Arthur Conan Doyle was a mediocre medical doctor with an adventurous streak that could not be suppressed. “Several times in my life I have done utterly reckless things with so little motive that I have found it difficult to explain them to myself afterwards,” he wrote in his memoir. In Arthur and Sherlock, literary historian Michael Sims traces some of Doyle’s grand adventures, including expeditions to the polar icecap and Africa, and shows how they became fodder for his early prose. But travel wasn’t the only source of inspiration for Doyle’s iconic fictional sleuth, Sherlock Holmes.
Dr. Joseph Bell, who was one of Doyle’s teachers in medical school in Scotland, was so recognizable in the character of Holmes that Robert Louis Stevenson, who also studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, wrote to Doyle to inquire, “can this be my old friend Joe Bell?” Bell, a lively, intelligent man who could startle classes with uncanny observational deduction, proved a wonderful model for Holmes, who both builds on and deviates from the literary tradition of detective fiction that goes all the way back to the Bible itself. (King David, Sims suggests, is an early prototype of the detective figure.) This tradition is luminously carried on by Edgar Allan Poe, whom Sims explores in absorbing detail.
There is something in this marvelous book for every Holmes fan, and short, vivid chapters keep the pages turning. From early reviewers who couldn’t spell Doyle’s name to grand lunches with famous magazine editors alongside Oscar Wilde, Sims knows how to paint a picture that fascinates and delights. Arthur and Sherlock will take its place on the growing shelf of literary histories presented by this talented and eloquent writer.