I believe many of us who have loved Sherlock Holmes for an extended time have passed beyond the honeymoon stage. We’re not just consumers. Many are creators, commentators, and group facilitators. Our lives, whatever our “day jobs” look like contain inescapable traces of Holmes, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
What does this look like for you? I seek out Holmesian films and shows, but beyond that, I constantly find myself seeing inspiration from Holmes in other mysteries and types of media. I read pastiche. I re-read Doyle. I don’t have on-the-ground groups near me, but I maintain online contact. Occasionally, I find myself having a “What would Holmes do?” moment in my real life.
What about you? How does Sherlock Holmes intersect with your everyday life?
My novels of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler can be found here
Sherlock Holmes has delighted and amazed reading and viewing audiences for over a hundred years. It’s no wonder that a character vivid for his faults and eccentricities as much as his triumphs feels real in a way that many less-impactful characters do not. Fictional as he may be, pieces of Holmes are found in the real lives of several notable people, and even his large-than-life deductions originate in reality. The following list contains detectives and authors, doctors and even a criminal. The ways these men relate to Holmes may not be obvious at first, but each man warrants the title in some way. Let’s explore their lives and their connections to the world’s greatest fictional detective.
Dr. Joseph Bell
Any discussion of a real-life Sherlock Holmes is likely to involve Scottish surgeon and teacher Joseph Bell. Bell was born in 1837, the descendant of Benjamin Bell, the first scientific surgeon in Scottish history. In his own right, Bell became a renowned physician and lecturer, who notably used deductive reasoning to diagnose patients. Bell’s connection to Doyle is direct. The two worked together at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and Doyle became Bell’s student. Obviously, the young Doyle would have had many opportunities to observe Bell’s methods and habits. Even more notably, Bell used his abilities to assist the Scottish police and reportedly even consulted on the case of Jack the Ripper, alongside forensic expert Henry Littlejohn. It’s not difficult to see the inspiration for Holmes here, and even, perhaps, for his partnership with John Watson. Bell was aware of the inspiration and was complimentary of Doyle as Doyle was of him.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Doyle is an often-overlooked answer to the quest of finding the real Holmes. One reason is how enjoyable many people find playing The Game (treating Holmes as a real person and figure in history). Nevertheless, the truth is that there’s a mind behind the genius, and it belonged to the brilliant author.
Twice-married father of five Doyle clearly did not share his creation’s lifestyle, but he did engage in more of Holmes’s behavior than the average person may realize. Julian Barnes’s celebrated historical novel Arthur and George explores Doyle’s involvement in the George Edalji case, in which a young man of color was falsely accused of animal mutilation. Doyle’s work combined two elements also found in his writing: detection and social justice. His painstaking examination of the evidence is certainly reminiscent of Holmes, as is his indignation at the injustice. “The Yellow Face,” one of the more problematic Holmes stories by modern standards is, at the same time, one of the most forward-looking for its time. In the story, Holmes fails to solve his case but presides over a touching scene of acceptance for the child of an interracial couple. Doyle’s viewpoints can’t be separated from his work, and Edalji wasn’t his only cause.
The most direct support for Doyle as the real Holmes is the painfully obvious fact that somebody had to come up with the intricate plots and deductions that fill the pages of his best stories. In many cases, Doyle was incredibly prescient in Holmes’s use of forensic technology that police would later adopt as standard practice. He may not be the most outlandish or glamorous option for the real Holmes, but he’s quite possibly the most accurate.
Pinkerton, famed establisher of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is one of the more unexpected people on this list, but he’s an obvious choice, though a lot of people miss his connection if their enjoyment of Holmes is restricted to Doyle’s short stories. Doyle’s final Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, includes a character based on real-life Pinkerton detective James McParland and his exploits while infiltrating the Molly Maguires. Why, then, is Pinkerton on this list instead of McParland himself?
To understand this, we have to look back. In 1877, Pinkerton published his account of his agency’s successful infiltration of the Molly Maguires in his work titled The Maguires and the Detectives. This was long before the publication of The Valley of Fear, which was serialized in 1914-15. Between these events, Doyle met Allan Pinkerton’s son William, who told him of MacParland’s exploits and the case. Taken with the account, Doyle fictionalized it and published his final Holmes novel.
Certainly, the Pinkertons and their exploits fascinated Doyle, and his choice to specifically reference them codified this fascination into inspiration. Allan Pinkerton makes this list because he, rather than McParland or his son William, was the originator of the Pinkertons, designer of their operations, and literary chronicler of the McParland operation. It’s no leap to assume that William’s account to Doyle was based on his father’s.
