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Sherlock Holmes and the Mystery of Abiding Fame

Mattias Bostrom's new book is a worthy account of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's surprising and culture shaping success.

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon, by Mattias Bostrom (The Mysterious Press, 2021), 597 pages.

This is a perfect book for Sherlock Holmes fans. It is an exhaustive study of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon, from his creation by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as the world’s most famous “consulting detective” to Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern day television version.

Sherlock Holmes is the most recognized figure in English literature. It is worth noting that the author of this 590-page study of the impact of Holmes on popular culture is neither English nor American, but Swedish. Holmes’s impact has been so great that in a 2014 poll, 58 percent of the people surveyed believed him to be real.

Bostrom traces Conan Doyle’s development of the Holmes character and its massive success in late Victorian and Edwardian England, going on to gain a worldwide audience by World War I. The first third of the book, in which he details how Conan Doyle fleshed out the various quirks of Holmes’s personality, are among the most fascinating—especially if one is a Holmes novice. Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and four novels featuring Holmes. Among his personal favorites were “The Sign of the Four” and the novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. (I personally have a soft spot for “The Adventure of the Second Stain.”) Those written prior to World War I were by far his best work. The last batch of stories, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, written in the 1920s, lacked the verve of his earlier work.

Bostrom has some interesting insights into why the Holmes character became such a success. He believes the creation of his faithful companion, Dr. Watson, as a sounding board for Holmes’ unique attributes as well as a narrator for the stories was a stroke of genius. He argues that Watson’s very normalness humanized Holmes. Conan Doyle broke new ground. Not only did Holmes become the first great detective (and not Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin), but all subsequent master sleuths also have a partner to serve as a sounding board for their genius and, often, a source of humor. Think Poirot and Hastings, Lord Peter Wimsey and Bunter, or more recently Morse and Lewis.

Bostrom believes two of the major contributions to our final image of Holmes were Sidney Paget’s drawings of him and William Gillette’s play. Paget gave Holmes his tall body, hawk nose, and turned what Conan Doyle described in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” as Holmes’s “close-fitting clothe cap” into a deer stalker. Gillette’s play, which was performed over a thousand times, took Paget’s ideas and added his calabash pipe. Gillette also made famous the Persian slipper tobacco holder, the V.R. formed by Holmes’s target practice, and the violin, as part of the Holmes portrait.

Conan Doyle was surprised by the success of his creation and often protested that his other tales—the Brigadier Gerard stories and novels like The White Company—were his best work. In The Final Problem, Conan Doyle tried to kill off his creation, but the stories were too lucrative, and the popular protests were overwhelming. Twenty thousand subscribers to The Strand, where Holmes’s stories appeared, canceled their subscriptions, and the future King Edward VII was said to be completely distraught. Conan Doyle discovered for the first time that he was not in control of Holmes and brought him back to life—he was not a mere literary creation but a living and important character to the public.

Bostrom notes that the character of Prof. Moriarty, “the Napoleon of Crime,” appeared in just two stories before Gillette’s play made him Holmes’s arch-rival. It was a masterstroke to create a villain who could match wits with Holmes in brilliance and eccentricity. No wonder the Moriarty character ranks along with Dr. Mabuse as one of the great creations of crime fiction.

The advent of movies, first silent and then talking, further spread Holmes’s fame. Bostrom has strong views on the topic. He has a high opinion of the 12 Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films of the late 1930s and mid-40s, arguing that Rathbone gave Holmes the image most people even today hold of him. He attributes much of the success of the 12 films to the director Roy William Neill, an underrated storyteller. He thinks highly of the Jeremy Brett characterization, believing that it was close to the Holmes of Conan Doyle’s stories while also noting the eccentricities of his portrait.

Bostrom devotes considerable space to the various pastiches of the Holmes stories. He admires A Study in Terror in which the actor John Neville gives a memorable Holmes performance while tracking down Jack the Ripper. Bostrom also has a high opinion, which I do not share, of the Nicholas Meyer film The Seven Percent Solution and the Cumberbatch portrayal, which moves Holmes to present times. Billy Wilder’s The Life of Sherlock Holmes and the musical Baker Street, Bostrom rightly regards as failures. Like many Sherlockians, I have an aversion to too much tampering with Conan Doyle’s work.

A fascinating reason for the continued popularity of the Holmes stories, and something that baffled Conan Doyle, was the conceit that Dr. Watson wrote them and that Doyle was just his literary agent. The application of the techniques of Biblical Higher Criticism to the Holmes stories was begun by Monsignor Ronald Knox, later a famous Catholic scholar. It led to the growth of various Holmes societies such as the Baker Street Irregulars in New York, where the stories were closely analyzed and scrutinized for flaws and contradictions. Since Conan Doyle initially wasn’t careful about continuity nor did he pay close attention to every detail in the Holmes tales there were many curious flaws: Watson was named James in one story and was apparently married to two different women (some say six!). In “Study in Scarlet” he is described as having been wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Maiwand but in “The Man with the Twisted Lip” the wound has moved to the leg. Part of the fun of reading and discussing the stories is discovering these anomalies for yourself.

Bostrom’s Conan Doyle comes across as a likable character, sometime bewildered and surprised by his success. He mentions but does little with Conan Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism in the last years of his life, a gullibility surprising in such an otherwise rational person. By focusing on the various aspects of the Holmes phenomenon, Bostrom has written a book that all Sherlockians will want to add to their collection of the great man’s work.

John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University and a lifetime Sherlock Holmes admirer.