Sherlock Holmes is always among us. Since he first appeared in print in 1887, the legendary detective has been a continual presence on stage, radio, screen and television. BBC’s “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, is one of the latest in the character’s innumerable reincarnations.
For those who can’t get enough, Michael Sims’s engaging new book, “Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes,” describes how Arthur Conan Doyle invented his famous detective. Sims reminds us that both Conan Doyle and Holmes were creatures of their times.
The rise of modern detection was a product of Victorian London, and Charles Dickens was one of those fascinated by its impact. In a story, Dickens explained how different “the Detective Force” was from the earlier Bow Street Police, who were “men of very indifferent character, and far too much in the habit of consorting with thieves.”
In contrast, modern detectives used a scientific method to capture criminals. Sims writes that by the 1870s, these sleuths — both real and fictional — had become heroic figures in the public imagination.
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Young Conan Doyle was riveted by the new detective writings of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Although trained as a medical doctor, he always fancied himself an author. In his 20s when he opened a surgery in Portsmouth, England, he spent his spare moments writing stories of “mystery, adventure and the supernatural.” Sherlock Holmes made his debut in “A Study in Scarlet.”
Sims agrees with other scholars that Edgar Allan Poe was a major literary influence on the creation of Holmes. Conan Doyle was first drawn to Poe’s story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841) and particularly to the “intellectual acuteness” that led to “an unraveling of a puzzle by means of reason and observation.”
Sherlock Holmes was also influenced by one of Conan Doyle’s medical school professors. Joseph Bell used a rigorous method of observation and deduction to diagnose illness, and Conan Doyle once told an interviewer: “I began to think of turning scientific methods ... onto the work of detection. ... If a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance. He’d get the thing by building it up scientifically.”
When “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” was published in 1892, Conan Doyle dedicated the collection to “my old Teacher Joseph Bell, M.D.” Sims abruptly ends his book at this point, before Conan Doyle was through with Sherlock. Readers can hope for a second volume.
“Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes” by Michael Sims, Bloomsbury, 256 pages, $27.