Admittedly, it’s hard to argue that Pinkerton himself is found anywhere in the character of Holmes, but as a contemporary who inspired Holmes’s author, he gets a mention here as a real-life detective who operated using forward-thinking methods and operations that were similar to those Doyle wrote about. He’s a historical person we can look to for greater understanding of how a Sherlock Holmes-like figure once operated in the real world.
Eugéne Francois Vidocq
It would be a crime (har har) to leave off this list the man known as “the father of modern criminal investigation.” Vidocq’s life is a fascinating tale, and it’s tempting to get lost in the weeds of his criminal-turned-law-enforcement exploits. For our purposes, a few key points stand out.
A criminal from his teens, Vidocq built a reputation as a clever and ingenious escape artist, with exploits that sound like something from a dime novel. Nevertheless, in his 30s, Vidocq made a bargain with frustrated law enforcement–he turned informant. Vidocq, at this point, became the first real-life consulting detective, a title later assumed by Holmes. In 1811, Vidocq formed the organization that would soon became France’s Sûreté Nationale. Following this, he formed his own private agency of detectives.
Vidocq was a major inspiration for Émile Gaboriau’s Lecocq, the popular fictional detective to whom Holmes refers in A Study in Scarlet, calling him “a miserable bungler.” Doyle’s mention of the character indicates his awareness of Lecocq’s relevance.
Vidocq lived out a larger-than-life existence that rivals Holmes’s adventures for lurid excitement and twists and turns that would seem outlandish in fiction. As the basis for a rival fictional detective and because of his own life’s exploits, Vidocq becomes a contender for the real Holmes title.
A contemporary of Doyle’s later life, Hammett is arguably the successor to Doyle, and his detective characters are direct successors to Holmes. Hammett was born in 1894, when Doyle was already a grown man, and his writing style differed sharply from Doyle’s.
As a former Pinkerton detective who mined his own experiences heavily in his writing, Hammett relates specifically to two stories by Doyle: “The Lion’s Mane” and “The Blanched Soldier.” These stories are, of course, notable because they are narrated by Holmes himself, a major departure from Doyle’s usual practice of using Watson as the Boswell-like chronicler of Holmes’s exploits. Similarly, Hammett departed from the earlier practice of third-person narration and used first person in his early breakout stories, a style that would come to dominate the mystery genre and proliferate after him.
Hammett’s early style was a departure from the idea of the gentleman detective. His characters are sharp, unvarnished, and in-your-face, and his narratives can be quite direct and brutal. He also incorporated humor liberally.
As a literary titan with a detective past, Hammett’s life combined the life of Holmes with the life of Watson, his chronicler. His Continental Op character, who revolutionized the genre, serves as the first-person narrator and observer of his own experiences. In his book The Lost Detective, biographer Nathan Ward posits that the Op is an autobiographical insert of Hammett himself, using his Pinkerton exploits and the style of writing Pinkertons were taught to employ in their reports to craft a new kind of detective and detective story.
A look at Hammett’s classic The Thin Man finds his wisecracking detective marrying into money and solving a twisted case using detection methods that would be completely at home in a Holmes story. The hard-boiled, direct style remains, but the character of Nick Charles, a charming eccentric with plenty of money and a lavish lifestyle, circles back to the rarified air of the gentleman detective–the company of Holmes, Lecocq, and Poirot. Hammett ultimately fused the old with the new, to great success and acclaim.
In the end, Hammett’s real life contained elements of Watson, Holmes, and Doyle, as he perfected the detective-as-narrator and advanced the genre, while looking back to his early adulthood work as a Pinkerton and occasionally dabbling back into the world of the eccentric gentleman detective.
There’s no single, perfect answer to the question of who the real Sherlock Holmes actually is. Several people who lived during Doyle’s time fit the bill in some way, and Doyle himself is a strong contender. Ultimately, a large part of the legacy of Holmes comes from his uniqueness. Most readers may not be able to relate to his intellect, but we can certainly relate to his weaknesses and failures. Unlike flat, boring characters, Holmes is multi-dimensional enough to feel like a real person, to the point that many of us find ourselves wishing he was and imagining he might be–over and over, reinventing the specifics of his life to fit our times and our contexts through adaptations.
