL Sound Catalogue, and then click the Details button for his Sherlock Holmes talk. That catalogue detail page gives links to Electronic Access to listen to the recording.
Book Critic Maureen Corrigan on National Public Radio
Fresh Air from WHYY, December 12, 2007
Holiday Books Picks from Maureen Corrigan
Corrigan quotes from a letter and praises the way the book conveys everyday-life in the late nineteenth century
Her review lasts about three minutes and is at the beginning of the six-minute online audio segment.
Click the "Listen Now" link on the Book Reviews summary page
Co-editor Daniel Stashower on National Public Radio
Dan's interview on the Diane Rehm Show aired at 11am Eastern on 19 November 2007.
It was produced at WAMU 88.5FM and distributed by NPR, NPR Worldwide, and SIRIUS satellite radio.
The interview lasts about 50 minutes and includes questions from callers to the show. It has discussions of:
- The origins of Sherlock Holmes
- Doyle's relationship with his mother & his Boer War service
- Doyle's two wives
- Doyle and Houdini
- Doyle and Spiritualism
For a CD, transcript, and other program details see
Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower on the "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere" Podcast
Jon and Dan are interviewed by Scott Monty and Burt Wolder in this 9 November 2007 podcast.
It's part of an excellent series from Scott and Burt on "I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere."
The interview lasts about 50 minutes and ends with a BSJ editorial on John Dickson Carr's biography of ACD.
Right-click the following link and choose "Save As" to download the interview in MP3 format (File size: 51.7 MB).
For some of the topics covered in the interview, see the episode page at:
Book of the Week
BBC Radio 4, 24-28 September 2007
BBC Radio 4 made A Life in Letters its Book of the Week Selection and provided five 15-minute readings from it by Forbes Masson and John Dougal. The readings cover the period from when Conan Doyle was a young struggling writer to when he got his knighthood. Unfortunately these audio recordings are no longer available online, but there is a program summary at:
You can see a one-sentence summary for each day's 09:45 reading starting at:
Click the "next day" link to see the reading for each following day
The Book of the Week page (which no longer has any Conan Doyle information) is at:
Heard any good books recently? Our hands-free catalogue…by Kate Hyde
HarperPress Blog (5th Estate), 16 April 2007
Listen to a 1-minute MP3 podcast of a HarperPress editor discussing the book and what about it appeals to her
Reviews are preceded by an asterisk. Unless noted, online reports were available free to the public when originally posted. Some websites may remove online articles or charge for accessing older items. See also Book Talk for online audio interviews about the book.
Edgar award for A Life in Letters as best critical / biographical book of the year by the Mystery Writers of America
Agatha award for best non-fiction book of the year by Malice Domestic
* English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 Vol. 53, No. 2 (2010), pp. 226-229
Conan Doyle: Private Letters by Justin Sausman
An extended, well-informed and balanced review, noting that it sheds light on Conan Doyle's family life
(Full text online requires subscription)
Bouchercon 2008 Blog, October 13, 2008
Good Bye, Farewell (2008 Anthony Award Winners) by Ruth Jordan
Publishers Weekly, October 13, 2008
Murder and Mayhem in Baltimore by Jordan Foster
Mentions the Bouchercon Anthony Award
Bouchercon 2008 Blog, June 1, 2008
The 2008 Anthony Award Nominations by Ruth Jordan
Mystery Readers International
Macavity Award nomination for Best Mystery Non-Fiction
PRNewswire-USNewswire, May 1, 2008
Mystery Writers of America Announces the 2008 Edgar Award Winners
* The Washington Post, January 27, 2008; pg. BW09
Beyond Baker Street by Michael Sims
Sims feels the letters " bring the era to life" though they present somewhat of an "idealized self-portrait."
* The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 20, 2008
More Doyle, yet still unsated by Edward Pettit
Pettit loved the detail of the letters and enjoyed reading the book, yet remains more a Sherlockian than a Doylean.
PRNewswire, January 18, 2008
Mystery Writers of America Announces 2008 Edgar Award Nominees
A Life in Letters is nominated in the Best Critical/Biographical category. Winners to be announced May 1.
* The New York Times, December 30, 2007
One-Hit Wonder by Jeremy McCarter
McCarter says "some of the letters are compelling" but complains too many are to his mother and about mundane topics.
See the December 16 Washington Times review below for another perspective.
* The Washington Times, December 16, 2007
A. Conan Doyle by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers
Rodgers calls it an "engaging and vivid portrait" that "showcases Doyle as a tireless and charming correspondent."
* The Dallas Morning News, December 16, 2007
Biography: You know the supersleuth; now meet the man who created him by Bryan Woolley
Wooley mentions some concerns but calls ACD a "lively and engaging writer" and says even a tepid Sherlockian will enjoy the book.
* The Daily Mail, December 14, 2007
Their egos have landed: Round-Up: Diaries & Letters by Peter Lewis
A brief overview that calls ACD "a clean, decent, outdoor sportsman of prodigious energy and boyish optimism."
