Sherlock Holmes is among the most iconic characters in fiction. He's been portrayed on large screens and small for more than 100 years, most recently by Robert Downey Jr. in film; Benedict Cumberbatch for PBS, and Larry the Cucumber in VeggieTales' "Sheerluck Holmes and the Golden Ruler."
His creator, physician-turned-author Arthur Conan Doyle, has already been the subject of about 30 biographies. Do we need another?
In the case of Michael Sims' "Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes," the answer is mostly yes.
Sims combines extensive scholarship with excellent writing and organizational skills to produce a work that is not only informative but eminently readable. What's most interesting is how he places Doyle, Holmes and the genre in historical context.
It all started in 1829 with the formation of the first legitimate police force, London's bobbies. Shortly thereafter, Edgar Allan Poe wrote what is widely considered the first modern detective story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," followed by two more, all featuring the same detective, C. August Dupin.
Doyle, a vociferous reader, was familiar with Poe's work and claimed Poe covered the genre "so completely that I fail to see how his followers can find any fresh ground which they can confidently call their own."
Doyle did, however, discovering his muse in medical school. One of his professors, Dr. Joseph Bell, was an expert surgeon and diagnostician who wowed students and patients alike with his "ability not only to diagnose illness but also to perceive details about the patients' lives" purely through observation.
He would, for example, identify a person as a cobbler by observing he "had a worn place on the inside of the knee of a patient's trousers. It was where a cobbler rested his lapstone, across which stretched the leather that was to be hammered into greater strength."
Doyle wrote stories (successfully, but published anonymously) between the few patients who visited his practice early on. "He began to imagine how a mind such as Dr. Joseph Bell's would sparkle if turned to the solving of crimes," Sims writes.
His first novel, however, was lost in the mail, devastating at a time when manuscripts were handwritten. A second was rejected by every publisher it was sent to.
My only nit is that is that the book stops around 1891, two years before Sherlock and his archenemy Prof. Moriarty plunge to their supposed deaths over Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem." It would have been a perfect coda to an otherwise wonderful book to explain why he did it and why he ultimately resurrected the detective in "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
Curt Schleier is a freelance critic in New Jersey.