The quest for the real Holmes is ultimately a personal one, dependent on the parameters placed around the question. Is it the man who wrote Holmes, who painstakingly crafted plots and chains of reasoning that are still admired today? Is it more likely a Pinkerton or a Vidocq, men whose actual lives mirrored elements of Holmes’s life? Is it the doctor who supplied Holmes’s most notable trait, his nearly-superpowered observational skills? Or is it Hammett, who united the literary with the real-life practice of detection in a way that had not been seen before? The answer is in your hands.
Maybe you think the real Sherlock Holmes is someone else entirely. There’s no right or wrong answer. The enduring presence of Holmes, our tendency to see him anywhere we look, speaks to how influential and timeless the character continues to be. And he’s not going anywhere.
During the 2021 holiday season, I rewatched all seasons of the BBC’s Sherlock with a friend of mine who is also very familiar with the Holmesian world. As a result, while watching the episodes, we engaged in discussion and analysis of the series in context and hindsight perspective that could not have existed when the show’s zeitgeist was at its height. Here are a few personal observations:
The acting remains superior. More than anything else (including the writing, in my opinion), Sherlock‘s acting is its strongest point. It’s a heightened and stylized series, more and more so as it goes along and circles back on itself in increasingly meta ways. Nevertheless, even as episodes arguably grow less and less plausible or anchored in reality, the performances continue to be emotionally engaging and personally magnetic. I have never been able to view the portrayals separately, and I still can’t. I don’t want to argue that Benedict is the best Holmes and Martin the best Watson; I want to argue that, in partnership, they are the best paired version of the two characters. They don’t function alone, either inside or outside the story text. They are both intrinsic to Sherlock, and, in my view, they should be, because their necessity to one another finally mirrors the interdependency of the two in the stories the way few, perhaps no, adaptations previously have managed to do.
The direction is very, very good. I will not give this a universal rave, because as the directors shifted throughout the series, there was some variation in quality. Paul McGuigan’s directing in the early series, in particular, has an elegance that set the tone for the production, felt unique, and still feels fresh years later
The writing is uneven. At the time that Sherlock was airing, I was very inclined to give it a lot of passes. It was extremely above average for the television of the early 2010s, and it went places no Holmes adaptation had gone before. I still believe it’s a very above average series, but in the era of prestige television, I’m less inclined to have that early feeling of “nothing could be better than this.” Sherlock helped to bring Holmes, and the wider world of mystery, back squarely into cultural consciousness. It deserves credit for this trailblazing and for how deftly, in the case of many episodes, it did this. However, admittedly, it doesn’t shine quite as bright against the backdrop of a world where myriad other prestige series and even other prestige Holmes adaptations reside. Watching it now, I enjoy brilliant episodes, but I am more able to sense when some kind of invisible line is crossed, a line that kept the series from collapsing in on itself, which, I would say, it eventually did. Still, even in arguable death, the ending is a mad, beautiful wreck, brought to life by its cast so that even when the writing cannot hold, the characters do.
Sherlock is still worth watching.When I embarked on this rewatch, I hadn’t watched the series since I had reviewed the final season for the Baker Street Babes as it was airing and very soon after wrote and edited pieces about its female characters for the Femme Friday essay series and book (available here). Part of my curiosity in the rewatch was a basic question of, “Does it hold up?” and, “If so, how much?” My answer is, yes, it does, and the majority holds up surprisingly well. My friend and I watched both the unaired pilot episode and the aired series, and what struck me immediately was how fresh and unusual both of these still felt. I believe the aired version and the style it set for the show was the superior choice, but I would have enjoyed seeing the show that would have followed the original, unaired version. It, too, was that good. Particularly in the first two series, the writing is sharp, incisive, and still comes across as extremely non-indulgent. We don’t need to be told to like Sherlock Holmes, the way some adaptations feel the need to lampshade his more undesirable qualities. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss trusted their audience enough to let us see a three dimensional Holmes, and just as we enjoy Doyle’s version with all of his faults, we are drawn into this incarnation. Watson is unsentimentalized, imperfect, and intriguing. Moriarty, finally, is fleshed out and terrifying. The updates make sense, for the most part. Perhaps these strengths are why the end of the series is so frustrating in some ways. I was not among the fans who had very specific expectations for the end of the show. I was always along for the ride. However, watching the show all at once in a very brief couple of weeks highlighted exactly how frustrating it is when something so brilliant collapses into itself and creates a black hole out of a brilliant star. It’s certainly still worth watching, but beware the Fall.
