The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The "Real" Sherlock Holmes
All this week I'm posting excerpts from my new book, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, available in a cute little hardback edition from Amazon and bookstores everywhere. Today I wanted to highlight one of the book's many "sidebar" chapters, which examine Holmes' world -- 19th century London -- and that of his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle. Did you know that Sherlock Holmes was inspired by a real person? Read on!
The "Real" Sherlock Holmes
I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer an exact science. —Arthur Conan Doyle, from his autobiography
There is an entire branch of Sherlockian scholarship that trades upon the playful assumption that Sherlock Holmes and Dr.Watson were real people, and that the well-loved Holmes mysteries are not fiction at all but actual events, expertly documented by Watson and published under the name of his friend and literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle. "The Great Game," as these speculative works of scholarship are called, are generally regarded as an ambitious and amusing distraction, but there may be at least a kernel of truth to them: If one were to ask Sir Arthur whether or not Sherlock Holmes was real, his answer may well have been in the affirmative.
The "real" Sherlock Holmes was a doctor and lecturer named Joseph Bell, under whom Conan Doyle studied while in medical school and upon whom he would later base his most famous character. Bell wasn't interested in crime, of course, but he was a detective of medicine whose impressive observations and deductions inspired his students and colleagues, Conan Doyle especially. In an 1892 letter to his former mentor, Conan Doyle wrote: "I do not think that [Holmes's] analytical work is in the least an exaggeration of some effects which I have seen you produce in the out-patient ward. Round the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate, I have tried to build up a man who pushed the thing as far as it would go—further occasionally."
Anecdotes that illustrate Dr. Bell's legendary skills of observation and deduction are plentiful, and a few seem to mirror Holmes's methods almost exactly. One recalls the doctor's uncanny ability to deduce a patient's occupation, history, and hometown within moments of first meeting. After having performed this medical parlor trick on a female patient for the benefit of his students, Bell explains how he did it:
You see, gentlemen, when she said good morning to me I noted her Fife accent, and, as you know, the nearest town in Fife is Burntisland. You noticed the red clay on the edges of the soles of her shoes, and the only such clay within 20 miles of Edinburgh is in the Botanic Gardens. Inverleith Row borders the gardens and is her nearest way here from Leith. You observed that the coat she carried over her arm is too big for the child who is with her, and therefore she set out from home with two children. Finally she has a dermatitis on the finger of the right hand which is peculiar to workers in the linoleum factory in Burntisland.
But the astute doctor didn't limit his observations to the clinic. Another story puts Bell in a tearoom at a Scottish golf resort, where he overhears two elderly golfers arguing about the location of a village near the English town of Blackheath. Bell interjects, suggesting they put the question to a fourth man in the room, who is finally able to provide the answer. After the old men leave, the fourth man asks Bell, "What led you to refer them to me, a stranger?" Bell replies, "Well, I saw you this morning pivoting on your left foot on the golf course. That is a fault of those who learned their golf in boyhood. I heard you speak and knew you were English. Blackheath was about the only place in England where golf could be learned forty years ago, and I thought it probable you would know the neighborhood."
Bell was proud of—if somewhat modest about—his connection to Sherlock Holmes and deflected flattering comparisons by claiming that Conan Doyle's "imaginative genius" had made "a great deal out of very little." But the author would have none of it, insisting in his autobiography that "it is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards."
Other excerpts from The Sherlock Holmes Handbook: