Global Conan Doyle - Launching the Edinburgh Works

Brian Wang presents on early Chinese pastiches at the symposium (Photo by Anne Schwan)

On 25th April 2024, the Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Arthur Conan Doyle was officially launched in Conan Doyle's alma mater. Mark Jones reports on the event and the following day's 'Global Conan Doyle' symposium. 

On Doings of Doyle, we often express our hope that Conan Doyle should receive his due credit as one of the most important writers of his generation and not just one of the most popular. This feeling is amply shared by the editorial team of the Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Arthur Conan Doyle (hereafter ‘Edinburgh Works’ in preference to the ungainly ‘EEWACD’!) who, two years ago, began issuing new critical editions of the author’s most significant works. Last week, the series was officially launched in Conan Doyle’s hometown, and followed by a Global Conan Doyle symposium which brought together a small group of editors, scholars and one grateful interloper to explore Conan Doyle’s life and legacy.

Conan Doyle in 1924

Douglas Kerr launches
the series (Photo by
Anne Schwan)
The official launch took place at 50 George Square, now part of the University of Edinburgh, and a stone’s throw from the house in which the Doyle family lived between 1877 and 1881. Those early years were a troubled time in Conan Doyle’s life, with little to suggest the success that was to come. Four decades later, in 1924, Conan Doyle would find himself reflecting on a life which “for variety and romance, could… hardly be exceeded” in his autobiography Memories and Adventures, the first volume in the Edinburgh Works series.

Launching the series, General Editor Douglas Kerr set our minds back to 1924 to put Conan Doyle’s life and literary work in context. It was a typically busy year for Conan Doyle: alongside the publication of his autobiography, he wrote the third Challenger novel and spiritualist prospectus The Land of Mist, arranged a retrospective of the artistic output of his father, conducted an early radio broadcast for the BBC, and still found time to win the Authors’ Club billiards championship. Kerr argued that one would be hard pressed to find an author with the range of works, activities, and interests to rival Conan Doyle.

Jonathan Cranfield, who edited the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and is now tackling the Case-Book, looked at Conan Doyle’s Sherlockian output in 1924. The three stories published in 1924 (The Sussex Vampire, The Three Garridebs and The Illustrious Client) mark a “Victorian twilight” for the Great Detective in which he is shown to have reached his peak and is entering a steady decline. Drawing parallels between the two collections he has edited, Cranfield argued that the preoccupations of the young, successful author that are reflected in the Memoirs are replaced by an air of decay and pessimism in the Case-Book, in which Sherlock Holmes is already becoming a figure of cultural nostalgia.

Roger Luckhurst took us back a further thirty years to the peak of Conan Doyle’s literary and commercial powers, and to a rare time when the author found himself out of step with popular opinion. In his edition of Round the Red Lamp, Luckhurst explores Conan Doyle’s controversial experiments with naturalism which saw him lambasted by the press and the medical profession he had only recently left. A peculiar volume that blends social realism with Gothic horror, the collection seems to pull in opposite directions, leading to a discussion of how far Conan Doyle could be said to have been, even briefly, on the side of the modernists.

Christine Ferguson on the two scandals that influenced The Land of Mist
(Photo by Mark Jones)

In 1924, Conan Doyle once again found himself out of kilter with popular opinion and facing a crisis in the spiritualist movement. Christine Ferguson argued that Conan Doyle’s 1924 novel The Land of Mist was a response to a crisis of Conan Doyle’s own making – the Cottingley Fairies incident which tarred spiritualism by association – and moral outrage at the occultist Aleister Crowley. While Crowley and Conan Doyle never met, the two were condemned as a pair in the pages of John Bull, the populist right-wing rag edited by doomed Liberal MP Horatio Bottomley. Ferguson compellingly argued that, with his arguments failing to convince the public of spiritualism, Conan Doyle fell back on his powers of fiction to make his case.

The Great-ish Detective

With three volumes now in print, The Edinburgh Works series is not just a reflection of a flourishing scholarly interest in Conan Doyle, but also a spur to new scholarship in all aspects of Conan Doyle’s life, work and impact. This was amply demonstrated and celebrated on the second day of the launch event at the Global Conan Doyle symposium, held at Edinburgh Napier University.

