Book review: Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes

It was 130 years ago that the world was introduced to a lanky, sharp-eyed sleuth by the name of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick, John Watson. He certainly was not the first of his kind to appear in literature. So what makes him — with his distinctive pipe and deerstalker cap — the default image of the very word ‘detective’? (Even today,  when you punch in the word on Google, it is Holmes’ silhouette that pops up first).


Michael Sims’ Arthur & Sherlock — Conan Doyle and the creation of Holmes (Bloomsbury, 2017) narrates the fascinating tale behind the conception of the most portrayed literary human character in film and TV. Vigorously researched, the book contains a good deal about Arthur Conan Doyle’s childhood and upbringing in the Scottish city of Edinburgh, his natural affinity for storytelling and most importantly, how his time period coincided with the growth of scientific reasoning and the shift from poetry to fiction as a respectable form of literature — all of which were essential to his work’s success.

Sims divides his book into three parts: Conan Doyle’s early years and entry into medicine, his literary influences and eventual rise to fame with Sherlock Holmes. A good amount of information comes from Conan Doyle’s memoirs and Sims has carefully pointed out tributes the former has paid to authors, especially Edgar Allen Poe, in his writings. Some similarities in sentences (of Doyle’s) border on plagiarism and would not be taken so kindly today. But then, even the concept of copyright was unheard of in Georgian and Victorian times.

Conan Doyle’s portrayal, his rise from abject poverty to a not-so-successful physician to infamous author, is most empathetic. He lives on a shoestring budget in Portsmouth, subsists on canned beef and bread, stocks up basic furniture on credit and struggles to find patients. Yet, he refuses financial help from his mother. One can almost relate, even today, to the plight of a bachelor, fresh out of college, trying to find his own feet in another city. But what a leap of faith it must have been, in the 1870s, to pause studies and take up an unpaid internship as a doctor onboard a ship sailing in the Arctic or along the western African coastline. He slowly realises he can make more money through these experiences than slogging it out to become a surgeon of repute. That too turns out to be easier said than done; his first attempts at short stories face rejection or return a pittance.

The storyteller in Sims seems to be a trivia aficionado, embedding gems of information that some might find inconsequential: how the surname Doyle derived from the Anglo Norman D’Oil, a short history of Edinburgh’s slums, the etymology of ‘diphtheria’, the story of Beeton behind the Beeton’s Christmas Annual in which Sherlock Holmes debuted (this man also famously published the controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin). But the tales, especially of Conan Doyle’s mentor, the legendary Dr Joseph Bell whom he acknowledges as the primary inspiration for Holmes, and of the genre’s precursors (Poe’s Auguste C Dupin, Voltaire’s Zadig and an unlikely biblical protagonist) are unputdownable.

Despite all the heavy stuffing, Sims’ writing is most accessible and perhaps, at times, lacks the exciting punch it should ideally have had. William Dalrymple once compared his style of writing after arduous research to Chinese cooking, “where three-quarters of the time is spent on chopping things up and the actual cooking takes very little time.” Sims seems to have overdone his cooking with Arthur & Sherlock in certain chapters, with redundant statements (“Thomas Babington Macaulay was Arthur’s favourite writer” appears many times), rambling into inconsequential tangents that force us to exclaim like Sherlock Holmes himself: “What the deuce would it be of any use to me?” He has also left us turning pages in vain, in search of why Conan Doyle ‘killed’ his detective at Reichenbach and how public pressure forced his revival. We see paragraphs dedicated to origins of Gregson, Lestrade and Irene Adler but not Moriarty!

In all fairness, Sims’ work is nothing less than a labour of love and an extraordinary resource for fans of crime fiction. It is a must-have for all Sherlockians and possibly, for history buffs impinged with some love for literature.

An edited version of this piece can be found here in The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.


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