* Fresh Air from WHYY on National Public Radio, December 12, 2007
Holiday Books Picks from Critic Maureen Corrigan
Click the "Listen Now" link on the Book Reviews summary page
* The Wall Street Journal, December 8, 2007 (pg. W12)
Sir Arthur Conundrum Doyle by David Propson
Propson notes that the letters "capture as no biography can certain qualities of the man's personality."
The Telegraph, 24 November 2007
Christmas books: Letters and essays by Helen Brown
Brown's thumbnail sketch says ACD is "solid, dependable, sentimental, patriotic and rather credulous."
* Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2007
'Arthur Conan Doyle' and 'The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes' by Leslie S. Klinger
Klinger praises the "immense amount of detail about his life" but thinks that ACD reveals little of his inner feelings.
http://www.calendarlive.com/books/bookreview/cl-bk-klinger25nov25,0,770551.story?coll=cl-bookreview (not available 5/5/08)
Evening Standard. London, November 19, 2007. pg. 1
From shopping to Tolstoy - the best books of the year by Ian Thomson
Thomson selects A Life in Letters as one of the best books of the year.
(Online requires subscription at: http://standardonline.newspaperdirect.com/epaper/viewer.aspx)
* San Jose Mercury News, November 18, 2007
* Ottawa Recorder, 08 November, 2007
'Life in Letters' offers fuzzy picture of Doyle by F.N. D'Alessio
Not much about Holmes in Doyle book by F.N. D'Alessio
Associated Press reviews of the book. These are syndicated to many other websites. San Jose reprints the longer one.
Try web searches for "Cottingley Fairies" and the editor names to locate this on other websites.
The Daily Mail, 7 November 2007
Adultery, my dear Watson: Writer betrayed his dying wife with younger lover
The article goes over Conan Doyle's life, highlights his wives, and includes some pictures.
The Times Literary Supplement, November 7, 2007
The ghosts of Arthur Conan Doyle by Dinah Birch
A Professor of English Literature examines Conan Doyle's life in much greater depth than most reviews.
It only mentions the book in passing but is worth reading for the broader perspective.
* The Independent, November 2, 2007 (pg. 24)
So much more than elementary by Andrew Taylor
Taylor says the book provides "an unusually intimate glimpse of the private man"
* Suite101.com, October 30, 2007
[Review] by Kate Pullen
Pullen provides a basic summary of the book and says it "would be interesting reading for book clubs."
City Journal, Autumn 2007 issue
Thursday, October 18, 2007
An Anglosphere Future by Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens describes A Life in Letters as "extraordinary" in an article about Anglo-American relations.
* Time Magazine, Thursday, October 11, 2007
Mystery Man by David Worth
Worth offers a descriptive review of A Life in Letters noting the candid and personal aspect of Conan Doyle's letters.
* The Financial Times, October 6, 2007 01:32
Arthur Conan Doyle review by Ian Thomson
Thomson calls it a "plum pudding of a book" and says it "sheds new light on the writer’s work and inner life."
May require registration to view
* The District Messenger, no. 276, 5 October 2007
[Review] by Roger Johnson
Johnson says that to get "the feeling of immediate contact" with Conan Doyle "you must — and you should" read this book.
http://www.sherlock-holmes.org.uk/pdf/DM276.pdf [note: requires Acrobat or PDF viewer]
* The Economist, October 4, 2007
Arthur Conan Doyle - A Man Divided
This reviewer offers a mixed opinion on the book, disliking the presentation while noting it "does convey an almost physical presence" of Conan Doyle.
* Scuttlebutt from the Spermaceti Press, September 2007 page #6
["Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters is a delightful book"...] by Peter Blau
Blau says "the letters offer an excellent picture of his [ACD's] imagination, humor, and energy" in this capsule review.
BBC Radio 4, 24-28 September 2007
Book of the Week
See the Book Talk section for information on readings from the book.
* Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2007
Arthur Conan Doyle [review]
The reviewer thinks the book's main appeal is that it provides "an affecting self-portrait" that reflects the personality embodied in Dr. Watson.
http://www.kirkusreviews.com/kirkusreviews/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003636383 [subscription only]
Washington Post, Sunday, September 9, 2007 (Book World p. T8)
Fall Preview: The Most Anticipated Books of the Season
In the Letters and Essays category, it calls the book a potential "literary milestone."
* Publishers Weekly, 13 August 2007 (p.52)
Nonfiction Reviews: Week of 8/13/2007
Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters earns an enthusiastic "Starred Review" in this Publishers Weekly capsule review
Publishers Weekly, 13 August 2007
Epistolary, My Dear Watson by Leonard Picker
A short interview with co-editor Charles Foley, great-nephew of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Conan Doyle's Lost First Novel: The Narrative of John Smith co-edited by Lellenberg and Stashower
Vers. 1.80bx Original work