Douglas Kerr opening the synposium on 26 April 2024
(Photo by Mark Jones)

No Conan Doyle symposium would be complete without Sherlock Holmes, and the Great Detective made an early appearance – in mutated form – in three excellent papers on early pastiche, parodies and translations. Işıl Baş from Istanbul Kultur University, Turkey, explored the fascinating story of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the despotic ‘Red Sultan’, whose love of the Canon was used against him by political dissident Yervant Odyan, author of a pastiche in which Holmes sides with young Turkish radicals to uncover murders at the hands of the Sultan’s spies. While scholars have tended to view the detective novel as a social palliative in which order resolves chaos, Baş demonstrated how Odyan used Holmes to promote disorder and defy convention.

Croatian Holmes stories found by
Antonija Primorac (Photo by Mark Jones)
This superhero version of Holmes – light on deduction and heavy on action – was even more evident in early Croatian pastiches of the Holmes stories discovered by Antonija Primorac from the University of Rijeka, Croatia. Setting out to track down the first Croatian translation, Primorac discovered a wealth of lurid Holmes tales and, through her own brilliant detective work, deduced that many were translations of early German works, falsely attributed to Conan Doyle. The appropriated Holmes was soon engaged in increasingly outlandish tales and far from his detective roots. The immense popularity of these ‘pseudo-translations’ raises questions about the lasting popularity of Sherlock Holmes and how far it can be attributed solely to Conan Doyle.

The session was rounded out by an eye-opening paper from Brian Wang of Yokohama National University, Japan, who surveyed early Chinese translations of the Holmes stories and pastiches that propelled Holmes to Shanghai and cast him in a far less flattering light. Published in the first two decades of the twentieth century during a post-Qing period of Chinese national pride, Holmes was portrayed as a “fish out of water,” his deductive skills leading him to false conclusions and increasingly tricky situations (such as ‘The Naked Detective’ in which Holmes’s clothes are stolen …). Holmes becomes a figure of fun and a symbol of the failure of the West, while the stories themselves show new China’s ambivalent attitude towards modernity.


The keynote was delivered by Shafquat Towheed from the Open University, UK, whose excellent Broadview edition of The Sign of Four is a must for any Doylean. Towheed’s work seeks to place The Sign of Four in multiple colonial contexts, and here he focused on Conan Doyle’s depiction of the Andaman Islands and islanders. While remote, the islands were very familiar to late Victorian domestic audiences, having been appropriated as a British penal colony in 1789, abandoned, and then re-established in the wake of the Indian Mutiny. J. P. Walker, the governor of Andamans, based the colony’s regime on that of Agra where he had previously served. The settlement reached its peak in the 1890s when, with 12,000 convicts, it became the largest penal colony in the British Empire. A topic of frequent correspondence in the national press, including claims of drunkenness and obscenity, Conan Doyle internalised press reports, adapting specific incidents for Jonathan Small’s back story.

Shafquat Towheed discusses the Portman photograph that graces the cover of his 
 edition of The Sign of Four (Photo by Mark Jones)

The Andaman islanders were the subject of intense anthropological study which would have been familiar to Conan Doyle and his contemporaries and which reinforced views of White superiority. Towheed showed how British museums acquired an immense volume and range of Andaman artefacts in the 1870s and 1880s, with the Pitt-Rivers in Oxford holding a 142-page index of Andaman objects. Governor Maurice Vidal Portman “catalogued” the dwindling population (dwindling as a consequence of syphilis, imported by the British) as he sought to “save” the islanders who were driven to servitude, in a mirror of Small and Tonga. Portman’s many chilling photographs can be accessed in the British Museum, one of which graces the cover of Towheed’s edition of Sign.

Towheed’s lecture raises difficult issues for Conan Doyle scholars, who struggle to balance the author’s opposition to racial prejudice with his clear use of stereotypes in both his depiction of Tonga and Jonathan Small’s history. Whether this was an exotic embellishment or something more sinister was a theme we would return to throughout the symposium.

Beyond the sea

The third session focused on global connections within the works of Conan Doyle. Rosario Arias from the University of Malaga, Spain, opened the talks with a paper on Conan Doyle’s psychic vampire, Miss Penclosa, the mesmerist from Trinidad in The Parasite. Arias showed how Penclosa subverts gender roles, being female and predatory, and reflects the invasion and contamination narratives of late Victorian gothic fictions such as Dracula. Arias compared Penclosa with psychic vampires in Spanish literature, such as those in the works of Emilia Pardo Bazan, which the added the dimension of Spanish folk beliefs.

