From Holmes to Sherlock (Book Review)

From Holmes to Sherlock

by Mattias Bostrom
Mysterious Press (August 2017)
544 p. ISBN 9780802126603

Publisher’s Summary

Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a unique literary character who has remained popular for over a century and is appreciated more than ever today. But what made this fictional character, dreamed up by a small-town English doctor in the 1880s, into such a lasting success, despite the author’s own attempt to escape his invention?

In From Holmes to Sherlock, Swedish author and Sherlock Holmes expert Mattias Boström recreates the full story behind the legend for the first time. From a young Arthur Conan Doyle sitting in a Scottish lecture hall taking notes on his medical professor’s powers of observation to the pair of modern-day fans who brainstormed the idea behind the TV sensation Sherlock, from the publishing world’s first literary agent to the Georgian princess who showed up at the Conan Doyle estate and altered a legacy, the narrative follows the men and women who have created and perpetuated the myth. It includes tales of unexpected fortune, accidental romance, and inheritances gone awry, and tells of the actors, writers, readers, and other players who have transformed Sherlock Holmes from the gentleman amateur of the Victorian era to the odd genius of today. Told in fast-paced, novelistic prose, From Holmes to Sherlock is a singular celebration of the most famous detective in the world—a must-read for newcomers and experts alike.

General Review

Reviewing a nonfiction book is difficult for me, since there are no characters to review, just a series of facts and how they’re presented.  Wonderfully, however, Mattias Bostrom chose to write his history of Holmes and the people who shaped him in an engaging, story-like manner, making this not just an interesting read, but a fun one.

The book is divided into different sections, all of which cover a range of dates (there is no table of contents in my ARC, alas).  We begin, most naturally, with Arthur Conan Doyle and the circumstances that led him to create Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.  From there, the text makes a number of side trips into other people, such as publishers and editors, journalists and fellow writers.  At first I thought the stories and information about these people were added as colour to the text, but as we got further into the book I realized that the little asides about all of these different people had a point, and that they all influenced ACD or how Holmes and Watson would go on to become cultural icons.  It was a risky move- I could see some readers, perhaps not as devoted to Holmesian or Watsonian interests but more general readers, getting frustrated with the asides and leaving off before they saw the fruition.  But it’s a risk that pays off; Bostrom’s text is far more interesting for getting to meet some of our key players before they really enter the scene.

While the first two sections of the book are truly devoted just to ACD, in section three (1897-1930) we begin to see the impact that the stories have made and how Holmes begins to leave the hands of his creator and become the creation of a whole confluence of cultural factors.  It is in this section that we meet William Gillette and see the changes he wrought upon the character, as well as see some of the early films- and all the issues of copyright that immediately come up.

Though the book focuses on the ways that Holmes has been shaped by so many different people, I would say that the issue of copyright- who owns Holmes?- is the most important theme throughout the story.  I will confess it up front: I am someone who, while interested in a vague way in the history of Holmesiana, has never studied or memorized it in the way that so many Holmesians have.  So this book, for me, did an excellent job of keeping my interest even while explaining why the issue of copyright is so complicated when it comes to Sherlock Holmes.  We get to see the way ownership was handed over so easily in the Edwardian era to various film companies, often at the same time, which created problems for later films and television adaptations, which led to fights among the Conan Doyle estate, both among themselves and with outside companies.  Bostrom’s narrative is extremely compelling in this regard, and even though I knew the eventual outcome, I found myself tense as all the different factions fought amongst themselves for well over eighty years.

As someone who adores adaptations, it was incredibly interesting to see how familiar faces came onto the stage.  Edith Meiser, Frederic Dorr Steele (who made me cry at my desk at work), Nigel Bruce (who also made me cry), Evelyn Herzog (her story made me ugly cry at my desk… look, I got emotional while reading this book, it was that good), Peter Cushing, Ronald Howard, Robert Stephens… there were so many figures dear to me in general that appeared in this book.  If I have one fault for this book, it’s that I wish it dug in deeper with the different films and television shows.  That wasn’t the purpose of this book, so that isn’t a slight on the author, but rather a compliment: this book was so engaging that I wanted him to write another 544 pages just on the production histories of every Holmesian film and television show ever.

I will warn readers now, however, that if you are fans of Conan Doyle’s children, you might want to brace yourself.  While Denis and Adrian are treated with fondness, the author doesn’t shy away from their less admirable characteristics, especially when it came to managing their father’s estate.  I walked away from this book deeply grateful that we have any additional Holmes and Watson things at all, given the way they handled things.

I thought this was a fascinating book.  I received an ARC from Edelweiss, and though excited, was also a bit apprehensive.  As I stated, my interests in Holmesiana lie elsewhere, and so I was concerned that I would be a poor audience for this book.  Rather, it captured my attention and aroused my curiosity.  After finishing this excellent volume, I wound up doing some more research on my own.

What About Our Watson?

As this is a nonfiction book that specifically focuses on what influenced the ongoing cultural creation of Sherlock Holmes, as well as the people who were influenced by him, it is perhaps not surprising that there isn’t much discussion about Watson.  Though we get to peak behind the curtain and see some of the evolution of film and television shows, they largely focus on the creators of those adaptations as well as the figures who portrayed Holmes.  This is not exclusive; Nigel Bruce is talked about a bit, for instance.  But by and large, Watson is a footnote in this book.

Thankfully, the author does give us one excellent point about Watson.  Bostrom proposes that ACD’s genius was not in creating Holmes, but in creating Watson, and giving us an organic, clever way to meet Holmes and join in the stories.  It is an interesting point, and given the respect the author extends Watson, I would love to see him do a history of Watson and his evolution, which is many ways is far more intriguing than the evolution of Holmes.

You Might Like This Book If You Like:

Histories; adaptations and how they came about; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his family

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