SECOND OPINION: The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes by Mattias Boström

Review published on September 1, 2017.

It’s pretty well known that despite Sherlock Holmes’ immense popularity among readers (and now TV, film and game fans) worldwide, Arthur Conan Doyle was far less keen on his most famous creation. Indeed, Conan Doyle sent Holmes to meet both Moriarty and death at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’ because he wanted to free himself of the world’s greatest consulting detective and concentrate on more worthy literary endeavours. However, his indifference to the life of Sherlock Holmes has never been better or more amusingly illustrated than in one particular quote Mattias Boström has included in The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes. In it, Boström relates an encounter between Conan Doyle and a Holmes fan who had expended considerable effort in surveying all the properties on Baker Street in an effort to determine which house was the one inhabited by the great detective (that is, which house Conan Doyle based 221B Baker Street on). After presenting his findings and seeking confirmation of his conclusion, the man was rewarded with the following disclosure from Conan Doyle: “Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Baker Street in my life.”

Although rather funny, the impact that one sentence has really hammers home how well established the Holmes mythology is as well as just how important he remains to innumerable people. It’s almost astounding to think that Conan Doyle seemingly just plucked the address (and the house, the specific apartment and the wider environs) out of thin air, made up the details as he saw fit and then gave the matter relatively little thought. (And that’s after you’ve got over the shock that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character in the first place.) Holmes and the world he inhabits are just so real, so essential, that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that his adventures are not a matter of historical fact. The level of interest and devotion that Sherlock Holmes has inspired is arguably unequalled and, as Boström makes clear, that seems to have been the case almost since the publication of the very first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Given the tremendous popularity of Sherlock Holmes as well as the wealth of appearances he has made in all manner of media, compiling a comprehensive account of the life and legacy of the famous detective would seem almost an impossible task, but Mattias Boström has succeeded in doing just that with The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes.

Boström actually begins his account prior to the creation of Sherlock Holmes, thereby allowing readers to understand the circumstances that led Conan Doyle to create the world’s most famous private detective. After a brief insight into the modern position of Sherlock Holmes, Boström starts the book with Arthur Conan Doyle’s time as a medical student in Edinburgh, including an illuminating example of the deductive prowess of his lecturer, Dr Joseph Bell, who displayed a number of the key traits that would later characterise Sherlock Holmes. As Conan Doyle’s medical career developed, so did his passion for becoming a writer, although detective fiction was not his first love in that regard. Boström tracks the publishing history of Sherlock Holmes and, alongside it, the life, loves and career of Arthur Conan Doyle. There is so much interesting information woven together with the life story of Sherlock Holmes; Conan Doyle really did live an extraordinarily full life that saw him travel to fascinating destinations and encounter intriguing (and sometimes infamous) individuals. Boström devotes equal time to Conan Doyle’s private life as to his public life, which helps to explain both his own development and the direction that the Holmes stories took.

In fact, the reason behind the resurrection of Sherlock Holmes was closely tied to Conan Doyle’s personal life – he had an expensive new house and a new young family, and he could really do with the money that he knew new Holmes adventures would bring in. Boström has uncovered a wealth of information about Conan Doyle’s family, who really were an eclectic bunch. In charting their respective lives, he touches upon World War One, spiritualism, adultery, the film business, dodgy business deals, abandonment, the exploits of minor royalty, copyright laws and much more. It makes for fascinating reading in a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ kind of way. Interestingly, Arthur Conan Doyle himself doesn’t always appear in the best possible light, particularly in relation to his treatment of his eldest daughter. Still, every member of the family was affected in some profound way by Sherlock Holmes, whether it be the writing of the stories, the management of the legacy or the public appreciation of the character.

Of course, it wasn’t just the lives of the various members of the Conan Doyle family that were shaped by the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. As such, Boström examines the role played by those other than Arthur Conan Doyle in the creation and popularisation of the detective, including illustrator Sidney Paget (who added the famous deerstalker hat and pipe to Holmes’ wardrobe) and publisher Joseph Stoddart (who commissioned Conan Doyle to write The Sign of the Four during the same dinner party at which he commissioned Oscar Wilde to write The Picture of Dorian Gray). Boström also offers a thorough overview of the various adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, from theatre productions to television shows and films. Some hugely memorable names have been involved in those adaptations, including William Gillette (who coined the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson”), Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Jeremy Brett, Peter Cushing and Peter O’Toole. It is the fact that the Sherlock Holmes stories remain so popular today and hence continue to be adapted for stage and screen that allows Boström to continue presenting Holmes’ biography up to almost the present day, with the closing chapters discussing the television shows ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Elementary’ and the film ‘Mr Holmes’ before circling back to reference the recent (re)discovery of a copy of the William Gillette ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film. It is clear that Holmes was just as popular in 2016 as he was in 1916.

The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes is a phenomenal achievement in Sherlockian scholarship. It is packed with detail, both the well known and the obscure, while still being eminently readable. In fact, in places it reads like a novel, which is in part due to some of the fantastical stories associated with those involved in the world of Sherlock Holmes, but mainly due to Mattias Boström’s enthusiasm and clear love of his subject. It’s the kind of book that should appeal to both Holmes devotees and casual fans of some of his more recent incarnations.

Erin Britton 5/5

The Life and Death of Sherlock Holmes by Mattias Boström
Head of Zeus 9781784977733 hbk Aug 2017

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