With Arthur and Sherlock, Michael Sims seeks to answer how Arthur Conan Doyle went from modestly successful physician to world-famous writer of detective stories.
Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of HolmesPublisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 256 pages
Author: Michael Sims
Publication date: 2017-01
The life of Arthur Conan Doyle should provide encouragement to everyone who’s not sure where their true talents lie, and stand as a reproach to career counselors and anyone else who thinks that one’s future life can be neatly predicted in advance. Doyle was a man who succeeded in many roles, including physician, historical writer, sportsman, and political reformer, and was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902. But for all those accomplishments, chances are few would remember his name today were it not for his creation of one of the most enduring characters in popular literature, Sherlock Holmes.
The story of how Doyle went from successful physician to insanely popular writer of detective fiction is told in Michael Sims’ Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes. Sims which concentrates on the years 1886 through 1893, which Holmes fans will recognize as the period that began with his writing “A Study in Scarlet” (published two years later in Beeton’s Christmas Annual and ended with publication of “The Final Problem”, Doyle’s attempt to kill off the fictional detective whose popularity he felt had come to overshadow his other work.
As have many other writers, Sims finds the most important influence on Holmes to be that of Dr. Joseph Bell, who taught Doyle at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. Bell was noted for his fine powers of observation, and it’s hard not to hear the voice of Holmes when Bell expounds on the importance of training students to observe: “…a trained use of the observation can discover in ordinary matter such as the previous history, nationality, and occupation of a patient... Nearly every handicraft writes its sign-manual upon the hands. The scars of the miner differ from those of the quarryman...”
Sims dramatizes some encounters between Bell and his patients, in one case showing Bell deducing that a mother who arrived at the clinic with her child had traveled via the ferry from Burntisland, had walked near the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens, had an older child at home, and worked in a linoleum factory. The clues: the woman’s accent and the geography of the surrounding region, red clay on her shoes, the pattern of dermatitis on her hands, and the fact that the child was wearing a coat too large for him. It’s not a great leap from such professional observations to the famous greeting Holmes delivered to Watson upon their first meeting: “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”
Of course, Bell was not the only influence on Doyle’s writing. Reading provided an important outlet and escape for a talented boy growing up in an impoverished home (Doyle’s father was an artist, but provided little support due to his alcoholism and psychiatric difficulties). His mother was the rock of the family, and also a great reader (Doyle recalled her holding a book in one hand while stirring the porridge with another) who passed her love of imaginative literature on to her son. As a child, Doyle taught himself French by reading Jules Verne novels, and as he matured read widely in a variety of genres. His tastes seemed to have been eclectic, embracing the essays of the American physician and popular writer Oliver Wendell Holmes and the politician and essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay (the favorite author of the teenage Doyle) and well dime novels and adventure tales. At school, Doyle invented stories to amuse his peers on rainy afternoons, wrote poetry, and edited a student literary magazine.
Sims provides many interesting digressions in Arthur and Sherlock, which gave the book the feel of a gazetteer through Doyle’s life. Doyle’s return to Edinburgh at age 17, for instance, provides Sims with the occasion to spend several pages describing the Edinburgh Castle and the city surrounding it, while a discussion of the character of Dr. Watson provides him with the opportunity to discuss the British Army and the Afghan Wars.
One of the more interesting of these digressions is Sims’ discussion of the origins of the detective story, which includes two sources that might not occur to everyone -- the biblical Book of Daniel and Voltaire’s Zadig -- as well as the well-known Dupin stories of Edgar Allan Poe. One important innovation of Doyle’s Holmes stories, Sims notes, was the creation of Dr. Watson to be Sherlock’s companion and chronicler, which provides a framework for the ostensible appearance of the stories in print and also created an early example of the crime-fighting duo.
Sims has incorporated a wealth of information into Arthur and Sherlock, and it’s a pleasant read, with its short chapters (30 in about 200 pages) making it perfect for an airplane journey. One aspect of Sims’ writing that may annoy some readers is his choice to refer to Doyle as “Arthur”, while other adults are referred to by their surnames, and his occasional indulgences in the conventions of fiction. He uses the latter to generalize about matters such as his subject’s state of mind (“The new year of 1892 was exciting for Arthur”) and occasionally to describe historical events as if he had witnessed them himself (“Blathwayt and Arthur sat in the study, which Arthur had decorated with Arctic trophies…”). While sources for such passages are provided in the endnotes, they clash stylistically with the rest of the book and sound more like the product of an interview for a glossy magazine than a well-researched work of history and criticism.