When he returned to England, George Budd offered him a share in his practice at Plymouth and, out of his lingering regard for Budd as a fellow athlete, Doyle accepted—against his better judgment. Half genius and half madman, Budd was making a fortune with a kind of assembly-line medical service characterized by casual diagnosis and unconventional dosages of drugs that dismayed other physicians. Budd had become increasingly difficult, with his violent temper and a sardonic liking for horseplay and practical jokes. Coroners' inquests sometimes followed Budd's treatment of his patients. Relations grew strained between the two doctors and one day Budd abruptly dissolved the partnership.
Doyle left town to begin a modest, conservative practice for himself at Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth. When he opened his own office he was 23, and one of the first things he did was join the local soccer club. The Portsmouth team was a highly respected amateur organization, and as back and then goal Doyle shared in its glory when it reached runner-up for the County Cup. "I was too slow to be a really good back," he said, "but I was a long and safe kick." His modest fame as a soccer player led to his joining a bowling club and several cricket clubs. He also played billiards between his house calls, the billiards room of Bush Hotel being only two doors away from his office. (He never achieved his lifelong ambition of breaking 100, though he often topped 80, or even 90.) After a game or two of billiards or a few hours on the cricket field he hurried off to see his patients—there were not many of these despite his growing athletic reputation—and at night he wrote more short stories. In his first year his practice brought him �154.
Writing was lonely work for Doyle. It would be two years before he came to know other writers, four before he invented Sherlock Holmes and nine before Holmes made him famous. True, some of his early stories, modeled on Henry James, were published in Cornhill Magazine but they did not affect either his literary or medical reputation since all contributions to Cornhill were anonymous. However, as a result of these he was invited in 1884 to a dinner for Cornhill contributors. His first literary gathering! The dinner was at the Ship in Greenwich, and the young doctor was one of the first to arrive. He hurried up to James Payn, the editor of Cornhill, a thin, intense, gloomy-visaged and unenthusiastic individual widely known for his novels, Not Wooed, but Won and What He Cost Her, and waited in awe for Payn to make some weighty remark. The editor, however, had noticed a crack in one of the restaurant windows and, aside from expressing his wonder as to how it got there, had nothing to say. Doyle moved on to another chap, thin and seedy-looking, with drooping melancholy mustaches. This turned out to be an illustrator, George du Maurier, later famous as the author of Trilby, but du Maurier likewise failed to offer anything memorable. Still, others at the dinner were more congenial and Doyle got along gloriously. At South-sea he had learned (after an experience at a late ball) that it was unwise for a young physician to be seen drinking too much in public, but here among these emancipated bohemians he felt under no such restraint, and the evening ended with Doyle and his new friends reeling happily homeward under the Adelphi Arches.
Five years would pass before Doyle was invited to another literary gathering, but heady memories of the first helped keep him writing. He did not think of himself primarily as a writer; he was first of all a fine cricket player, a soccer star, a billiards expert—a sportsman—and a conscientious physician in such time as sports left him. After he married he also was distinguished by his everlasting concern for his wife (who was frail) and his own farscattered and needy family.
Significantly, he was on his way to becoming one of the keenest Americanophiles in English literary history. He believed American literature to be in many respects superior to English, and he knew American literature better than did most Americans. He venerated Francis Parkman, for instance, for his deep immersion into the life of the period he wrote about; he thought no other historian had ever done as much. Doyle considered Oliver Wendell Holmes a better essayist than Charles Lamb—perhaps not a better stylist but, because of his background as a physician, possessed of a wider and deeper knowledge of the world than Lamb. Doyle probably named Sherlock Holmes after Oliver Wendell Holmes.
So he lived—a big, gusty man both simple and profound, enjoying most of all his memorable days on the cricket pitch (once he scored 111 not-out for Portsmouth against Artillery). Then one night in March 1886 he conceived of a character—a detective with unrivaled powers of deductive reasoning. The result was A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes story. Much of it was laid in America, where Doyle had never been, but he had not the slightest uneasiness on that score. During his boyhood he had read everything by Mayne Reid, the British author of dime novels about the Rockies. So well did he know Mayne Reid that he felt he knew the Rocky Mountains "like the back of my hand."
Doyle sent A Study in Scarlet to his old friend Payn at Cornhill and Payn rejected it. Another publisher kept it for three months and returned it unread. Others returned it quickly, but at least they read it. At last Doyle sent it to a publisher of cheap and sensational literature who offered him $125 for the copyright. This was a terrific comedown for Doyle. He had intellectual aspirations, a desire to be known among the contributors to the serious literature of his time. Also, in a curious way, Doyle knew that he was giving up something of value in selling the copyright of A Study in Scarlet. (Eventually he bought it back for $125,000.)
The Sherlock Holmes story created no big stir in England. But it was widely pirated and read in the United States, where it attracted the attention of Joseph Stoddart, the new editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Stoddart wanted to meet the author of A Study in Scarlet, and so it came about that Dr. Doyle was invited to his second literary gathering. Stoddart, on a visit to London, asked Doyle to a dinner at which the young Oscar Wilde, then little known, was present. "This was indeed a golden evening for me," he wrote. "The American proved to be an excellent fellow." Stoddart asked him to write another Sherlock Holmes story. This one, The Sign of the Four, was published simultaneously in 1890 in the U.S. and England. But it was not until the next year when A Scandal in Bohemia appeared in Strand Magazine that Holmes achieved his phenomenal popularity. A torrent of Holmes short stories followed. He became a figure, a name, a personality, a universal symbol, like Robinson Crusoe or Lemuel Gulliver. Of all the rare achievements in fiction, the creation of such a personality is probably the rarest.
The golden years of Conan Doyle's life now began. He could command almost any price he asked. He found that he could turn out a Sherlock Holmes story in a week for fees that gradually increased from $175 per story to $5,000. The dramatized version of Sherlock Holmes' adventures, put together by William Gillette—a fine actor but a hack dramatist—ran for months in New York. At the end of the third act Holmes, smoking an unaccustomed cigar, is trapped by Moriarty's thugs. Suddenly he knocks out the only lamp. In total darkness the glowing cigar moves across to a window at stage right; the audience hears the smash of glass. One of the criminals finds a light as the others rush the window. Lights up finds Holmes by an unguarded door at stage left. "If you want that cigar," he says, "you'll find it in a crevice in the window." Exit the detective.
The play also ran in London after its New York triumph and continued in road productions throughout Conan Doyle's long life (in one road show Charlie Chaplin got his start in the theater). If Conan Doyle had so chosen, there was no financial need for him to write anything more. But he was growing bored with Sherlock Holmes. When Gillette cabled to ask if he might have Sherlock Holmes marry at the end of the play, Doyle cabled back, "Marry him or murder him or do anything you like with him."