‘The Search for Sherlock Holmes’: The Man Who Never Lived

For a man who never lived Sherlock Holmes has enjoyed a long run of popularity, appearing in over 200 films, several stage productions, numerous television adaptations and even a musical as well as the canonical four short novels and 56 short stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. There’s also a huge body of secondary literature about Holmes (including over 10,000 books according to one source) which might lead you to wonder if it’s still possible to make a contribution to the genre.

It is. The Search for Sherlock Holmes, a made-for-television co-production of the History Channel and STV Productions provides a pleasant 45-minute tour of the life of Conan Doyle and his greatest creation. It may not hold any revelations for hard-core Sherlockians but speaking as a person with a moderate knowledge of the subject, I can say that I learned a few things and enjoyed the program’s travelogue of the British Isles, as well.

The conceit of The Search for Sherlock Holmes is that David Hayman, a Scottish actor whose roles include Detective Superintendent Michael Walker on the television program Trial and Retribution, is conducting an investigation into “what made the world’s first great fictional detective tick and why we still love him today”. Along the way he encounters a variety of scholars, performers, and fans, all the while maintaining the agreeable demeanor of an enthusiast who enjoys his subject without taking himself too seriously.

Hayman begins in Edinburgh, Conan Doyle’s birthplace, where he consults with historian Susan Varga. She shows us a post office directory for 1859, the year of Conan Doyle’s birth, and points out that Picardy Place, his first home, was in what we today might call a mixed-income development in which plumbers and waiters live next door to accountants and lawyers. From there Hayman moves on to the National Library of Scotland where Owen Dudley Edwards provides some fascinating detail about Conan Doyle’s early life (he was the leader of a street gang of Catholics who regularly fought with Protestant gangs and which Edwards believes is the source of the Baker Street Irregulars) and also provides a spontaneous of reading of part of “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”.

On to the University of Edinburgh where Conan Doyle worked with Dr. Joseph Bell whose skill in diagnosis is widely considered the model for Sherlock’s powers of deduction, followed by the British seaport of Southsea where Conan Doyle first established his medical practice. Today we think of medicine as a secure profession and writing as a far chancier proposition but in the England of 1882 apparently this was not the case: Conan Doyle supported himself writing short stories when he could not attract enough medical patients to make a living. A visit to the nearby Portsmouth City Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of Conan Doyle and Holmes memorabilia, provides the occasion for an interview with Neil McCaw, Academic Director of the collection. McCaw supplies an overview of Conan Doyle’s publishing history, pointing out that the author was never paid for A Study in Scarlet and perhaps for that reason let five years pass before writing another Holmes adventure.

In London Hayman meets with writer/actor/director Stephen Fry (an enthusiast who was once the youngest member of the Sherlock Holmes Society) who tells the story of Conan Doyle’s dinner meeting with Oscar Wilde. Arranged by a representative of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine it turned out to be a productive meeting indeed, resulting in Wilde’s only published novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and the second Sherlock Holmes novel (The Sign of the Four), reviving the character which would come to define Conan Doyle’s career.

Author/historian Kate Williams fills us in on her view of Sherlock’s dark side and points out how his adventures fit into the growing demand for shocking stories among members of the newly-literate working classes. Professor Clive Emsley provides information about contemporary police practices (the interview is filmed in the magnificent Royal Courts of Justice) and why Sherlock held such a low opinion of the London police.

Catherine Cooke gives us a look at some original issues of The Strand housed in the Marylebone Library and provides some keen insights on the importance of the character Dr. Watson (a character she believes Conan Doyle based on himself) in the success in the Holmes stories. Author and historian Matthew Sweet gives us his opinions on Professor Moriarty who he feels represents “the dark side of Holmes” while also serving as a necessary device to sell readers on that unfortunate incident at Reichenbach Falls.

Hayman next ventures to the British Library where he meets with Rachel Foss, curator of the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. We get a look at Conan Doyle’s diaries (he referred to the Holmes stories as “police romances”) and also learn about the success of William Gillette’s stage play incorporating the character of Holmes. This provides a transition to his final stop, a meeting with actor/writer Lynda La Plante who heaps praises on Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes. Hayman reaches a conclusion regarding his initial question and although I don’t agree with him I did enjoy vicariously experiencing his journey to get to it.

The DVD of The Search for Sherlock Holmes includes seven bonus interviews totaling over 90-minutes (Stephen Fry’s alone is almost 55-minutes), making them twice the length of the finished program. They’re quite enjoyable to watch and full of gems like Stephen Fry expounding on his youthful infatuation with Sherlock Holmes and Kate Williams referring to Queen Victoria as “a great big fat paperweight.”

RATING 6 / 10