We Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
By Dean Jobb
He was born 130 years ago, in the pages of the British magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The novella A Study in Scarlet, republished within a year as a book, introduced the world’s only “consulting detective”—a remote, cerebral, and thoroughly original character who used intellect and scientific reasoning to solve crimes.
But Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. John Watson, were almost one-hit wonders. The public and critical response to their 1887 debut was lukewarm. And, as die-hard Holmes fans know, Arthur Conan Doyle was ambivalent about his creations. He wanted to be known as a writer of serious fiction, and remembered for his historical adventures The White Company and Micah Clarke. Holmes, he once complained, “takes my mind from better things.”
The Sign of the Four, a follow-up adventure published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1889 (the title was changed to The Sign of Four in book editions), also failed to catch fire. Only a lucrative offer to write a dozen stories for London’s The Strand Magazine convinced Conan Doyle to find new crimes and mysteries for Holmes to solve. These monthly adventures, launched in 1891 with “A Scandal in Bohemia,” were Holmes’s breakthrough, establishing the iconic sleuth who, thanks to the hit television shows Sherlock and Elementary, is more popular than ever.
Why does this character, a product of the distant Victorian age, still command a loyal following? Who was the real-life inspiration for Conan Doyle’s creation? And what is his place in the development of crime fiction? Four recent books explore the Great Detective’s origins and enduring appeal.
The Holmes back story is brilliantly recounted in Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury). American author Michael Sims explores how a young doctor, bored with medical practice and eager to launch a writing career, conjured a new kind of detective. Conan Doyle’s model was one of his instructors at Edinburgh University, Dr. Joseph Bell, who had an uncanny ability to glean information about people from a calloused hand or a worn shirt cuff—the deductive show-stoppers that became a Holmes trademark.
Think Sherlock sounds odd? In Conan Doyle’s early notes for A Study in Scarlet, he was Sherrinford Holmes. Sims puts forward a new suspect as inspiration for the name—Chief Inspector William Sherlock of the Metropolitan Police, whose cases often made the newspapers. Another last-minute change spared Watson from being saddled with the name Ormond Sacker.
Conan Doyle imagined “a just, rational hero whose eagle eye and respect for evidence enabled him to stride boldly,” Sims writes, a hero who would “demonstrate his genius, not merely proclaim it.”
While Sims covers familiar territory, his emphasis on the genesis of Holmes and the author’s early life and struggles—and his well-crafted, absorbing narrative—make Arthur & Sherlock a valuable addition to the ever-widening shelf of Conan Doyle biographies.
In Towards Sherlock Holmes: A Thematic History of Crime Fiction in the 19th Century World (McFarland), Australia-based academic Stephen Knight digs deeper into the past to find crime writers who set the stage for Holmes. After scouring rare-book collections in Britain, France, the United States, and Australia, he introduces a cast of groundbreaking female investigators, crime-solving lawyers, and other forgotten ancestors of the modern fictional sleuth.
Conan Doyle acknowledged his debt to “the father of the detective tale,” Edgar Allan Poe, and his Holmes-like private investigator, C. Auguste Dupin. But “American crime fiction was in fact a force older and wider than the narrow brilliance of Poe,” Knight discovered. To cite one example, Charles Brockden Brown’s obscure novel Edgar Huntly—published in 1800, four decades before “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—presented a gothic tale of detection, murder, and madness.
Knight devotes chapters to French mystery writers, the role of class in early British crime writing, and Australian Fergus Hume’s novel The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which became an international bestseller shortly before A Study in Scarlet appeared. It was Hume’s success, Knight suspects, that prompted publishers to commission the additional stories that made Holmes a star.
Towards Sherlock Holmes is a scholarly work, heavy on literary analysis and peppered with academic jargon. But it will reward readers with insights into the surprisingly deep roots of detective fiction.
Joseph Bell was not the only model for Holmes—the character “also reflected the personality of his creator,” Christopher Sandford points out, “a man who combined a lifelong passion for scientific inquiry with a finely honed sense of honour and justice.”
In The Man Who Would be Sherlock: The Real Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle (History Press), Sandford examines these parallels through an exploration of Conan Doyle’s exploits as a real-world detective and champion of the wronged.
The usual suspects are here—George Edalji, a lawyer falsely accused of bizarre mutilations of cattle, and Oscar Slater, convicted of murder on flimsy evidence. Both were exonerated thanks to Conan Doyle’s efforts to expose these miscarriages of justice. But Conan Doyle defended a host of others, from the captain of the ill-fated Titanic to spiritualists put on trial in 1928 under an antiquated law forbidding the practice of witchcraft.
“It’s difficult to study any individual major crime in Great Britain between around 1890 and 1925 without encountering Doyle,” Sandford writes, either through a personal interest or calls for someone with Holmes-like powers to investigate.
Sandford, who has written biographies of Jagger, Bowie, McCartney, and other rock stars, is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. Armed with insights from his previous foray into Conan Doyle’s world, he takes a fresh and intriguing look at Conan Doyle’s life and works.
At almost 600 pages, Mattias Boström’s From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon (Mysterious Press) is an imposing book. But it takes a lot of room to tackle the herculean task of tracing Holmes’s remarkable journey from Conan Doyle’s imagination to pop-culture superstar.
Washington Post reviewer Michael Dirda, author of the 2012 book On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling, has called it “the best account of Baker Street mania ever written.” No argument here. This is one-stop shopping for fans and anyone interested in how Holmes has grown and changed over time.
Boström deftly recreates Conan Doyle’s love-hate relationship with Holmes and how American actor William Gillette, British illustrator Sidney Paget, and many others shaped the character’s look and persona.
From Holmes to Sherlock brims with insights and anecdotes, from Edward VII’s obsession with the detective to how a minor role in a Holmes play launched the career of Charlie Chaplin. “They don’t come any better,” U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt said of the stories. Boström, an author and Holmes expert in Sweden, is delighted to point out that the first foreign-language edition of a Holmes adventure appeared in Swedish in 1891.
The BBC series Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as a twenty-first-century Holmes, bookends Boström’s fast-paced narrative. “To prove Holmes immortal,” Sherlock cocreator Mark Gatiss declares at the outset of the book, “it’s essential he’s not preserved in Victorian aspic—but allowed to live again.”
What makes Holmes so timeless? Perhaps, as British crime writer Julian Symons once pointed out, it’s the comfort of knowing there’s someone out there—a “last and highest court of appeal,” as Holmes styled himself in The Sign of Four—who will find answers and fight for justice.
And in a time when fact and truth are under siege, Holmes’s insistence on method and evidence has never felt more relevant. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data,” Holmes tells Watson during one of their investigations. “One begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Could there be a more compelling warning about the corrosive effects of fake news and tweeted nonsense?
“I hear of Sherlock everywhere,” Mycroft Holmes tells Doctor Watson when they first meet in the story “The Greek Interpreter,” acknowledging how the doctor’s case reports have made his brother famous.
We still hear of him. Everywhere. And it’s a safe bet that Holmes or a character based on Conan Doyle’s brilliant detective will be solving mysteries and catching criminals for another 130 years—and then some.
Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the true story of a master swindler in 1920s Chicago. His next book recreates the crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, a serial poisoner in Chicago and London whose murderous attacks on women paralleled the birth of Sherlock Holmes. His website is www.deanjobb.com.