James Machin of Birkbeck University and the Royal College of Art, UK, explored the American connections in The Stark Munro Letters, the volume he has just concluded editing for the Edinburgh Works series. Machin explored how the foil of an American correspondent allowed Conan Doyle to hold a mirror to and challenge ideas and religious beliefs well established in Britain. Stark Munro demonstrates Conan Doyle’s early Christian-spiritualist ideas, his argument for “intelligent design” and rejection of atheism, and his ambition for a global Anglophone spiritualist union far before he would make these points explicit in the post-War period.

Oceanic journeys in Pole-star and Other Tales
(Photo by Mark Jones)
The last paper in this session was given by Emily Alder of Edinburgh Napier University, UK, who explored the many oceanic journeys, real and implied, in The Captain of the Pole-Star and Other Tales. Taking a ‘blue humanities’ approach, which recognises the relationship between modern Western culture and the sea, Alder explored the use of the ocean as both a metaphor and as a provider of narrative drive throughout the collection. In addition to the title story, Alder looked at ‘The Man for Archangel’, ‘John Barrington Cowles’ and even references in ‘The Great Keinplatz Experiment’ to show how Conan Doyle’s collection draws on the connection to the sea, even in the most unlikely of places.


Southport sands doubles for Utah
in A Study in Scarlet (d. George Pearson, 1914)
The penultimate session returned to some of the themes raised in Towheed’s paper, with a look at the Mormons and Jews as depicted in Conan Doyle’s works. Anne Schwan from Edinburgh Napier University, UK, argued that A Study in Scarlet, while reinforcing commonly held popular views of the Danites, also offers a more nuanced view of Mormonism if one reads deeper. The predatory behaviour of Drebber and Stangerson in London occurs when they are no longer members of the Mormons, suggesting that the worst excesses of the sect may actually be a reflection of individuals.

Clifford Goldfarb, Chairman of the Friends of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection at the Toronto Reference Library, Canada, explored the depiction of Jewish characters in Rodney Stone, the novel he is editing for the Edinburgh Works. While the majority of references are to Jewish boxers, notably Daniel Mendoza who famously sparred with Lord Byron, there are other more disparaging depictions here and elsewhere in Conan Doyle’s work. Goldfarb explored these, Conan Doyle’s association with the Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, and his views on the practical difficulties of establishing a Jewish homeland and concluded the author was not antisemitic, but traded on contemporary stereotypes.

Lost Boys of the Empire

The final papers explored two of Conan Doyle’s most celebrated adventure stories and his conflicted views of Empire. Simon James of Durham University, UK, argued that The Lost World shows Conan Doyle’s desire to set the clock back. The author shows male friendships to be the counter to the threat of the new woman, with Ed Malone redeemed by growing out of his infatuation with Gladys and finding solace in the companionship of Roxton and others. Conan Doyle’s celebration of masculinity is a tacit acceptance of Imperial decline and even degeneration which accelerated following the humiliation of the Boer Wars.

Male friendships were the focus of Simon James' paper on The Lost World

Switching focus to the earlier Sudan campaign, Douglas Kerr explored Conan Doyle’s depiction of the “good native” Tippy Tilly in The Tragedy of the Korosko. Kerr showed how the story was closely imbricated in contemporary events, being written while the Sudan campaign was unfolding, which perhaps boosted the story’s appeal. Tippy Tilly is shown to be resourceful, brave and, above all, loyal to the Europeans, but despite playing a pivotal role in the story, his heroism is reported and not seen. By reimagining Tippy Tilly as a foreground character, Kerr was able to give the character agency that is otherwise not apparent.

Shafquat Towheed giving the symposium's keynote (Photo by Anne Schwan)

The symposium offered a rich and diverse exploration of Conan Doyle's global legacy, both as a writer and public figure, with papers and talks that amply demonstrated the enduring relevance and appeal of his work across different genres, media, and cultures. By examining his work from multiple perspectives, the speakers highlighted the complexity and contradictions of Conan Doyle's world view, as well as the opportunities and challenges of studying his work in a global context. One hopes this is only the start, and more scholarship of this diversity and quality will follow.

Mark Jones
3 May 2024