During a recent bout of infirmity, I turned for solace to the greatest storyteller of modern times, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).  If this sounds like excessive praise, I ask you—no, I defy you—to name his superior, or even his nearest rival, for that title.

Late in the Victorian era, Conan Doyle, a struggling physician, tried his hand at fiction.  He wrote a novella, A Study in Scarlet, featuring an eccentrically brilliant detective, narrated by the admiring doctor who shares rooms with him in London.  Sherlock Holmes was modeled on one of Conan Doyle’s teachers in medical school, a Dr. Joseph Bell, who’d had a knack for making startling deductions from tiny physical details of his patients’ appearance.

The book, first published in a London magazine in 1887, was not a great success.  But two years later, its sequel, The Sign of Four, proved the most sensationally popular piece of fiction since Dickens, and Holmes’ further adventures only increased the reading public’s ravenous appetite for him, which has never abated.

Even today, needless to say, Holmes has countless admirers, many of them obsessive.  He has had, and still has, a life of his own—in innumerable novels, movies, television productions, and, of course, imitators.  He has spawned the enormous genre of detective fiction, in spite of critical neglect and even contempt.

Conan Doyle himself, distressed that Holmes overshadowed his other fiction, tried to finish him off in “The Final Problem” in 1893, leaving him apparently dead.  The public was outraged.  But popular demand led the author to write a “posthumous” Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then to resume the stories on the pretext that Holmes wasn’t dead after all.

Plausible?  Of course not.  But none of the stories are.  Holmes’ deductions are so outlandish that only Watson could recount them with a straight face.  Conan Doyle’s sly humor always peaks when the detective sums up a package of impossibly outré “clues” and demands, “Well, Watson, what do you make of it?”  Watson’s infallibly befuddled attempts to explain them—the word “clueless” springs anachronistically to mind—bring both the mystery and the comedy to a head.

Watson himself, though, is the indispensable plot device, the baffled sidekick who serves as foil to Holmes’ brilliance.  The real point of the story is not to solve a crime but to display a fascinating personality, as Holmes suggests when he affectionately calls Watson “my Boswell.”  Later detective fiction would likewise revolve around the sleuth’s masterly personality—Lord Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and so on—until a reaction, chiefly American, set in.

As Raymond Chandler put it in The Simple Art of Murder, Dashiell Hammett “took murder out of the conservatory and put it in the alley, where it belongs.”  The hard-boiled American dick, talking like Hemingway, supplanted the genteel, polished British sleuth, and the sidekick was usually dispensed with, as were adverbs and subordinate clauses.  Chandler’s contempt for Holmes was explicit: The plots were absurd, and they owed their appeal chiefly to “a few lines of unforgettable dialogue.”

This was a little rough.  Even Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe were finally Holmes’ progeny, though their creators tried to disguise their debt to Conan Doyle, as resentful disciples will.  Holmes confronts crimes fully as brutal and horrifying, some involving mutilation, as those the cynical Yanks have to deal with.

As for plotting, Conan Doyle has few masters.  Three of the four long tales—A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, and my own favorite of the whole canon, The Valley of Fear (1915)—feature lengthy narrative digressions explaining the background of the crime Holmes has solved.  Even without the detective interest (we forget Holmes while we read them), these are thrilling, moving, and altogether satisfying.  They show that their author might have achieved fame and fortune even without one of the most magnetic characters ever conceived.

Another of Holmes’ literary descendants is less often noted.  Holmes and Watson are hilariously parodied in the relation between P.G. Wodehouse’s hyperbrainy valet Jeeves and Jeeves’ obtuse “master,” Bertie Wooster.  Surely, the parallel is intentional: The flustered Bertie depends entirely on the self-possessed servant to rescue him from his constant scrapes; and Bertie’s hero-worship of Jeeves exceeds even Watson’s admiration for the detective, though Jeeves, unlike Holmes, is always deferential.  Yet all the comedy is implicit in Conan Doyle.

The Holmes stories appeared over a 40-year span, ending in 1927.  The later ones are so inferior to the early ones that some Holmes scholars believe Conan Doyle allowed others to write a few, or at least parts, of them.  (See W.W. Robson’s introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.)  After all, he had been ready to retire Holmes less than a decade after producing him.

His weariness is clear in “The Creeping Man” (1923), one of the funniest but least believable of all the stories.  An aging professor has been wooing a young woman, has been found crawling on all fours in the dead of night, has made a mysterious trip to Prague, and has been attacked by his own dog.  “What do you think of it, Watson?”  Watson surmises that the old man, deranged by love, has lumbago, went to Prague to forget the love affair, and has had to borrow money.

Holmes retorts suavely: “And the wolf-hound no doubt disapproved of the financial bargain.”

But the solution turns out to be nearly as silly as poor Watson’s speculation.  Obviously, Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t in this weak spoof.  His son had been killed in the Great War, and he’d become preoccupied with spiritualism—a pursuit the skeptical Holmes would have scorned.

Nevertheless, Sherlock Holmes remains as surely immortal as Hamlet.  And even a Holmes couldn’t fully explain one mystery: that of his incredible appeal to the popular imagination.