The phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes

April 5, 2020

Having been under the weather recently (nothing sinister!) I returned, as I frequently do in such circumstances, to Sherlock Holmes, but this time not to the stories themselves, but to the small collection of books about Holmes that I’ve acquired over the years, and they got me thinking. Is Holmes the only invented, fictional character who has gradually, over the years, built up such a ‘real’ existence? By real existence, I’m referring to the fact that people actually write to him with their problems, asking for help, despite the fact that, even fictionally, he ‘died’ a century ago. And that tourist seek out the mythical 221b Baker Street address, which apparently never existed. Enormous amounts of ‘research’ has been done, attempting to establish when and where each of the cases took place, to iron out supposed discrepancies which are due to Conan Doyle’s carelessness, and so on… even the belief in Santa Claus doesn’t go quite this far! And I have to confess to having been marked for life when at the age of seven I first heard Carleton Hobbs as Holmes on the BBC Home Service, and bought my first collection of stories with a Christmas book token (remember those?).

There are a lot of cracking good yarns in the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and Conan Doyle was careful to weave the cases into the Victorian and Edwardian England setting; novelists have been attempting to convince us of the veracity of their fictions ever since Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I wrote about quite recently.

E J Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a very interesting and quite detailed account of the history and development of forensic science and medicine in the nineteenth century, closely linked to the stories; there are fascinating chapters on insects, decay of corpses, poisons, fingerprints and disguise, among other topics, and it’s certainly a useful book to have along side the complete works.

71YSYrG8pbL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Probably the most useful of books is Christopher Redmond’s Sherlock Holmes Handbook: its very name implies utility. There are brief summaries of all the novels and stories, with links and connections between them, and some analysis, all very helpful reference if, like me, no matter how often you’ve read the stories, small details elude you. There’s an extremely helpful collation of all the ‘biographical’ details about Holmes and Watson which are dotted throughout the canon. There’s also a biography of Conan Doyle if you need one, and a useful chapter on the publishing history.

Most useful are the excellent sections on Victorian context and background, again collating all sorts of useful stuff from throughout the canon, as well as material on crime and punishment and the legal system in England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the analysis of the history of the detective story genre, its conventions and structure are very good. It’s an American production, so there is the occasional solecism about a detail of life in England, but I’ll excuse those. One thing I took away from re-reading this book was the possibly even greater popularity of the stories in the USA, given the nature of the links and connections between the two nations when the stories were first published.

Somewhere I acquired a copy of Michael Hardwick’s The Complete Guide to Sherlock Holmes. It’s a curious book: he provides a ‘summary’ of all the stories, with often very lengthy extracts, interspersed with commentary and biographical details about Conan Doyle. He is deliberately careful not to give away story endings… this struck me as weird, given that presumably only an enthusiast would want this book, and they would have read the stories anyway… The biographical information about Conn Doyle was interesting, but it’s not an essential book by any means.

A Sherlock Holmes Compendium, edited by Peter Haining, is another curiosity, definitely not essential to my library. The most interesting thing in it is an often referred-to essay by Ronald Knox on the stories, where he light-heartedly analyses and mocks all sorts of discrepancies between the stories and theories about them.

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Ransom Riggs, is a lightweight and superficial book that looks nice. It purports to offer explanations of various of Holmes’ detective skills but is vague and random (!) with material not always linked to Holmes or particular tales. It’s also stylistically annoying, full of American contractions and solecisms. Can be avoided.

81om2J72RtL._AC_UY218_ML3_    The final book on my list was compiled by Alex Werner for the Museum of London: Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. It’s really good and detailed and sumptuously illustrated, too. The complexities of Conan Doyle and his creation are both explored: London is portrayed in detail, both the place and how people lived, with many links to real people from the Holmes era. There’s a wonderful selection of photos from those times, too, as well as illustrations from artists who painted the city. I learned that Conan Doyle was never a Londoner, and that a third of the stories are not set there but in the outer suburbs, so that the picture of London is actually quite an idiosyncratic one.

It’s an excellent contextual companion to the stories, a very full, detailed and atmospheric portrait of a place and an era supported by an impressive amount of research. It’s an early 21st-century vision of Holmes, Conan Doyle and Victorian/Edwardian London, which demonstrates that each generation re-views, re-writes and re-creates the past in a slightly different guise, for its own particular purposes.

81nn3WfQ72L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I have two editions of the canon, both of which I would recommend to any serious enthusiast: now only available second hand are the two volumes published by John Murray many years ago, the Complete Long Stories and Complete Short Stories. They are nice hardbacks, and manageable. The other is the sumptuous and weighty Norton edition on some fifteen years ago in three volumes, edited by Leslie S Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which, as the title suggests, supports the canon with all the extra information and detail a person might want while they are reading, and like all good quality American books, they are beautifully produced. I cannot end this lengthy post without also recommending very highly indeed the audio recordings on the Naxos label of the entire canon by David Timpson: they are superb for listening to in the car.

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