A story that has plenty of twists and turns all by itself.
It’s no surprise that murder mysteries, procedurals and other forensically inflected onscreen fiction should be so popular in an age of “fake news” and widespread epistemic unreliability. Perhaps it is comforting to see reasoning, induction and the scientific method used effectively, and in the pursuit of a morally unambiguous end like bringing a murder to justice. Michael Sims’ latest book, Arthur and Sherlock, delivers that kind of satisfaction. But it also does much more, relishing not so much in gory details or intrigue as with the backstory of what prompted the creation of Sherlock to begin with, a story that has plenty of twists and turns all by itself.
There were great detectives before the Baker Street legend, of course, from Poe’s Dupin and Gaboriau’s Lecoq to characters developed by Anna Katharine Green, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens. Arthur Conan Doyle created something new by devising a figure whose power of mind was so great and systematic that no detail would go unobserved in forming a complete picture of the truth. This was to be a holistic, totalizing mind like no other in literature.
But Conan Doyle did not spin this character out of whole cloth; rather, he based him on Dr. Joseph Bell, whose riveting lectures he had attended as a medical student in Edinburgh. Sims adeptly shows how extraordinary a character Dr. Bell must have been and demonstrates that he was an exemplar of a broader 19th-century trend toward greater rigor in physicians. Sims also paints an affecting portrait of the young writer as he attempts to find solace in an increasingly challenging financial environment for his family, ultimately finding such comfort and inspiration in the private study of literature and the academic study of science and medicine. Doyle’s hunger for experimentation led to some colorful experiences—for example, swallowing incrementally large (near-fatal) quantities of gelsemium and recording his symptoms as they worsened.
Arthur and Sherlock follows Conan Doyle through seafaring, dabbling in the burgeoning art of photography and a trying beginning as a doctor. Meanwhile, Sims notes, prose fiction was slowly becoming a respectable literary form and eventually rivaled poetry as an object of popular fascination, especially in the serialized form of the periodical. Conan Doyle began writing but was far too derivative to gain much attention or respect, even after his work started being accepted for publication.
In the fascinating central chapters, Sims offers a brief but useful genealogy of the representation of investigative rationality in fiction as well as an account of the rise of the detective as an historically specific figure in the development of policing as a “scientist” of crime. In creating the Sherlock universe, Sims shows, Conan Doyle drew liberally from past acquaintances and figures known in his time—especially interesting is the section dedicated to Dr. Watson, speculating on what inspired the author to give Sherlock’s sidekick his specific biography and military history; part of Watson’s backstory, for instance, was that he fought in Afghanistan.
As for Holmes himself, Sims aptly writes that, in devising the character as he did, Conan Doyle had in effect “married a Romantic vision of science to the myth of the heroic adventurer,” forging a new archetype of masculinity along the way. Moreover, he engendered a new form of participation in fiction, giving the reader the feeling that they could have solved the mystery, if they had only paid attention to the clues hidden in plain sight.
These are only some of the many charming insights found in Sims’ fluid and eminently readable book, which tells us a great deal of another age. Along the way, it perhaps unintentionally reveals more about our own age than we might suspect, which would make a fine topic for his next project.