'Arthur and Sherlock' is a special look at the creative process through biography

'Arthur and Sherlock' is a special look at the creative process through biography

Chapter 1 of Michael Sims' new book, "Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes" (Bloomsbury USA, 2017) begins with student Arthur Doyle leading a patient to see his medical professor, Dr. Joseph Bell. Sims writes:

"The man's attitude was respectful but not servile. He did not remove his hat. In a Scottish accent, he explained that he had come to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary seeking treatment for the early stages of elephantiasis.

"As usual with patients, Dr. Bell showed no expression, in his reserved way that seemed to young Arthur how a Red Indian in North America might behave. From childhood Arthur had enjoyed tales of the American frontier, and such imagery leapt easily to mind. Bell pressed his fingertips together as he leaned back in his chair, looked the patient over, and remarked for the benefit of his students, "Well, my man, you've served in the army.'

" 'Aye, sir.'

" 'Not long discharged?'

" 'No, sir.'

" 'A Highland regiment?' Although he spoke with the crisp accent called 'educated Edinburgh,' Bell's high-pitched voice did not match the tanned, muscular body that made him look younger than his forty years.

" 'Aye, sir.'

" 'A non-com officer?'

" 'Aye, sir.'

"Then came what seemed a far-fetched guess: 'Stationed at Barbados?'

" 'Aye, sir.'

"After the patient departed," Sims adds, "Bell explained his inferences."

But if you've read the stories Arthur grew up to write, you know Dr. Bell's method. Arthur Doyle, who added his middle name (Conan) to his byline, used Dr. Bell's observational method for his fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Sims' masterful book on "Arthur and Sherlock" is a slim (197 pages text, or 245 with notes) look at Conan Doyle's life and the way he used it to create a detective more scientific and observant than any other. It immediately joined Conan Doyle's original stories in my collection of Sustaining Books.

Dedicated readers of the Holmes stories will find many familiar terms, from a real-life resident patient to research into coal-tar derivatives.

The story goes only as far as 1893 and the success of Arthur's first book of Sherlock's short adventures, but it's a satisfying end -- especially to me.

In 1893, Arthur received a letter from a fellow Scottish author, also educated in Edinburgh, thanking him for the book because it was just the sort of thing he liked to read when he was ill. But then the writer wanted confirmation:

"Only the one thing troubles me: can this be my old friend Joe Bell?"

Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur's correspondent, had solved that "case of identity."

This book makes a great way to get to know more about both Arthur and Sherlock. Even if you're not familiar with Arthur's stories yet (WHY?), Sims' book makes a wonderful look at the influence of a great teacher.

Sims also reinforced my conviction that Arthur's stories don't need "modernizing." Getting away from Arthur's influence isn't telling a Sherlock story.



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  • Robert Louis Stevenson writing to Arthur Conan Doyle?

    "For strange effects and extraordinary combinations we must go to life itself, which is always far more daring than any effort of the imagination."

    Wonderful post!

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    "Not a thing that would occur to the mind of an average story-teller" -- ACD, RLS, or Sims.
    Many thanks.

  • How prevalent was elephantiasis among the Scots? Would its origin have been fairly obvious to the trained practitioner?

  • In reply to jack:

    I wouldn't go as far as calling it prevalent, Jack. The mental leaps here were observing the connections to the Army and Barbados.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    If it weren't prevalent, it would have had to come from somewhere else. That's why I asked.

  • In reply to jack:

    Saying I wouldn't call elephantiasis prevalent is not saying I'd call it rare, Jack. But this is what Arthur and Sherlock would call ignoring the main question to pursue trifles. Any doctor could diagnose a disease, but Dr. Bell could observe connections to the Army and Barbados very quickly. That's the main story here.

  • Okay, everyday magic! I see that you and some of your favorite people have been brought together by Sims' book - Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Louis Stevenson! A "Sustaining Book," indeed!

  • In reply to folkloric:

    Yes, it did feel a bit like a gathering at times -- just me checking in to hear from them.

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