Clued-in to su­per sleuth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Ev­ery devo­tee of Sher­lock Holmes knows it wasn’t Arthur Co­nan Doyle who gave him his sig­na­ture deer­stalker. It was Sid­ney Paget, in his un­for­get­table il­lus­tra­tions of the great de­tec­tive for The Strand Mag­a­zine. Ah, but then the plot thick­ens. Be­cause, in fact, it was an il­lus­tra­tor for the Bris­tol Ob­server who first por­trayed Holmes in a deer­stalker, a full year ear­lier — an il­lus­tra­tor, in­trigu­ingly, who to this day has re­mained anony­mous.

Did Paget see these il­lus­tra­tions and de­velop them? Surely he must have done? But we would need an­other Sher­lock Holmes to be cer­tain. And it should be re­mem­bered that no Vic­to­rian gen­tle­man would ever wear a deer­stalker in town. Holmes sported a top hat, or per­haps a bowler, when wear­ing his In­ver­ness cape against the Lon­don fog and driz­zle. He was al­ways a gen­tle­man, al­beit a bo­hemian one.

This is nicely con­veyed in the mo­ment he fires his gun at the wall of his apart­ment at 221B Baker Street — a dis­tinctly bo­hemian, Hunter S. Thomp­son kind of way to let off steam, ex­cept that the bul­let holes spell out VR, in hon­our of Queen Vic­to­ria. He was al­ways a pa­tri­otic Bri­ton, as was his bluff, tweedy, no-non­sense cre­ator, Co­nan Doyle; not an in­tel­lec­tual, and cer­tainly not a sen­si­tive arty type, but surely a genius.

Michael Sims’s Arthur & Sher­lock seeks to fol­low the clues and trace the evo­lu­tion of Holmes in Co­nan Doyle’s imag­i­na­tion. (An­other thing: Co­nan Doyle’s sur­name was just Doyle. But the grander Co­nan Doyle has stuck, be­cause it sounds so much bet­ter.) The book is brim­ful of these kinds of Holme­sian ar­cana and minu­tiae. It also works as a sketchy bi­og­ra­phy of the young Co­nan Doyle and how he found his way in the world, from his be­gin­nings as a poor but hard­work­ing Scot­tish doc­tor to a highly ac­claimed writer of ir­re­sistible tales of crime, travel and ad­ven­ture.

We learn much about Co­nan Doyle’s favourite read­ing. He adored Wal­ter Scott and early west­erns, and per­haps be­gan to de­velop his first ideas about Holmes from the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose fic­tional de­tec­tive is In­spec­tor Auguste Dupin in the bril­liant, deeply creepy short story The Mur­ders in the Rue Morgue (1841). An­other fic­tional fore­run­ner was Wilkie Collins’s Sergeant Cuff in The Moon­stone (1868) and, of course, In­spec­tor Bucket in Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dick­ens — who, like Co­nan Doyle, was al­ways fond (some­times ob­ses­sively fond) of read­ing crime re­ports and ghoul­ish ac­counts of grisly mur­ders.

In fact, Sims goes fur­ther back, to an in­trigu­ing ex­am­ple of early crime de­tec­tion in Voltaire’s philo­soph­i­cal tale Zadig (1747), to the re­doubtable Dr John­son and his real-life solv­ing of the Cock Lane ghost mys­tery (an “im­pos­ture”, as Boswell tri­umphantly con­cluded), and even to the prophet Daniel in the Old Tes­ta­ment.

Much as he re­spected his pre­de­ces­sors, though, Co­nan Doyle wanted to do it dif­fer­ently, sci­en­tif­i­cally — and he wasn’t going to give his cre­ation a give­away name, as Dick­ens liked to. No In­spec­tor Sharp or Fer­ret, he joked. He found the name Sher­lock in the sto­ries of Sheri­dan Le Fanu, among other places. The de­tec­tive’s orig­i­nal name for a while was Sherrington Hope, which has a cer­tain ring to it. John Wat­son for a time was Or­mond Sacker, which would have been dis­as­trous. Sounds like a con man from Kansas City.

But the great­est in­spi­ra­tion for Holmes, as we all know, was Co­nan Doyle’s teacher at Ed­in­burgh med­i­cal school, Joseph Bell, whose method of di­ag­no­sis by star­tlingly close ob­ser­va­tion of his pa­tients meant, for in­stance, that he could de­duce in­stantly that one of them worked in a linoleum fac­tory across the Firth in Burn­tis­land — from her pos­ture, the cal­luses on her hands and the traces of mud on her shoes and cloth­ing.

A de­vout Chris­tian, Bell was fond of quot­ing the Bi­ble: “He that hath ears, let him hear.” And when he found him­self in the pe­cu­liar sit­u­a­tion of be­ing im­mor­talised as Holmes while still very much alive and work­ing, he proved scrupu­lously mod­est and sup­port­ive of his for­mer pupil.

Sims’s brief book doesn’t cover ev­ery­thing. There is no men­tion of My­croft Holmes, Mo­ri­arty or Mrs Hud­son, and it never pre­tends to be a full bi­og­ra­phy of Co­nan Doyle. A throw­away ref­er­ence to “the ill-got­ten Bri­tish Em­pire” made this re­viewer bris­tle, and cer­tainly would have an­noyed Co­nan Doyle, who “found noth­ing more in­spir­ing than a vi­sion of a stout­hearted sol­dier march­ing into bat­tle against the odds”. At school he had mem­o­rised all 70 verses of Ma­caulay’s Ho­ratius, and wrote a book in de­fence of Bri­tain’s con­duct dur­ing the Boer War. He was ab­so­lutely a man of the Vic­to­rian age.

How­ever, Arthur & Sher­lock does of­fer many

A Sid­ney Paget draw­ing from The Strand Mag­a­zine (1892)

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