Steven Moffat: how Conan Doyle inspired me

The Sherlock co-creator on why he enjoys adapting Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective stories for television

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My grandparents gave me A Study in Scarlet to read when I was nine or ten and right from the off, I was hooked. It’s brilliant on so many levels – not least the fact that the hero wasn’t nice. In fact, he could be downright horrible.

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There was something incredibly appealing about that – after all, we don’t rank our friends in order of niceness, and while we approve of nice people, there’s something much more interesting about a b*****d. And that’s what Holmes is.

Arthur Conan Doyle was an amazing storyteller and a very modern author. The books are actually funny but often the adaptations aren’t, which I find odd. Sherlock Holmes often bursts out laughing or is having a laugh with Watson, but you rarely see it. He’s always stern and I think he’s quite impish.

When I read The Speckled Band, I thought that the rest of fiction could go hang. Nothing can top it – a great murder weapon, a great climax, real proper thrills. Conan Doyle’s stories are rich – the way he makes reference to other stories to send you off looking for them and to untold stories to whet your appetite for more.

In a way, he also invented the TV series as, trying to work out the way to sell serialised stories in the likes of The Strand magazine, he came up with the idea of having short stories with the same protagonist. It was genius.

After the success – the genuinely surprising success – of the first series, Mark Gatiss and I decided to tackle the iconic stories in this series. It’s also why we’ve brought in Irene Adler – because she gave birth to the trope in the films of Sherlock battling femmes fatales. Why wait, we thought. Give the audience what they want. So that’s what we’ve done.

As for Holmes’s death, I don’t believe that Conan Doyle ever really planned to kill him off. That’s faithfully reported, but I don’t believe it. The way he’s killed off in The Final Problem… well, there’s no body, is there? So Sherlock is obviously not dead. Conan Doyle was a mystery writer, for goodness’ sake! I’m sure the plan all along was to “resurrect” him.

For me, I also really like the portrait of a male friendship between Holmes and Watson. Because they are men, they don’t discuss such things but it’s there – and it’s one of the deepest and most enduring friendships in literature. 

A new series of Sherlock begins at 8:10pm on BBC1 and BBC1 HD on New Year’s Day

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 23 December 2011.