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Sir Arthur Conan  Doyle Locked Room

SH Conan_doyleThe role played by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes stories in the developments of the mystery genre should never be underrated. Sherlock still remains the most popular and iconic detective of all times, with a canon of detective fiction that has not only enthralled several generations of fans, but has also made real contributions to modern criminology.

I must begin by admitting that I have long been a serious fan of all things Sherlock! I began watching Holmes and Watson on TV when I was about eight years old, in those old serialized episodes, starring Basil Rathbone. By my mid-teens, I had devoured the entire Sherlock canon. There is, quite simply, no detective in literary history that has had a greater impact on our culture than Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is ubiquitous. The list of references in various media, is truly astounding, and simple quotes, such as “Elementary, my dear Watson”, have become universally recognized, in a manner only surpassed by Shakespeare. Though the roots of literary detection go back at least half a century before Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and include such illustrious characters as Edgar Allan Poe’s, Dupin, and Emile Gaboriau’s, Lecoq, right from the beginning, the Sherlock Holmes stories were in a class of their own. Holmes even notes in ‘A Study in Scarlet’: “Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine…. Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” he said, in an angry voice; “he had only one thing to recommend him, and that was his energy. That book made me positively ill.”

Today, more than 100 million Sherlock Holmes books have been sold, though since it was written before 1923 and is now in the public domain, an accurate total is virtually impossible to compile. Current sales still average around 50,000 copies a year, but that does not include free internet downloads. It has also resulted in a truly amazing number of movies, TV episodes, radio programs, theatrical performances, comic books, dedicated internet websites, video games, board games, and nearly everything else you might imagine. The Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b Baker Street in London passed two million visitors several years ago – at £10 a shot! Conan Doyle may not have sold as many books as Agatha Christie, but with only four short novels and six collections, totalling 56 short stories, often marketed in a single volume, against Christie’s 66 novels, and 153 short stories, this comparison is hardly surprising. While not the first or largest mystery franchise, there can still be little doubt that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes virtually created the modern mystery genre, opening up a door for all those great writers that would soon follow.

Conan Doyle was also one of the first to experiment with the locked room format, incorporating it in into one novel and four short stories. 

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Conan Doyle Locked Room Novels

Valley of FearThe Valley of Fear (1914)
Series: Sherlock Holmes



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Available in paperback, ebook, and audible editions. Various film, radio and TV adaptations. Check out these great low cost editions, often with the original illustrations.

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Note: A long tale that begins with a locked room mystery!

The plot of the novel is loosely based on the real-life adventures of the Molly Maguires and, particularly, of Pinkerton agent James McParland. The novel is divided into two parts. In the first, a man has been brutally murdered by an intruder inside the locked and moated manor house of Birlstone, and only Sherlock Holmes can read the clues to this seemingly impossible mystery. In the second part, the long American back story behind this gruesome murder is finally explained.

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Conan Doyle Locked Room Short Stories

Habakuk StatementJ. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement (1884)
Series: Sea Stories
Collection: The Dealing of Captain Sharkey and Other Tales of Pirates

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Note: Conan Doyle’s version of the ‘Mary Celeste’

In 1872 the Mary Celeste set sail from New York, bound for Genoa and, in large part because of this short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it soon became a legend. “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” purported to be an eye-witness account of the gruesome end met by those aboard this mysterious “ghost ship.” When it was published in Cornhill Magazine in 1883, many found it so convincing that the British and American governments responded with formal denials and official investigations. All this was something of a jumpstart for Conan Doyle’s literary career, as this was his first appearance in the literary spotlight, and where his adventure tales in Boy’s Own Paper, and the like, had fetched 3-4 guineas, this one sold for 29. Though it was published anonymously, many of those who knew it to be literature, and not fact, assumed that the author was Robert Louis Stevenson, while other critics compared it to Edgar Allan Poe.

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Adventures of Sherlock FreeThe Speckled Band (1892)
Series: Sherlock Holmes
Collection: Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


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Note: One of the best locked room tales of all time!

Helen Stoner consults Sherlock Holmes about the death of her twin sister, Julia, who died just before her wedding, crying that: “It was the Speckled Band!” Holmes must investigate their mother’s estate, now under the control of the unpleasant Dr. Roylott, Helen’s stepfather, who allows gypsies to camp on the property, and has both a cheetah and a baboon running amok in the grounds. But can Helen be believed? Is Dr Roycroft as bad as he seems? And can the spotted handkerchiefs worn about the necks of the gypsies really be a coincidence? 

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terror-mysteryThe Lost Special (1898)
Series: Sherlock Homes (Not named)
Collection: ‘Tales of Terror and Mystery’ 


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Note: Often missing from Sherlock collections

This story concerns the baffling disappearance of a privately hired train (a special) on its journey from Liverpool to London on 3 June 1890; besides the train crew, consisting of driver, fireman, and train guard, the only passengers are two South Americans. The train is confirmed to have passed Kenyon Junction but never have reached Barton Moss. The only clues are the dead body of the engineer found along the train tracks, just past Kenyon Junction, and a letter from the United States that purports to come from one of the missing train crewmen. Incredibly, authorities fail to discover any trace of the train, until an anonymous letter to The Times by “an amateur reasoner of some celebrity at that date” finally cracks the case. The style of the letter clearly suggests that the author is Sherlock Holmes, but it is never directly stated. The story was published in book form in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘Tales of Terror and Mystery’ in 1923 and has for years appeared in French editions of the complete adventures.

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Return HolmesThe Adventure of The Empty House (1903)
Series: Sherlock Holmes
Collection: The Return of Sherlock Holmes


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Note: The mysterious case of Ronald Adair

In April 1894, Watson (now a widower) passes by 427 Park Lane where a young gambler, the Honorable Ronald Adair, was recently shot to death inside a locked room. He bumps into a wizened old book collector, who follows him home to his Kensington practice study then drops his disguise – it is Holmes. Holmes apologizes for the deception needed to outwit his enemies, and describes his adventures during the past three years, since his presumed demise at Reichenbach Falls. 

Holmes is convinced that Adair was actually killed by Colonel Sebastian Moran, a surviving lieutenant of Moriarty, and he has set a cunning trap to catch the killer and solve this impossible crime. 

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SH casebook sherlock-holmes doyleThe Problem of Thor Bridge (1922)
Series: Sherlock Holmes
Collection: The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes


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Note: A locked room solution to a simple case of murder

Neil Gibson, the Gold King and a former US Senator, asks Holmes to investigate the murder of his wife Maria in order to clear the family governess, Grace Dunbar, who has been charged with the crime. Holmes discovers that Gibson’s marriage had been unhappy. He had fallen in love with her in Brazil, only to later discover that they shared no common interests. He admits he was attracted to Miss Dunbar, but could not divorce his wife. 

This provided an excellent motive when Maria Gibson was found lying in a pool of blood on Thor Bridge with a bullet through her head and a note from the governess, setting a meeting on the bridge, still in her hand. The discharged revolver was later found in Miss Dunbar’s wardrobe. Holmes agrees to look at the situation in spite of the damning evidence.

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