The Real Sherlock
Although I have been an avid fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was a teenager and am a proud member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, the idea for The Real World of Sherlock originated with my publisher when the editor read about my Sherlock Holmes walking tours. My first reaction to the proposal was negative. I couldn’t imagine writing a book about the background of Conan Doyle’s stories but omitting the main character. After all, the most important feature of the fiction is the hero. After some negotiation, it was agreed that the book would also discuss the background of the character–Conan Doyle’s sources of inspiration–as well as Holmes’s detective methods vis-à-vis the history of the Metropolitan Police and the development of forensic science: the book would depict the contemporary world of criminal investigation through Sherlock and his cases rather than by mere allusion to them.The international roots of detective fiction were never clearer than in the literary heritage of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle never made a secret of his admiration for Edgar Allan Poe and acknowledged his debt in press interviews and in his autobiography. However, he also acknowledged the influence of his medical mentor at Edinburgh University, Dr. Joseph Bell. I quickly discovered that very little material on Bell existed in American libraries and that important sources on Conan Doyle himself were only available in the UK. Ditto the history of the British police and their methods. This was a perfect excuse to visit the British Library in London, my favorite city! For nearly six months, I happily beavered away in the library’s reference stacks and, after hours, enjoyed the multitude of pleasures London offers.Mind you, it wasn’t all skittles and beer! Fathoming the BL catalogue system for articles, reviews, and interviews of the period often required Sherlockian skills. And inevitably, some volumes were missing or so fragile that pages couldn’t be photocopied. It was thrilling, though, when a sought-after source arrived and yielded precious information, such as Conan Doyle’s interview outlining his adaptation of Bell’s medical diagnostic method to criminal investigation and how he literally created Holmes in Bell’s image. Dr. Bell’s article in the British Medical Journal outlined the medical use of cocaine and led to detailed information on cocaine trials in the 1870s by Bell’s colleagues and other contemporary practitioners. This research provided much of the critical background Conan Doyle needed to illustrate Holmes’s habitual drug use.
In assessing the influence of Poe and Bell on Conan Doyle, as well as his own personal contribution to Sherlock’s creation, I was exploring terrain already mapped by many literary critics and scholars, all the while offering a fresh eye and new insights.
The Real World of Sherlock extends, amplifies, and refines this approach, disclosing the nature and degree of each man’s contribution to Holmes’s DNA.
Most literary critics have analyzed parallels among plot structure, setting, events, and characters in the stories of Poe and Conan Doyle. My book extends this approach, discussing Conan Doyle’s intriguing modifications of Poe’s plots as well as creating new plot devices such as the decoy ruse and accidents that appear criminal but are not.
As for character, Poe’s fictional detective, Auguste Dupin shares many traits with Holmes. However, there are also significant differences. For example, Conan Doyle changed Poe’s two-dimensional straw man into a human being with a sense of humor. Holmes reveals a moral commitment to general social welfare far beyond Dupin’s self-indulgent interest in solving crimes as an amusing and profitable mental exercise. Holmes is a much more heroic character, functioning ultimately on an allegorical plane in his conflict with the master criminal Professor Moriarty. Although Conan Doyle borrowed a great deal from Poe, he also broadened both the generic conventions of plot and animated the personality of his protagonist by infusing his personal passion for justice into his detective hero.
Bell’s influence in shaping both Holmes’s character and methods of investigation, as well as his personal involvement in the composition of the stories, are often underestimated. Bell’s influence on Conan Doyle did not come merely from the printed page as with Poe, but was the result of direct personal interaction. Bell served not only as the model for Holmes’s physical appearance and mannerisms, but also for his scientific methods. Holmes duplicated Bell’s tone of voice, terse style of expression, and workaholic lifestyle. They shared an interest in chemistry and graphology, and both personally inspired confidence in others. Moreover, Conan Doyle introduced details from Bell’s cases into his stories, and Bell contributed ideas for the plots and characters and thus could even be considered a collaborator. In addition, as a medical crime scene investigator, Bell testified as an expert witness for the Crown in criminal prosecutions, which may have encouraged Conan Doyle to become a criminologist himself.
Although both Poe and Bell inspired Sherlock’s method of logical deduction, Bell was the primary source of Holmes’s instantaneous, incisive deductions from trifling details. What especially distinguishes Holmes from Dupin is his insistence on treating criminal investigation as a science, which derives from Bell. For Bell, a diagnostician was a detective. Despite having acute powers, Dupin’s observations were confined principally to property and physical objects, whereas Holmes observes the far more challenging subject of the human countenance and interprets myriad nuances of expression and behavior, which Bell did daily in his clinic. Exceeding and/or refining Bell’s technique, Holmes’s keen scrutiny leads to psychological insight into character, and he is able to fathom the motivations and predict the likely actions of individuals he meets.
As Lestrade and the other officers at Scotland Yard realized, they would have a much higher success rate if only they could use Sherlock’s methods. But even after observing him work, they cannot apply his techniques effectively because they cannot interpret the physical evidence at the crime scene correctly. Throughout most of the 19th century, the Metropolitan Police of London
were handicapped by lack of education, poor training, divisional jealousies, lack of centralized records, low funding, and public distrust. They were also technologically and scientifically challenged. Photography was used to record crime scenes for the first time in the 1888 Jack the Ripper killings, but not until the turn of the 20th century, with the application of fingerprinting and valid blood tests, did they have the means to identify criminals scientifically.
Discovering the world of Sherlock Holmes proved to be much more interesting than I could have foreseen.