Ages ago, when I was eight, I read a book by Penelope Lively called The Ghost of Thomas Kempe–a million times, because I was that kind of kid. Now, as an adult, I vaguely recall the ghost-y bits, and the way I thought the poltergeist’s voice should sound, but what I really remember is a line from the sub-plot, when the hero, James, realizes that “people have layers, like onions.” *
Books have layers, too–at least the best ones do. Out of all people, Sherlockians should know this. After all, most of us probably did not become Canon devotees solely because we love creepy hounds, murderous snakes, and wall-climbing professors, even if the mysteries, puzzles, and adventures were the initial attraction. Survey any large group of Holmes fans and you’ll find myriad reasons why they love our detective, but the top reasons will likely include “a scientific detective,” “relatable heroes,” “literary innovation,” “sheer escapism,” and, possibly the most popular, “the devoted friendship” between Holmes and Watson. See? Layers.
In fiction, those layers can be intentional or slip in via the writer’s (or the reader’s) subconscious–remember the endless discussions of “what the author meant” in literature class? In non-fiction however, layers tend to be planned; like a good presentation, you can’t wing it. Instead, you have to know what you’re going to say, how you’re going to say it, and what you’re going to say it with. Then of course, you have to say it entertainingly enough that people will stay with you for the entire thing. It’s no easy job, which makes it even more remarkable that, in Arthur and Sherlock, not only has Michael Sims achieved it–he’s done it in less than 200 (fast-moving) pages.
Arthur and Sherlock is not, as it might seem at first, another biography of Conan Doyle. In fact, in the first two chapters, the reader learns more about Dr. Joseph Bell than his most famous pupil, who doesn’t take center stage until chapter four.
Even then, Arthur and Sherlock ends c.1892, just as the Great Detective has taken over The Strand Magazine and Conan Doyle dedicates the first collection of Holmes stories to his former professor. In between, Sims give us glimpses into both the youth and the man. We see young Arthur as a scrapping boy in the poorer part of Edinburgh, a rebellious student getting more than his fair share of beatings at school, and a young man who impetuously courted danger, whether by (inadvertently) swimming with sharks or testing a known poison (gelsemium) on himself, to see if it was possible to build up a resistance to it.
Then there’s the physician Arthur–the medical student, the exhausted assistant and the struggling young practitioner. We get a glimpse of Arthur the family man, both through his relationships with his parents and siblings and his experiences as a new husband and first-time father. As you might expect, however, Sims spends the most time examining Arthur as, well, an author. We watch him grow from his friends’ favorite story-teller, to enthusiastic submitter of photography articles (even as a novice, he couldn’t wait to share his techniques) and often-anonymous short stories, until finally we see him in the process of creating the characters which still outlive him. In far less time that it would take longer-winded biographers to get our boy through medical school, Sims covers nearly half of his life, giving the reader a portrait with perhaps less detail, but more insight.
Thinking about it, while using onion layers as a simile for human life is (I think) perfect, it doesn’t quite match what Sims is doing with Arthur and Sherlock. Instead, of requiring us to peel away layers of meaning, he very kindly provides them pretty much all at once. Like, say, a cake….
So, right along with the Arthur layer, Sims gives us a delicious history of the detective story (and detectives), specifically examining how Holmes, whether he liked it or not, was influenced by his predecessors: Zadig, Vidocq, Dupin, Bucket, LeCoq–even the Comte d’Artagnan.** As he does so, he also illuminates the connections between Conan Doyle’s literary inspirations, and those from his medical training, showing how all came together–with its instigator’s conscious planning–for that one meeting in the laboratory at Bart’s.
If this were all of Arthur and Sherlock, it would already be a great book. Michael Sims provides, arguably, the essential background every Sherlockian or mystery aficionado should know, and he does so succinctly. If Arthur and Sherlock hasn’t yet been marketed as a potential university text, it should be.
But then he adds one more layer…..
