Few characters in literature have inspired such obsessive devotion as Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed sleuth first made his appearance in the 1887 novel “A Study in Scarlet.” Along with his redoubtable partner, Dr. Watson, Holmes would solve fiendishly difficult mysteries in 60-some tales beloved by generations.
In “From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon,” Swedish writer Mattias Bostrom looks at the cultural impact of Conan Doyle’s creation across literature, magazines, theater, TV and film. It’s a book hard-core fans will eat up; others may find themselves bogged down in a surfeit of arcane detail and wordy exposition.
Bostrom snoops around Conan Doyle’s life and doings, the business of literary estates and foreign rights, and the multiple adaptations of the Holmes oeuvre.
Conan Doyle famously killed off Holmes in the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” in a nail-biting scene that played out on Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, as the detective battled nemesis Dr. Moriarty. But fans would not let Conan Doyle off the hook; neither would the lure of money. In 1902, Conan Doyle brought back his hero in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” (Holmes faked his death.)
Indeed, “From Holmes to Sherlock” is as much about the business of the literary marketplace as it is a literary study. Conan Doyle’s estate was worth a considerable sum when he died in 1930. Management landed with sons Denis and Adrian. The former spent much of the proceeds luxuriating in European hotels, while Adrian dealt with contracts and other business. These sections strain patience even as they show the sons trying to protect and extend their father’s legacy.
Bostrom also explains how enthusiasts, both professional and amateur, did much to legitimate Holmes as an object of academic study. Some of their efforts could veer into silliness. For example, in 1921 an American radiologist named Gray Briggs tried to find the real location of 221b Baker Street, where Holmes resided. The effort pleased Conan Doyle.
Bostrom is heir to these superfans; he delights in every scrap of Holmesiana. He make his own clever contribution by proving that Holmes never once uttered his signature phrase — “Elementary, my dear Watson” — anywhere in the original Conan Doyle tales. There are a few deductive gems on these pages, but you’ll have to be patient as you search for them.