The best Conan Doyle novels that don’t feature the great sleuth but are still definitely worth reading
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often resented the fact that Sherlock Holmes overshadowed his other fiction, and to an extent he was right to do so. He was also a talented author of historical novels, science fiction, horror stories, and adventure tales as well as a pioneer of the detective story, as this list of our ‘non-Sherlock’ recommendations makes clear. Here are the best Conan Doyle books – aside from the Sherlock Holmes ones. We’ll begin at number 10 and work our way up to what we consider the very best book.
10. The Mystery of Cloomber (1889). This novella appeared between the publication of the first and second Sherlock Holmes novels, and although it doesn’t feature Holmes it is certainly a mystery novel, as the title makes clear. It is narrated by a man who, having recently moved to the area, becomes intrigued by the mysterious Cloomber Hall nearby. The new occupant of the Hall, General Heatherstone, is frequently nervous and agitated – particularly around October, for some enigmatic reason. When three Buddhist priests from India show up (anyone who’s read Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone will see its influence here), it becomes apparent that the General’s colonial past lies behind the titular mystery and the General’s shaky nerves…
9. The Poison Belt (1913). The second of the Professor Challenger novels (see below for more on Doyle’s most famous non-Sherlock character), this shorter work sees Challenger organising a reunion with his companions from The Lost World (number 2 in this Conan Doyle countdown). Challenger has deduced that the Earth is moving through a ‘poison belt’ of ‘ether’ which (as in M. P. Shiel’s 1901 novel The Purple Cloud) will wipe out human life as we know it. He gathers his friends around him – armed with cylinders of oxygen – to face the end of the world together. What happens? Well, we won’t spoil the end for you. Doyle followed this up with The Land of Mist, written after he had become interested in spiritualism.
8. The Maracot Deep (1929). One of Doyle’s last works written before his death in 1930, this is another riff on the ‘lost world’ motif (see The Lost World below), as a city from the lost island of Atlantis is discovered by a professor and his team of explorers and scientists. Particularly of note here is the thought projector device, which renders the novel a sort of science-fiction story – the device allows for a person’s thoughts to be made known to everyone, bypassing language.
7. Sir Nigel (1906). Written nearly fifteen years after The White Company (see below), Sir Nigel is a prequel to that earlier novel, as it’s set earlier in the same conflict, the Hundred Years’ War. The brave knight Sir Nigel Loring vows to prove himself worthy of the love of Lady Mary by performing three noble deeds. Even looser and more episodic than the earlier The White Company, this is still an enjoyable historical novel.
6. Micah Clarke (1889). Set against the backdrop of the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, this novel might be viewed as a less famous cousin of R. D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, which had been published 20 years earlier. Following its titular hero from boyhood to adulthood (which sees Clarke becoming a soldier and, like the young Daniel Defoe, fighting at the Battle of Sedgemoor), it is, like many of Conan Doyle’s novels, ultimately about heroism, which Doyle here treats with particular scepticism.
5. The Tragedy of the Korosko (1898). Like The Mystery of Cloomber, this neglected Conan Doyle novella was reprinted by Hesperus Press a few years ago. In some respects now wildly politically incorrect, in others oddly prescient, the story focuses on a group of European and American travellers in Egypt aboard a ship called the Korosko. While travelling up the Nile, the tourists are ambushed by Islamist extremists. The novel is in many ways a piece of tubthumping for the British Empire, but there’s enough in it to make it relevant to modern readers (as well as curious as a piece of literary history).
4. The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896). The Brigadier Gerard stories, collected in two volumes (this, and the follow-up Adventures of Gerard in 1903), show a more comic side to Doyle. Once again heroism is the theme, and once again – like Holmes’s chastisement of Watson for romanticising him as a crime-fighting crusader – it’s heroism under a (in this case comic) critique. The stories follow a French brigadier fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Being a French character in a work of fiction written by a British man in the late nineteenth century, Gerard is vain and self-regarding, believing himself the greatest soldier and lover in France. But Doyle writes about his adventures with warmth and we, despite Gerard’s self-aggrandisement, warm to him in turn even while we laugh at him.
3. Tales of Unease (2000). This selection by Wordsworth Editions of some of Conan Doyle’s most chilling short stories shows just what a master of the form Doyle could be. From the genuinely terrifying ‘The Brazilian Cat’ through to the widely anthologised ‘Lot No. 249’, you’re guaranteed to find yourself on the edge of your seat at least a couple of times. Of ‘Lot No. 249’ (1894), Rudyard Kipling (whose own ‘The Mark of the Beast’ had chilled a few spines several years before) said that it gave him a nightmare for the first time in years.
2. The Lost World (1912). The inspiration for numerous later ‘lost world’ novels featuring dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, this is Conan Doyle’s greatest science-fiction novel and the first of a trilogy to feature the huge, bluff, bearded scientist Professor Challenger. As we discuss in our post on Michael Crichton, there would have been no Jurassic Park without this novel, in which Challenger and a group of explorers (accompanied by young reporter Edward Malone) travel to a remote plateau in South America, where creatures that the world thought long extinct still survive in the wild.
1. The White Company (1892). Sir Winston Churchill famously said that he liked Doyle’s historical fiction as much as the detective stories, and The White Company, for our money, stands on a par with many of Sherlock Holmes’s adventures. The titular company is a band of fourteenth-century English mercenaries, who, led by Sir Nigel Loring, travel to France (skirmishing with pirates on the way) to fight in the Hundred Years’ War. As before, heroism and adventure are the watchwords, along with chivalry and a bit of Chaucerian humour. Doyle himself thought this novel his greatest achievement, and although we (and many readers) must reserve that honour for the best of the Sherlock Holmes canon, this book isn’t far behind.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best Conan Doyle books, we have more information about Conan Doyle in this post. If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes, check out our interesting facts about the sleuth here.