When I was growing up, my days had a soundtrack: Simon and Garfunkel, my mother’s favorite group, played on reel-to-reel tapes which arrived regularly from Columbia House.
This particular album has two songs which use counterpoint to, well, make a point. The best-known, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” combines the traditional English folk song with a song written by Paul Simon on the waste and futility of war. The other, “Seven o’clock News (Silent Night)” sets the Christmas carol against a “newscast” from August 3, 1966 mentioning, among other things, the Richard Speck murders; Cicero, Indiana police planning to call in the National Guard to handle a civil rights march led by Martin Luther King; and a report on the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Vietnam War protesters. Even for a pre-schooler, this was pretty powerful stuff.
Sims uses counterpoint for his final, most compelling, layer. Most Sherlockians are, I think, at least vaguely aware of Charles Altamonte Doyle, Arthur’s father, an architectural draftsman and artist whose struggles with alcoholism and mental illness eventually left him unable to care for his family in any meaningful way. In traditional biographies, such as Stashower’s Teller of Tales and Lycett’s The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, the story of his tragic life is overshadowed by those of whom, through his flaws, he unintentionally forced into roles which changed the course of their lives.
Sims takes a different path. Instead of analyzing Doyle pater, or focussing his attention on the (considerable) influence of Arthur’s mother, Mary, he interweaves Charles’ story with that of his son, so that, as we see Arthur’s star rise throughout the book, we also watch as his father’s falls, slowly, wobbling into the dark. Showing what is (to me, anyway) remarkable restraint, Sims refuses to analyze this contrast, leaving readers to ask and answer their own questions. Who might Charles Doyle have been, had he been born in the 21st century, with its more sophisticated understanding of the differences hidden in human brains? Who would Arthur have been, had he had the example of a stronger, more capable father? Would his gift for story-telling have been nurtured, and if it had, would he have then bypassed medical school–and the scientific mode of thinking which inspired the detective who outlives him? Or would his more whimsical, romantic side, in keeping with both his father’s and mother’s leanings, have prevailed, leaving him to create a shelf of medieval epics (à la The White Company), and fairy stories?
How did the effective loss of his father at a young age affect Arthur? Did it make him more daring and rebellious, more eager to prove himself, more open to mentors like Joseph Bell? Did it push him to take risks–sailing to the Arctic, opening a medical practice on virtually nothing, deciding to ditch medicine altogether for a writing career? And, lest we lay everything at the feet of nurture, what kept Arthur (and all of his siblings, actually) from ending up like his father? As much as Conan Doyle liked to play the bluff, hearty soldier-type, it’s easy to get a glimpse of someone much more sensitive and emotionally vulnerable, particularly as he aged, a deep thinker whose own “hidden fires” drove him just as surely as they did (do?) Sherlock Holmes.
That is, of course, the true and beautiful mystery of it all. By examining a writer’s life and literary influences, we can see, clearly in Conan Doyle’s case, where his stories and characters came from. The layers are all deconstructed and spread before us. But the spark that animates the body, the “breath of life” that stirs the dust, remains invisible, discernible only through its unique creation. There will only ever be one Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, and aren’t we glad we had him?
Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes is available as a hardcover and eBook from all of your favorite online and brick-and-mortar booksellers. Michael Sims is the author of books on Thoreau, E.B. White, the sun, and a variety of other topics, as well as an essayist and an editor of Victorian anthologies. He is a sought-after speaker who has appeared at various Sherlockian events. His website is michaelsimsbooks.com.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5–“This is a wonderful book that gets it right.”
Canon Rating: n/a
*The actual quote is, “‘People,’ said James, ‘People having layers, like onions,'” but I had to edit the grammar to make it fit. It’s a great book if you want to check it out:
Lively, Penelope. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. Oxford: Heinemann, 1973, (p.134).
**If you notice, there are a lot of French names there. Holmes seems to have French ancestry no matter which angle you take. (And if you don’t think that “Bucket” is French, well, then, I have it on perfect authority (via slimline telephone) that you’re not pronouncing it correctly.)