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The origins of a literary legend



For the Washington Post
Friday, February 10, 2017

Sherlock Holmes is always among us. Since he first appeared in print in 1887, the legendary detective has been a continual presence on stage, radio, screen and television. BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is one of the latest in the character’s innumerable reincarnations.

For those who can’t get enough, Michael Sims’s engaging new book, Arthur and Sherlock, describes how Arthur Conan Doyle invented his famous detective. Sims reminds us that both Conan Doyle and Holmes were creatures of their times. The rise of modern detection was a product of Victorian London, and Charles Dickens was one of those fascinated by its impact. In a story, Dickens explained how different “the Detective Force” was from the earlier Bow Street Police, who were “men of very indifferent character, and far too much in the habit of consorting with thieves.” In contrast, modern detectives used a scientific method to capture the criminals clogging London’s fog-filled streets. Sims writes that by the 1870s these sleuths – both real and fictional – had become heroic figures in the public imagination.

Young Conan Doyle was riveted by the new detective writings of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Although trained as a medical doctor, he always fancied himself an author. In his 20s when he opened a surgery in Portsmouth, England, he spent every spare moment writing stories of “mystery, adventure, and the supernatural.” Sherlock Holmes made his debut in A Study in Scarlet.

Sims agrees with other scholars that Edgar Allan Poe was a major literary influence on the creation of Holmes. Conan Doyle was first drawn to Poe’s story The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) and particularly to the “intellectual acuteness” that led to “an unraveling of a puzzle by means of reason and observation.” Later, Conan Doyle wrote, “On this narrow path the writer . . . sees the footmarks of Poe always in front of him.”

Sherlock Holmes was also influenced by one of Conan Doyle’s medical school professors. Joseph Bell used a rigorous method of observation and deduction to diagnose illness, and Conan Doyle once told an interviewer: “I began to think of turning scientific methods . . . onto the work of detection. . . . If a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance. He’d get the thing by building it up scientifically.” Conan Doyle even appropriated some of Bell’s physical attributes for Holmes, giving him the professor’s “sharp and piercing” gray eyes and thin, aquiline nose.

Although Sims has carefully tracked Holmes’ origins, he glosses over Conan Doyle’s own evolving character. Notably, he fails to explore how the science-oriented Conan Doyle embraced spiritualism the same year that A Study in Scarlet was published. According to biographer Andrew Lycett, Conan Doyle’s passion for spiritualism overtook his other pursuits and ultimately left him a figure of ridicule.

When The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was published in 1892, Conan Doyle dedicated the collection to “my old Teacher Joseph Bell, M.D.” Sims abruptly ends his enlightening but limited study at this point – far before Conan Doyle was through with Sherlock. Readers can hope for a second volume.