Doyle’s World―Lost & Found: The Unknown Histories of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Image of Doyle’s World―Lost & Found: The Unknown Histories of Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Release Date: 
November 7, 2023
Square One
Reviewed by: 

Doyle’s World―Lost & Found attempts what is perhaps impossible: to shed new light and offer a fresh perspective on the oft-written about fictitious consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Yet, try the authors do. The father-son duo of Eugene Friedman and Daniel Friedman, both practicing pediatricians with undergraduate degrees in history, have written another book to illuminate the histories of Holmes and Doyle, crafting a sequel of sorts to their The Strange Case of Dr. Doyle: A Journey into Madness and Mayhem (2015), which examined Doyle's fascination with the Jack the Ripper serial murders in London. 

While ostensibly a biography of Doyle, Doyle’s World―Lost & Found is, in fact, much more. It is also an attempt to create the history of the influences on him for his famous literary creations, as well as his thought processes lurking underneath. It therefore “transcends mere biography and literary criticism.” The authors intentionally eschew from using any biographies or book written about Doyle after 1943, and instead rely on primary sources (letters, diaries, newspapers, magazines, first-hand accounts, autobiographical books). While the book focuses on Doyle’s literary career during the late 1800s and early 1900s, which were the years he devoted to writing his Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Doyle was more prolific than that. He wrote “plays, poems, editorials, science fiction stories, and historical novels.” Further, Doyle could be eccentric and had eclectic interests, including photography, politics, exploration, and spiritualism.

Doyle’s World―Lost & Found is divided into three parts. Part one, “Building a World,” is focused on Doyle’s childhood and early adult years, and how “those life-based incidents . . . led Doyle to create the Sherlock Holmes universe.” Much of this part of the book is therefore based around the common supposition that characters and events in an author’s book are, at least in part, a reflection of himself and experiences during his life. Consequently, the Friedmans concluded that Doyle inserted portions of his personality and early years into the characters of both Holmes and his partner, Dr. John Watson. The authors thus attempt to draw suggestive parallels between events and experiences in Doyle’s life and those that occur within his literary work.

In the five chapters comprising part one, the Friedmans explore seminal events in Doyle’s younger years that prompted his path toward becoming a storyteller, particularly his strict school years, his mother’s affair, and classmates like George Budd; several medical professionals and professors who likely influenced Doyle in the creation of his character of Sherlock Holmes (Dr. Joseph Bell, Dr. Henry Duncan Littlejohn, Dr. Robert Christison, Dr. William Rutherford, Dr. Thomas Laycock, and Dr. Thomas Richard Fraser); how an encounter aboard a steamer, the Mayumba, with John Henry Smyth (rather than Henry Highland Garnet, as often assumed), the African American Consul-General to Liberia, possibly influenced his perceptions of race issues and civil rights, which revealed themselves in such Holmes stories as “The Five Orange Pips” (1891), “The Adventure of the Cardboard Box” (1893), and “The Adventure of the Yellow Face” (1893); and how his struggling medical career gave way to a successful career as a writer (initially, just a hobby).

Part two, “Becoming a World,” provides “an in-depth examination of the myriad themes, strategies, and influences that Doyle was able to incorporate effortlessly into his work.” The Friedmans look at various sources of inspiration likely behind the character and methods of Sherlock Holmes, as Doyle “drew directly from factual elements of his life to adorn the multiple facets of his fiction.” While the Friedmans present these interpretations as undeniable “facts,” they are merely conjectures on their part supported by circumstantial (but often convincing) evidence. The authors also suggest Doyle subtly incorporated his own political, social, moral, and religious views into his Sherlock Holmes stories as a way to exert public commentary on contemporary issues.

Consequently, the Friedmans explore such topics as how fellow Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island possibly influenced the Sherlock Holmes novella, The Sign of Four (1890), and elements that influenced Doyle’s decision to both kill off and resurrect his fictitious detective. Doyle infamously crafted Holmes’s demise in “The Final Problem” (1893), in which the character plunged to his death from the cliffs of Reichenbach Falls in a struggle with his archnemesis, Professor Moriarty. As the authors note, Holmes was “a millstone around his neck that prevented [Doyle] . . . from receiving what he felt should be his due fame as a writer of erudite historical and biographical works.”

However, fan response prompted Doyle to bring Holmes back to life a decade later in “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903). In the story, we learn that Holmes, it turns out, had training in baritsu, “a Japanese system of wrestling” that enabled him to break free and avoid plunging to his death. However, no such thing as baritsu exists, so the authors trace the origins of where Doyle developed this fictitious way of retroactively saving his detective. The Friedmans also suggest that Doyle subtly placed references to the literary work of Grant Allen in the story to honor the writer, whom he befriended.

Doyle’s beliefs in spiritualism and esotericism, including his induction as a Freemason in Phoenix Lodge number 257 in 1887, and encounter with magician Harry Houdini, are also addressed.

The book concludes in part three, “Uncovering a Hidden World,” with a reprint of two stories attributed to Dr. Reginald Ratcliff Hoare, who was one of Doyle’s early mentors. The authors try exceedingly hard to prove through textual analysis that these mystery stories were instead composed by Doyle. The basic structure of part three is a general overview (a “backstory”), followed by a textual analysis section in which the authors lay out their case for why the stories should without doubt be attributed to Doyle, and then the stories themselves.

Largely a passion project, Doyle’s World―Lost & Found will appeal most to fellow enthusiasts of Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The book can sometimes feel disjointed because of its ambitious and eclectic nature, and part three is essentially an appendix to the preceding parts of the book. Nevertheless, it is still an engaging read. While some of the conjectures in Doyle’s World―Lost & Found fall flat, the majority have a strong aura of plausibility. Regardless of whether one agrees with every argument that the Friedmans attempt to make, following their case is always a pleasure and enjoying how they let their evidence unfold is part of the fun.