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Predecessors, contemporaries, and near contemporaries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set the stage for the entrance of Sherlock Holmes. Though Conan Doyle's work represents a turning point in the history of detective fiction, Edgar Allan Poe and Emile Gaboriau had preceded him in establishing the genre, with "tales of ratiocination" and the roman policier. Wilkie Collins and Fergus Hume were also supplying mystery novels to the public as an increasingly literate middle class fueled the demand for entertaining popular literature.

The first phase in the career of the character Sherlock Holmes (the printed fiction phase) began in 1887, when Beeton's Christmas Annual published Conan Doyle's story "A Study in Scarlet." In July 1891, The Strand Magazine printed the first of its Holmes short stories, which, because of Sidney Paget's accompanying illustrations, contributed substantially to the growing iconography of the character. For 40 years, through the presumed death and the return of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle produced what has come to be known as the Sherlock Holmes canon—four novels and 56 short stories.

In the public imagination, the features of Sherlock Holmes continued to evolve. Adding to Paget's popular illustrations, the American artist Frederic Dorr Steele rendered his version of the character, using as a model the famous actor William Gillette, who portrayed Holmes on the stage. Sherlock Holmes had become not only a literary character but also a folk hero and cultural icon.

The printed form of the Holmes canon has been immensely successful in its own right, but its popularity has been enhanced by Holmes's presence in other media. Plays, silent films, radio dramatizations, motion pictures, and television versions have kept the character at center stage, leading the audience from the books to other media, and from other media to the original tales. It appears that Sherlock Holmes's career is far from over.


Exhibition credits

Bloomington by Gaslight:
Sherlock Holmes in the Lilly Library