I met you several years ago, before Netflix ever thought of a film. You leapt off page after book page, and I felt something like regret: I wished I had met you sooner. I wished I had gotten to know your indefatigable personality, individuality, and intelligence when I was an awkward teenage girl, not when I had already entered my manic pixie spinster adulthood… I told people to meet you, to share you with their students and children, but I couldn’t quite shake that feeling that we’d met at the wrong time.
You see, Enola, I met Mary Russell at the perfect time—just as I was passing out of adolescence and into adulthood. I identified with her; I grew up with her. I have found immense solace in watching her age and mature at the same rate as myself. It seemed as though meeting your stories, then hers, would have been perfect.
A few years after I met you, I met your creator. Not all authors are interesting, and some are incredibly unable to speak well about their own creations. Nancy wasn’t like that; she was magical, in a down-to-earth, refreshing way. When I met Nancy, I remembered how I had felt about you—a prick of something. I learned about the experiences and thoughts that gave rise to you, and I understood you better, I think.
Finally, they made your film, and I watched it, and I realized: What I had always felt wasn’t actually regret that I hadn’t met you as a young girl. What you made me feel, Enola, was the pain of reconnecting with the young girl I once was. Within a familiar, loved context, the Sherlockian world, you took me on a journey of reopening old wounds and seeing—really seeing—myself as I once was, the awkward, smart girl who felt like she never fit in and tried not to want to but couldn’t help it.
Your emotions were raw, your despair at feeling forced into the prison of expectations almost unbearable because of how relatable it was. I saw you, and I saw my past self.
I didn’t meet you at the wrong time, Enola. I just needed to realize what you were showing me. Just as Mr. Holmes uses Doyle’s characters to explore concepts of aging and death, and works like Arthur & George explore issues of race and religion in Doyle’s life, those of us who love Holmes and his world can learn about many things through it—even ourselves.
I met you at the right time, when I was finally old enough to face the hurts, fears, insecurities, and victories that led me through an awkward, troubled adolescence and onto the journey of trying to find grace in an unusual identity. You made me look in the mirror and see my vulnerable, brave, scrappy younger self, and you challenged me to be proud of her, just as I’m proud of you when I read and watch your stories.
Thank you for being yourself, Enola Holmes. You’ve helped me learn to love who I used to be and, in so doing, become just a little better at being myself.
Second, I will be a panelist for the “Arthur ‘Continuity’ Doyle” panel at virtual 221bcon at 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 10th, 2021. I hope you plan to attend the free virtual Con. It’s going to be a great time.
Finally, what am I doing now? Well, I’m writing, specifically a short story that takes place before Reichenbach but involves Moriarty. This presents challenges for a pastiche, because there are certain things Watson can’t know before the Final Problem. Speaking to the editor of the project (which will contain stories that form a timeline of Holmes’s life), I have tentatively settled on Mycroft as narrator. Can it work? Will it work? Stay tuned; I’m in the rough stages.
I’ve returned from 221b Con, with about a week until the official launch of The Detective, The Woman and The Pirate’s Bounty. At the convention, I was reminded of one of the great joys of being a Sherlockian, the fact that everyone is different and we can all enjoy Sherlock Holmes in the way that excites us.
My microcosmic example of this was in interactions with people who bought pre-release copies of my book. One loved the idea of historical Floridian pirates being included. One enjoys my portrayal of women. Another is partial to my particular characterization of Irene Adler.
These interactions are a small example of the wider truth that a convention like 221b Con always shows me: we’re all in this deerstalker-clad Holmesian world for our own reasons, and when we gather to share those reasons, magic happens.
As always, I heard people advocate for adaptations I dislike and criticize those I enjoy. I heard passionate challenges and spirited defenses. It was all mad, fascinating, and wonderful.
Just like a night pursuing pirates in the Florida islands.
My newest novel of Sherlock Holmes, The Detective, The Woman and The Pirate’s Bounty, will launch in April of 2019.
The road has been a long one. I wrote the first draft of the book while I was undergoing chemotherapy, and I edited it during periods of repeated surgery and health issues.
As always, Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler rose to the challenge. They distracted me and lifted my moods while I roamed island sands with them and researched the real-life stories of Florida’s coastal pirates.
I’m immensely thrilled that out of a difficult chapter in my life, a piece of creativity could be launched and finally make its way into the world.
I certainly hope you enjoy a tale of treasure, organized crime, adventure, and deduction!
p.s. If you’re attending 221b Con, I’ll be there with the Baker Street Babes and copies of the book that I’ll happily sign.
A few days ago, I completed my panelist application for 221b Con 2019. It’s gotten me thinking; I know a lot of newer Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts come to Holmes from worlds of convention attendance and shared fan experiences, but I didn’t. I’ve been to exactly one fancon other than 221b Con, Dallas Comic Con, where I had no idea what I was doing.
