‘What one man can invent another can discover.’
-Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”
Sherlock Holmes. Just hearing that name irks a significant response from the average individual. It is a name that carries over a hundred years of legacy, belonging to one of the most recognizable characters in English literature and popular culture. When thinking of said character, perhaps the most common image that comes to mind is the infamous deerstalker cap and the tobacco laden pipe. It is imagery that has been very strongly embedded in the public consciousness for several decades, and is imagery that has roots in Victorian era London. Therefore, in order to properly understand the character, Victorian London is the most reasonable place to start.
Sherlock Holmes was brought to life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a man whose own life is perhaps as intriguing as the character that he created. Of course, Holmes was certainly not the first fictional detective that had graced the literary world. Generally, Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin is believed to hold that title, and he has been the mold from which later figures have been cut, including Holmes himself (Sova 162). Conan Doyle boldly stated that every one of Poe’s stories is a root from which a significant amount of literature has developed, going on to ask quite the heavy handed question “Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” (Knowles 67). At the same time, Émile Gaboriau’s Monsieur Lecoq was also extremely popular during that era. Perhaps it will not be far fetched to claim that Holmes’ speech and behaviour sometimes resemble Lecoq’s. Interestingly enough, both these characters, Lecoq and Dupin, are referenced at the beginning of A Study in Scarlet, and quite amusingly, made fun of by Holmes himself. However, while there are apparent similarities between Holmes and other characters in literature, there was also a very non fictional counterpart, a living breathing human being who very strongly inspired his creation. This individual was none other than Dr Joseph Bell, a surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh whom Conan Doyle met in 1877. Similar to Holmes, Bell was known for applying minute observations from which he was able to draw much broader conclusions (Lycett 53). In 1892, Doyle wrote, “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes” (“Letter to Mr Bell about Sherlock Holmes”). In the same letter, he stated that he tried to construct a character around “the centre of deduction and inference and observation” which he had so often seen Bell inculcate, and in his 1924 autobiography Doyle remarked, “It is no wonder that after the study of such a character, I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal” (Doyle, Memories and Adventures 36). Robert Louis Stevenson also noticed the striking similarities between the two, asking “…can this be my old friend Joe Bell?” (Stevenson).
Many fictional characters have been based on real people, so why is this particular iteration of individual to character so important to the topic at hand? The answer lies in the distance between reality and fiction. Generally, popular fiction, whether they be literature, film or everything in between, has always been more about marketing to the most common denominator, i.e there is generally a sacrifice of literary merit in exchange for higher return on monetary investment. What this means is that historically, popular fiction has served as a means of escapism to the masses, as the stories would be very plot driven with many twists and turns to keep the readers’ attention intact. Many of these stories relied upon fantastical, other worldly elements, such as Robert Loius Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Of course, Doyle’s stories of Holmes have nothing so extreme, that is until one considers the main character himself. Sherlock Holmes is, to put it bluntly, quite superhuman in his abilities. Just from some quick observations, he is able to put forth a detailed sketch of any human, animal or object, as evidenced by the majority of the canon. From deconstructing John Watson in A Study in Scarlet, to finding out the profession and history of James Mortimer from just a wooden cane in The Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes has continually proven throughout the stories to possesses some abilities that the common man can only see as magic tricks. Conan Doyle’s theatrical descriptions do not make such ‘tricks’ any less daunting from a realistic lens. It should then come as quite a shock when the reader learns of how Dr Joseph Bell was almost as every bit a magician as Holmes. In an entry in The New England Journal of Medicine, Edward Harnagel writes about Bell’s “wizardry in diagnosis” of a stranger, whereby the doctor unearths an impressive amount of detail from just his observations and deductions (1159). In the same article, the author mentions what Bell’s colleagues had to say: “He would tell [the patients] their symptoms, and even the details of their past life, and would hardly ever make a mistake” (Hanagel 1158).
Obviously, Bell was not correct a hundred percent of the time, but whatever he could do was quite extraordinary. Conan Doyle, working as Bell’s outpatient clerk, saw these instances of brilliance on a regular basis. In his autobiography, the Doyle writes that after having seen the many unique traits of detective characters of the past, he wanted to bring his character’s methods as close as possible to “an exact science”. Doyle thus brings to light the crux of Holmes’ initial burst in popularity. He boldly states that such methods were already proven to work in real life, and that readers would require examples of such brilliance, brilliance that he had witnessed time and time again from his old professor (Doyle, Memories and Adventures 440). Can an argument then not be made of how, when reading about Holmes’ exploits, the common man and woman could imagine themselves in his shoes, and that too without it being an outlandish thought? The magic that they witnessed in the pages was very well within their grasp; with diligent effort, they too could become the great detective themselves. Who else but Conan Doyle could be the perfect candidate to validate such a claim? He picked up much of Bell’s methods in their time together, and in a famous case that took place outside the pages of the stories, Doyle used his skills to clear the name of Oscar Slater, an innocent man who had been framed for a crime he did not commit. Bell later wrote to his former student, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes and well you know it” (Baring-Gould 8).
Baring-Gould, William S. The Annotated Sherlock Holmes: the Four Novels and the Fifty-Six Short Stories Complete. Clarkson N. Potter, 1979.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Memories and Adventures. Oxford Univ. Pr., 1989.
Knowles, Christopher, and Joseph Michael Linsner. Our Gods Wear Spandex the Secret History of Comic Book Heroes. Weiser Books, 2007.
Harnagel, Edward E. “Joseph Bell, M.D. — The Real Sherlock Holmes.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 258, no. 23, 1958, pp. 1158–1159., doi:10.1056/nejm195806052582307.
Lycett, Andrew. The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes: the Life and Times of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Free Press, 2008.
Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A-Z: the Essential Reference to His Life and Work. Checkmark Books, 2001.
Stevenson, Robert Louis, et al. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Yale University Press, 1994.