Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Real World of Sherlock Holmes by Peter Costello

Readers of Sherlock Holmes stories may recall that the detective clipped stories from newspapers related to crimes, or unusual stories in which Holmes detected the hint of a crime. Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, did the same thing, and he had a collection of books related to crime. This is just one aspect of himself that Doyle put into the fictional detective.

Doyle’s interest in crime, and particularly in defending those he felt were unjustly prosecuted, sometimes led him into investigating crimes. Peter Costello describes some of these crimes and investigations in The Real World of Sherlock Holmes.

Perhaps the most celebrated case, and the case in which Doyle conducted himself as a Holmes-like detective, was the case of George Edalji. Edalji, a solicitor born to an Indian father and English mother, was convicted of a series of animal mutilations. Doyle believed the case against him was week, based mainly on poison-pen letters accusing the young man. As he began to investigate, he found sloppy investigative techniques, openly racist police leadership, an incompetent counsel contributed to the wrongful conviction. Doyle investigated further and even collected evidence indicating that someone else was the culprit. Through his investigation, along with pressure he brought through the media and influential acquaintances, he won a pardon for Edalji.

When Doyle became so deeply involved in a case, he was usually motivated to correct what he saw as a miscarriage of justice. He was not so active in his investigation of other crimes. Doyle studied crimes he found interesting. More often than not, these were inquiries at a distance as he read books and newspaper accounts, and discussed crimes with other interested people. He was even a member of “Our Society,” a secretive crime club that discussed the details of crime and developments in criminology in its after-dinner meetings. Some of the members were lawyers and forensic scientists (still a new profession) who were actively involved in investigating or prosecuting crimes.

Costello suggests that some of these crimes inspired Doyle’s stories. It makes sense that they would. Doyle always made significant changes when he adapted a true crime to a fictional story, so no Sherlock Holmes story could be described as a close, though fictionalized, recreation of a true crime.

Doyle remained interested in crime throughout his life, but by the 1920s he was focused on promoting spiritualism. Even when he investigated a crime in this era, it was usually because of an element of spiritualism touching the case. He encouraged the use of clairvoyants and mediums by the police. When Agatha Christie disappeared, his investigation consisted of a consultation with medium Horace Leaf. (Journalists, passing on clairvoyance to use more Holmes-like detection, found Christie staying at a resort under an assumed name.)

If you’re interested in this book, you may also interested in

Costello, Peter. The Real World of Sherlock Holmes: The True Crimes Investigated by Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Carrol & Graf, 1991.