Arthur and Sherlock by Michael Sims
Why should there be yet another book written about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes? There have been so many explorations of their real and imagined (and intertwined) lives that it seems an unnecessary drop in a deluge to go there again. They, especially Sherlock, seem at least as familiar as close cousins. We do not see them every day, but we are immediately comfortable when we do and easily recall events we thought had been long forgotten.
In Arthur and Sherlock, Michael Sims elegantly brings new information and intelligent interpretations into a fascinating new view of the Doyle-Holmes continuum. It illustrates a particularly important bit of wisdom about how Doyle came to his “expertise” through a circuitous route: every event in his life provided additional fodder for learning. Knowledge stores itself in the great computer of our brain and can often be recalled when needed. So it was with Doyle for whom, it seems, his entire set of experiences rose to the fore as he created Holmes.
Even with a limited knowledge of Doyle’s life, most readers are familiar with the renowned medical professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. His uncanny ability to diagnose based on close initial observation of the patient’s physical presentation, including his mode of dress, was the model for Sherlock’s scarily accurate descriptions of his clients. Of course, it is easy to be accurate as the writer, but this fictional ability was based in reality.
The casual reader, however, may not be aware of the debt that Doyle owed to Edgar Allen Poe. Doyle called Sherlock “a bastard between Joe Bell and Poe’s Monsieur Dupin (much diluted).” Sims traces the links between earlier writers and novels such as William Godwin’s “scandalous” 1794 novel, Things as They Are, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham: or, The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828); and Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which was first published on April 1, 1841. That was a significant date because, as Sims clearly shows, it marked the birth of an entirely new genre: the detective novel, in which Poe featured “an unraveling of a puzzle by means of reason and observation.” The very idea that a policeman of this type existed was foreign to the general public. London’s metropolitan police force dated only to 1829, and the term “detective” was unknown; Poe did not use the word.
One of the strengths of this excellent book is the care Sims takes to trace the development of the relationship between Holmes and his amanuensis, Dr. John Watson. Doyle does not simply throw them together, he creates a plausible scenario to bring them into the same orbit, following with the bits and pieces of a budding relationship as it might have happened in real life. In the same manner, Sims builds his case to reveal Doyle’s expanding skill as a writer as he transitioned from a moderately successful physician and part-time writer to become a phenomenon. Arthur and Sherlock is a must read for any fan of Sherlock Holmes.