From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon

Image of From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon
Release Date: 
July 31, 2017
Mysterious Press
Reviewed by: 

“highly entertaining and easy to read. . . . despite its length and sheer poundage in paperback is unputdownable. Bravo . . .”

In January 1940 Denis Conan Doyle, son of the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, attended an unusual dinner at a hotel on Park Avenue in New York City. He’d agreed to deliver a speech to an American group calling themselves the Baker Street Irregulars, ardent enthusiasts of Sir Arthur’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

However, while Denis spoke about his father the author, the rest of the presentations focused entirely on Sherlock Holmes the fictional character. Realizing these men “were going on as though Sherlock Holmes had been a real live person,” he expressed his confusion to the organizer who replied, “Dr. Watson wrote up the cases, of course. They were all quite factual. Sir Arthur was—so to speak—the literary agent.”

Here we have, in a nutshell, the pivotal theme of Mattias Boström’s From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon. Known among Sherlockians as “playing the game,” the odd behavior encountered by Denis Conan Doyle involves “accepting the conceit that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson once existed: from that point one could go about researching the characters and the stories in an almost academic way. The motto was just as much about seeing the whole thing as a game, albeit a game treated delightfully seriously.”

As Boström’s sweeping epic unfolds, we begin to understand that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was indeed but the original point of embarkation for Sherlock, and we soon appreciate the remarkable process by which this literary creation surpassed his creator to become a phenomenon in his own right. The result, Boström explains, was the emergence of “Parallel Holmes . . . a literary figure whose roots stretched almost as far back as those of the original Holmes.”

Boström begins with Conan Doyle’s life and literary work, which ultimately totaled 56 short stories and four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes in particular. This character, we learn, was originally inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, an instructor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary whose lectures Conan Doyle attended while at medical school.

He then begins to trace the slow evolution of Holmes as he makes his first appearances onstage in a highly-successful play starring William Gillette. Where Conan Doyle had imagined him smoking a straight pipe, for example, Gillette played the character with the now-famous curved pipe in order to deliver his lines with greater ease.

The famous deerstalker cap “had been placed on the detective’s head by the illustrator Sidney Paget” and then adopted by Gillette for his performances. As Boström notes with tongue in cheek, given all the changes to the image of Holmes that were added by other people, it was a comfort that Conan Doyle himself had included the large magnifying glass in his stories, since then he “could be said to have had at least a finger, if not a whole hand, in shaping the myths surrounding his own character.”

From here Boström takes us beyond Conan Doyle’s death to the management of his estate by his sons, Denis and Adrian, to the appearance of Holmes in highly-popular American radio programs written by Edith Meiser, to feature films produced by Universal Studios starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce; and onward right through to two contemporary hit television series: the British Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and the American Elementary, starring Jonny Lee Miller.

From Holmes to Sherlock is a breathtakingly comprehensive study of a literary phenomenon, filled with esoterica and insider information bound to please the most serious Sherlockian, who will also appreciate the extensive end notes documenting Boström’s many sources. At the same time, readers with only a passing knowledge of Sherlock Holmes, or indeed a passing interest, will find his opus highly entertaining and easy to read.

Mattias Boström has given us an epic narrative that despite its length and sheer poundage in paperback is unputdownable. Bravo to The Mysterious Press for bringing it to us in an attractive, well-designed English language edition, bravo to Michael Gallagher for his excellent translation, and bravo to Mattias Boström for telling a story that for most readers is incredible but to him, as an accomplished Sherlockian, appears at the end of the day to have been quite “elementary.”