A world away from Scotland, on the Pacific island paradise of Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson was certain he recognised the real-life doctor who had served as the model for super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes.
“Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?” the Treasure Island author asked in a letter to Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Both writers had attended the University of Edinburgh and had been amazed at how one of the medical school’s lecturers, Dr Joseph Bell, discerned at a glance his patients’ occupations, hometowns and other personal details. Bell’s powers of observation and deduction formed the basis for a character who’s arguably more popular today than when he first appeared in print in the 1880s.
In Arthur & Sherlock, American author Michael Sims explores the origins of the iconic detective, from Bell’s ability to read people, to previous literary creations such as Edgar Allan Poe’s armchair detective, Auguste Dupin. Conan Doyle acknowledged his debt to Poe, calling him “the father of the detective tale”, and the influence of Bell, his former teacher. He had imagined what would happen “if a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business”, and the result was Holmes – a new kind of crime fighter, who took a rational approach to finding and weighing evidence.
Sims unravels how Conan Doyle conjured up Holmes and his sidekick, Dr John Watson, including the last-minute name changes that spared the world from having to embrace Sherrinford Holmes and Dr Ormond Sacker.
He also peppers the narrative with fresh insights into Conan Doyle’s upbringing in Edinburgh, his ingratiating character and medical career, and his alcoholic father. And he may have discovered the inspiration for his character’s odd first name – Chief Inspector William Sherlock of the Metropolitan Police, who was often in the news.
Sims weaves the strands of Conan Doyle’s personal and professional lives into an absorbing narrative. He was only 27, Sims notes, when he “conjured a new kind of hero” who “embodied his own reckless bravery and burgeoning passion for justice” – and transformed detective fiction.
When Holmes debuted in A Study In Scarlet in 1887, The Scotsman lauded the “entrancing” tale and predicted Conan Doyle “is bound to have many readers”. With this engaging exploration of how a beloved author found his signature character, Sims is likely to have many readers as well.
*Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle And The Creation Of Holmes, by Michael Sims Bloomsbury Publishing, £18.99
*Dean Jobb is the author of Empire Of Deception, the true story of a master swindler in 1920s Chicago. His next book will recreate the crimes of Glasgow-born serial killer Dr Thomas Neill Cream