In 2002, at the end of a festive January evening, I was made a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a literary society devoted to Sherlock Holmes. As part of what is called an investiture, a new Irregular is assigned an alias — a name or phrase drawn from the 60 canonical adventures recounted, somewhat sensationally, by Dr. John H. Watson. Quite frequently, these names are keyed to one’s profession, as is mine: Langdale Pike. Some readers may recall that Pike is a newspaper gossip columnist who appears in arguably the worst Sherlock Holmes story, “The Three Gables.”
In the 15 years since that glorious night I’ve gone on to review scholarship about the great detective and his creator, introduce a Penguin paperback of the four Sherlock Holmes novels and even bring out a small book called “On Conan Doyle.”
I mention all this simply to establish my bona fides in saying that Mattias Bostrom’s “From Holmes to Sherlock” is the best account of Baker Street mania ever written. Really.
That said, it’s important to clarify what Bostrom, himself a Swedish member of the BSI, has and hasn’t done. He doesn’t provide a full-scale life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — for that you should look to the biographies by Daniel Stashower or Andrew Lycett. Neither does he offer any commentary on the novels and stories — for such illumination you should turn to Leslie S. Klinger’s three-volume “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” which gathers together decades of highly ingenious speculation, or consult the more sober introductions and scholarly notes to the nine-volume “Oxford Sherlock Holmes.” But what Bostrom has accomplished supremely well is to relate, as his subtitle proclaims, “the story of the men and women who created an icon.” In effect, he shows us how Sherlock Holmes enchanted the world.
Bostrom first focuses on the origins of the detective, largely modeled after a brilliant medical diagnostician named Dr. Joseph Bell, who had been Conan Doyle’s teacher at the University of Edinburgh. He then reminds us that, after the comparatively lukewarm reception of “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), we might never have had any further knowledge of Holmes and Watson if Joseph M. Stoddart hadn’t come to London to commission short novels for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Over dinner at the Langham Hotel, the American publisher signed contracts with his two young guests: Oscar Wilde wrote “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Arthur Conan Doyle produced “The Sign of the Four” (1890).
Inconceivable as it now seems, that thrilling novel still didn’t make Holmes a household name. Conan Doyle returned to other projects, mainly historical fiction, but in 1891 decided to submit stories featuring his sleuth to the Strand magazine. The first, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” opened with Watson’s now-immortal sentence about Irene Adler: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman.” Soon thereafter, Baker Street mania began to sweep England and then the world.
As Bostrom proceeds, he tells us about Sidney Paget, whose illustrations first depicted Holmes in the Strand, and the American actor William Gillette, who brought the detective to life on the stage and then provided a model for the more handsome, romantic-looking figure painted by Frederic Dorr Steele for Collier’s Weekly magazine. In 1911, Oxford undergraduate Ronald Knox presented his groundbreaking lecture “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” and during the 1920s and ’30s, Saturday Review journalist Christopher Morley established various dining clubs, one of which would give rise to the Baker Street Irregulars. In those same decades, mock-serious scholarship began to proliferate, spearheaded by Vincent Starrett’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1933), while in the years after World War II the mortician John Bennett Shaw would gradually emerge as the greatest American collector of Sherlockiana — and an eventual mentor to young Mitch Cullin whose novel 2005 “A Slight Trick of the Mind” would be filmed as “Mr. Holmes.”
In fact, Bostrom closely tracks the almost innumerable dramatic interpretations of Holmes and Watson. He describes early silent films, the influential radio scripts of the 1930s and ’40s written by Edith Meiser, the performances of Holmesian actors Eille Norwood, Basil Rathbone, Douglas Wilmer and Jeremy Brett, and the phenomenon — as novel and film — of Nicholas Meyer’s “The Seven Per-Cent Solution.” Not least, he briefly discusses the genesis of the two immensely popular contemporary interpretations of the great detective, “Sherlock” and “Elementary.”
Bostrom also follows the money. Many chapters — some quite funny — depict the shenanigans of Conan Doyle’s playboy sons, Denis and Adrian, as they try to squeeze every penny possible out of their father’s creation. These pages revel in accounts of crafty agents, intricate legal suits and soap-operatic goings-on worthy of reality TV.
“From Holmes to Sherlock,” then, is more than a treat, it’s a smorgasbord. There are sections about the legendary Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes and the birth of the Baker Street Babes. We learn about the generosity of Conan Doyle’s most sensible child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, and the treasures acquired by the much-loved English collector Richard Lancelyn Green. Bostrom even mentions various specialty publishers, including Gasogene Books, for which he and Matt Laffey have been compiling “Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle in the Newspapers,” an ongoing series of archival volumes reprinting hundreds of early reviews and articles about the detective, a true labor of love — like so much that goes on in the Sherlockian world.
Let me close with one final comment and a small cavil. First, all praise to Michael Gallagher for his superb English translation of this book’s Swedish original. Second, be aware that Bostrom’s narrative style verges on the melodramatic: Each chapter is a short vignette, often ending with a cliffhanger. This can take getting used to, but remember that Holmes himself could never resist a theatrical flourish.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.
By Mattias Bostrom
Translated from the Swedish by Michael Gallagher
The Mysterious Press. 597 pp. $28