I’m not even someone who frequented more formal academic enthusiast settings like symposiums or lectures; my area is not rife with these things.
As a result, I had no idea when I started attending 221b Con that it would become such a significant part of my life. I went from wondering if I would even enjoy myself to feeling profoundly connected with other Holmesians in a way I never had before.
221b Con is where I sat on my first panel, where one of my novels was first selected for the official book club, and even more importantly where I met and made dear friends who have enriched my experience as a fan and as a creative. It’s also where I finally met other Baker Street Babes in person.
So, once again, I find myself planning a trip. But it doesn’t feel like a trip to a hotel or a big city. It feels like I’m taking a trip back to Baker Street, and I’m going with friends.
I am familiar with Elizabeth Varadan as an accomplished Sherlockian author, particularly of the children’s book Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls, which is my favorite pastiche for young readers that I’ve ever read. As a result, I was intrigued when I heard about her new book The Carnival of the Animals, an anthropomorphic animal fantasy with ties to the composer Camille Saint-Saëns. I am thrilled to present my interview with her and to discuss her new, adventurous work.
1. I know you as an accomplished Sherlockian author. What brought you inspiration for this different genre?
Actually, I wrote early drafts of Carnival of the Animals before I wrote my Sherlock Holmes mystery, Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls. I’ve always loved music, and Camille Saint-Saëns’ musical fantasy inspired the book one night when my husband and I heard it on the radio. Semi-jokingly, I said, “I should write a set of stories based on this music.” And then we both became quite enthused over the idea. But each story was so distinct and called for so much research, it was like writing 14 separate storybooks. It took a long time and lots of rewrites.
Meanwhile, I’ve always loved reading mysteries, especially any that involve Sherlock Holmes. While I was pondering rewrites of Carnival, I started toying with the idea of a Sherlock mystery for children. And, like the Carnival stories, I was suddenly hooked on the idea and just ran with it.
2. As a reader, I feel like Carnival of the Animals could appeal to any age of reader. What do you think?
It’s nice to hear you say that! I like to say it’s for children ages 7 to 70. 7-year-olds may need to have the stories read to them, but by 8 they can probably read the stories themselves. The stories are told in fairytale/folktale style, which makes Carnival clearly a children’s book. But they are also layered with themes that appeal to older readers and adults as well. There are references to literary classics as well as using legendary figures from myths of other lands. It was great fun to work in so many levels.
3. How do you get into the minds & personalities of animal characters? Is it different from humans?
That’s such an interesting question. I suppose I just treated the animals as if they were humans. More and more, scientists are discovering that animals have emotions, communication systems, even cultures that go far beyond mere instinct. They may not be able to do mathematics, but apparently quite a number of species “problem solve”, which was once thought only a human characteristic.
It helped, too, I suppose, that I read Aesop’s Fables and some aboriginal stories around the world, where animals speak and think and do very clever things.
4. If you only had a few lines, how would you introduce the book to a new reader?
If you like animal stories, stories that take place in other lands and other times, and stories that involve a little magic . . . this book is for you.
5. Finally, do you have any Sherlockian plans for the future?
Yes, I do! Several readers have said they hope there will be a sequel to Imogene and the Case of the Missing Pearls. So, I’m working on one now. I have about three more adventures in mind.
As Elizabeth elaborated on above, Carnival is a collection of stories that feel timeless in their stylistic similarities to animal-based folk and fairy tales of the past but are entirely new and fresh at the same time.
Elizabeth brings a Sherlockian emphasis on detail and a luscious but accessible writing style to each of her books, and this one is no exception. Children and adults alike will be enthralled by her beautiful and encompassing world and the charming animal characters she introduces.
Readers of tales like Kipling’s or Aesop’s will find much to love, but this book is also an excellent entry point for any young animal lover who has yet to discover the treasure trove of animal fantasy literature.
This book will delight young and old minds and provide an accessible challenge for very young readers, while being fun for the whole family as a read-aloud book. Highly recommended.
In a very short time, the first three books from The Detective and The Woman Series will be launching in a special hardback edition with a new cover design! A little later in the year, Book 4 will continue the series. Learn more about the books here.
If you want to receive special preorder perks like signed copies and even the chance to name a character, you have one more day to take advantage of the Kickstarter launched by MX Publishing! After this, the books will be available, but this will be the end of these special offers. You have a few more hours to get in!