Those were the footprints of a gigantic…forensic scientist!
Like Abraham Lincoln and Adolf Hitler, if for very different reasons, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, have filled libraries with secondary works. Sims (The Adventures of Henry Thoreau: A Young Man's Unlikely Path to Walden Pond, 2014, etc.), a thoughtful literary biographer and sympathetic reader, adds a fine book to their number with this portrait of Doyle as a medical practitioner who wedded a talent for writing with the good fortune of having a useful model in the form of one of his professors. Joseph Bell, eccentric and inimitable, had an “oracular ability not only to diagnose illness but also to perceive details about patients’ personal lives.” Like Holmes, Bell could look at a frayed sleeve and divine how it got that way or could listen to a person speak and know within a couple of blocks where he or she hailed from and the circumstances of his or her life. But why a detective and not some version of a crusading coroner? Perhaps because such a figure didn’t exist, and even the detective was a fairly new creation, a genealogy that Sims ably traces a few decades before Doyle’s time to Edgar Allan Poe and his Dupin. Holmes is not just a Dupin, though; it took that leavening of Bell to lift Doyle from his mithridatic experiments with drugs and poisons to fame. Sims’ story effectively retells the story of the young Doyle as something of a Holmes himself, someone who could persuade readers that “seeming clairvoyance beyond the limits of direct knowledge was possible in the real world.” The author’s deeply researched but reader-friendly take on Doyle and Holmes fits nicely along recent books by Michael Dirda and Barry Grant, and it stands, like Samuel Rosenberg’s centrifugal book Naked Is the Best Disguise (1974), as a work of literature all its own.
Even the most learned of Baker Street Irregulars will enjoy Sims’ look at the making of Sherlock Holmes.