Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : Sherlock Holmes, The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die ( Ebury Press / Museum of London)

Book Review : Sherlock Holmes, The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die ( Ebury Press / Museum of London)

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Sherlock Holmes is one of the great fictional characters of British literature, whose popularity has endured for over the last 100 years. Part of the character’s popularity is his appearance in the numerous film, TV and theatre adaptations.
For the first time in over 60 years, the character becomes the subject of a major exhibition at the Museum of London. To accompanying the exhibition, the curator Alex Werner has compiled this book which explores how Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of Sherlock Holmes can only be fully understood in the context of the transformation of London into a centre of Empire. The book features articles written by leading experts, headed by Sir David Cannadine, and offers some new insights into the famous detective and explores some of the real life characters and events that influenced the fiction.

The first article in the book is entitled “A Case of Mistaken Identity” written by Sir David Cannadine which considers ” how the late 1880s were a remarkable and transformative era in the history of London. ”  This transformation consolidated London’s position as not just a national capital but also the centre of the British Empire. However for all the wealth being accrued, it was the concerns of the poverty and crime that made many of the headlines. It is out of this crucible of wealth and poverty that Conan Doyle developed the Sherlock Holmes stories. Sir David Cannadine makes the important point that it is important to distinguish between Holmes supposed encyclopaedic knowledge of London and Conan Doyle’s limited knowledge of the capital city. In many ways it is ” misleading literary sleight of hand” because Conan Doyle only lived in London for a total of four years and Holmes knowledge is inferred rather than proved by numerous evidence of actual places. Many people have pointed out that many of the Holmes stories took place outside of the London often in Surrey and Sussex, areas that Conan Doyle was very familiar with.

John Stokes in his contribution ” The Bohemian Habits of Sherlock Holmes ” suggests that Holmes’ complex and idiosyncratic behaviour was part of a wider Bohemian movement which cherished individualism, freedom from family responsibilities and playing around with different identities. Stokes also points out that the Holmes often followed the bohemian habit of lounging, loafing and idling which contrasted with his other periods of intense action when he was on a case.

Alex Werner , the curator of the Museum of London exhibition explores ” Sherlock Holmes, Sidney Paget and the Strand Magazine ” and suggests that although ” The detective story was all the rage by the 1880s ” it was the combination of the character, Sidney Paget and the Strand magazine that elevated Sherlock Holmes to the status of the ‘Great Detective’. Sidney Paget’s illustrations in the Strand provided the visual interpretations of Holmes and Watson that would provide the template for the many subsequent interpretations.

If Sidney Paget provides the characters visual template, Pat Hardy in her section called ‘The Art of Sherlock Holmes” investigates how artists and photographers began to record their impressions of London and how these began to be associated with the Holmes stories themselves. The abiding impression of the Holmes stories was “the atmospheric fog and mist, which seems to envelop the city”. Artists such as Monet, Whistler, Pennell and the photography of  Alvin Langdon Coburn produced visual interpretations that illustrate atmosphere and mood rather than straightforward representations.

The success of Sherlock Holmes was a double-edged sword for Conan Doyle, it provided financial security but did not satisfy his ambition to considered ‘a serious writer’. Clare Pettit in the section ‘Throwaway Holmes’ considers this dilemma and how Conan Doyle’s solution to kill off Holmes was to backfire by increasing interest in the character rather than diminish it. When Conan Doyle brings Holmes back to life, it is within the pages of the Strand magazine in self-contained short stories as opposed to the more common serial. In the increasingly information heavy age, this fitted perfectly into the craze for the light reading of Newspapers and Magazines.
Many thought this information was disposable but Holmes himself builds up scrapbooks of information garnered from newspapers. Paradoxically for Conan Doyle it was the success of the Holmes stories in the magazines that was taking readers away from ‘serious writing’.

However the success of Sherlock Holmes did not just rely on the printed work, at the beginning of the twentieth century the embryonic Film industry began to use the stories. Nathalie Morris in the section entitled ‘Silent Sherlocks : Holmes and Early Cinema charts this relationship, the first known film to feature the character of Sherlock Holmes was the 1900 American Film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled. Many others followed but were generally parodies or sketches but more serious versions began to appear which often pitted Holmes against other fictional characters.
In 1911, Conan Doyle sold the Holmes film rights to French Company Eclair but other companies still used the stories, William Gillette who had played Holmes successfully on stage starred in a version in 1915. However it was when British Company Stoll bought the rights to some of the stories that a number of featured length film  were produced.
Most of the versions stayed more or less true to the stories but it was to be a theme up to the present day that many interpretations gave the characters modern settings and modern dilemma’s. Television followed the same path illustrating that Holmes and Watson could not be tied down into one era or even country but became global icons.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes have been the subject of countless books, films and television programmes but rarely the subject of an exhibition that bring many of these elements together. Both the exhibition and the book offer new insights into one of the most enduring fictional characters. Calling on the work of experts in the field, this book is full of interesting narratives and a wide range of stunning illustrations which attempt to discover some of the key elements in the character’s development  and the environment that was crucial to its success.

This book will appeal both to Holmes’ aficionado’s and those who would like to find out more about the ‘Great Detective’. It is an authoritative  and highly readable investigation into one of literatures most enigmatic characters.

 Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like to find out more about the book or buy a copy, visit the Ebury Press website here

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