DAVID LESLIE MURRAY
The Times Literary Supplement, Thursday, June 28, 1934, pg. 457, Issue 1691
THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. By VINCENT STARRETT. (Ivor Nicholson and Watson. 8s. 6d. net.)
It is no doubt the splendid “scientific” spoof of Sherlock Holmes’s detective methods that has subjected him in his turn to a great game of sham-scientific deduction. Whether or no he was the very first, Father Ronald Knox was certainly one of the earliest before the War to publish “higher critical” analyses of the Holmes “documents” and studies in the psychology and philosophy of Sherlock Holmes; and nobody has since done it better, if as well. Nevertheless a considerable literature has accumulated, as Mr. Vincent Starrett’s bibliography shows; and though it may seem to some that the joke has now been worked out to its fullest, it is evident that there are many for whom it will never lose it freshness.
It is the distinction of Mr. Starrett’s book that, while joining in the fooling, it also indicates more soberly some of the reasons for the spell that Conan Doyle’s detective, eclipsing all others, has exercised and still exercises over the general imagination. And while he vies with the most skilful of his competitors in the art of imaginary biography, he has also many interesting things to recall about the truth of Sherlock Holmes’s origin—in the mind of Conan Doyle—and the vicissitudes of the first Holmes stories, their rare first editions and some of their forgotten illustrations. (We thank him especially for reproducing the earliest picture of Sherlock Holmes, the frontispiece to the first edition of “A Study in Scarlet” in 1887—a fine bit of rococo Victorian melodrama.) The odd thing is that, though Doyle was a harsh stepfather to this child of his fancy, regarding Sherlock Holmes as a mere pot-boiler for a serious historical novelist, he never created a character with a more living individuality—and this in spite of the fact that Holmes is carelessly invested with quite contradictory attributes; while the stories, intended to show the all-importance of accurate observation of detail in detective inquiry, are riddled with the most glaring errors and inconsistencies of fact. Holmes remains none the less a real man—more credible than most of the actual detectives who have written their memoirs; while for Mr. Starrett, an American, he stands for something else too. He is the spirit of yesterday’s London, and, no doubt, as time goes on, his adventures will be for his fellow-countrymen as well, voyages of exploration into a city and a social order that have passed away. Mr. Starrett quotes another American critic for whom Holmes is the fog,
in that crying old street, Baker Street; the glow of sea-coal in the grates, where the English servant brings in to you tea and muffins, and snug napkins of odorous toast. He is…the mystery of the house opposite; of the grubby little shop round the corner you noticed and wondered about; of the old, old lady, half-perceived in her shining brougham, who passes through empty Easton Square every Wednesday afternoon. Sherlock is he who answers when you ask the air, Who lives there, I wonder? What is the story behind that drawn blind in London?
That is probably sound criticism as well as happy fantasy; these yarns were the day-dreaming of a doctor without practice, cheating lonely hours in the middle of the sombre Baker Street district. It may yet be one of Conan Doyle’s chief titles to renown that, besides giving the most vital picture yet done of Regency England in “Rodney Stone,” he has given one of the most vivid and bustling panoramas of Late Victorian London in the Sherlock Holmes stories. (But he will have to compete on that ground with his son-in-law, the creator of Raffles, who has left an even more beguiling vision of the London of the eighteen-nineties, with its acrid scents and smoky colourings, as though Whistler had set himself to write a penny dreadful.)
Mysterious London is the real “private life” of Sherlock Holmes, and his true ancestry is from Wilkie Collins trough Stevenson. Mr. Starrett notes that the “King of Bohemia” in the story of the “Scandal” is a figure of “Stevensonian melodrama.” In fact, he must be the degenerate successor (brother or nephew?) of the magnificent tobacconist Godall, né Florizel of Bohemia, and for the “sources” of “A Study in Scarlet” Mr. Starrett should look not to Bret Harte but to the Mormon episode in “The Dynamiter.” Then for “The Sign of Four” let him turn up the avengers from India in “The Moonstone.” And can any thread of connexion be traced with Paul Féval’s “Mystères de Londres,” of the potency of which in conveying “the criminal magic of the fog M. Morand has lately reminded us in “A Frenchman’s London.” Perhaps such speculations are more fruitful than the search for the precise locality of “221B, Baker Street”—marvellous as was the discovery about this made by Dr. Gray Chandler Briggs, yet another amateur American sleuth. Best of all, perhaps, for reverie are those unrelated “cases” mentioned incidentally by Dr. Watson in other stories. Mr. Starrett plumps for “The Adventure of Ricoletti of the Club Foot and his Abominable Wife”; we are deeply intrigued by “The Dreadful Business of the Abernetty Family,” first brought to Holmes’s notice by “the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.”…Yes: this game of guessing could clearly go on for ever; Sherlockismus will last as long as Holmes himself!