FROM HOLMES TO SHERLOCK: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon, by Mattias Boström. Translated from the Swedish by Michael Gallagher. The Mysterious Press, 597 pp., $28.
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 some 60 tales beloved by generations.
In “From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon,” Swedish writer Mattias Boström looks at the cultural impact of Conan Doyle’s creation across several media — 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. (The English translation is by Michael Gallagher.)
Boström snoops around Conan Doyle’s life and doings, the business of literary estates and foreign rights, and the multiple adaptations of the Holmes oeuvre. There have been many. Conan Doyle’s own 1899 play was reworked by and starred American actor William Gillette, whose personification of Holmes proved a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In recent years, the character has been brought to life on-screen by Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Downey Jr. But it is the evocatively named English actor Basil Rathbone who is most identified with Holmes, playing the great detective in 14 films between 1939 and 1946. The role both made Rathbone as an actor and boxed him in. He tried to “run away from Sherlock Holmes, only to find that he was running in circles, and after each complete turn he saw that the detective stood there waiting for him, beckoning him to return,” Boström writes.
The same could be said of Conan Doyle. He famously killed off Holmes in the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” in a nail-biting scene that played out on the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, as the detective battled his 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, it turned out, had faked his own death.)
As with Conan Doyle’s prior work, the novel appeared in Strand Magazine and featured illustrations by Sidney Paget. Boström shows how Paget’s brilliant work did much to propel the Holmes phenomenon: He is responsible for the deerstalker hat, only vaguely described in the stories, that we associate with the detective today. 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 devolved to his sons Denis and Adrian. The former spent much of the proceeds luxuriating in European hotels, while Adrian vigorously 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.
Boström 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. No such number existed, and Briggs used clues from the stories to pinpoint a plausible location. The effort pleased Conan Doyle.
Boström 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 such deductive gems on these pages, but you’ll have to be patient as you search for them.
Sherlock’s literary afterlife
Sherlock Holmes is the literary gift that keeps on giving. Here are five writers’ fictional takes on the detective and his creator.
THE SEVEN-PER-CENT SOLUTION, by Nicholas Meyer (1974) Wherein the cocaine-addicted Holmes travels to Vienna and is treated by Sigmund Freud.
THE LAST SHERLOCK HOLMES STORY, Michael Dibdin (1978) Holmes tackles the Jack the Ripper murders in a novel that packs a chilling twist.
THE FINAL SOLUTION: A Story of Detection, by Michael Chabon (2004) Set in 1944, an aged Holmes-like character grapples with a murder mystery — and the Holocaust.
A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND, by Mitch Cullin (2005) An elderly Holmes, 93 and living in a farmhouse, raises bees and labors on his four-volume treatise, “The Whole Art of Detection.”
ARTHUR & GEORGE, by Julian Barnes (2005) An acclaimed riff on a true episode from Arthur Conan Doyle’s life, as the author helps a lawyer falsely accused of a crime. — MATTHEW PRICE