The Sherlock Holmes Companion by Daniel Smith

Review by Chris Redmond

Ah, just what we needed: another Sherlockian coffee-table book, to join The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, The Mysterious World of Sherlock Holmes, and the rest. Likewise, just what we needed: another Sherlockian reference book to join The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion and its many rivals.

I can, however, report that The Sherlock Holmes Companion by British "writer and book editor" Daniel Smith is better than most of its rivals, and far, far better than the regrettable Bedside and Bathtub volume that appeared a decade ago. For one thing, Smith appears to have written all his own material, and to have read the Sherlock Holmes tales with attention and sensitivity. Almost certainly, he has also read a good deal of the Sherlockian commentary that has appeared over the decades, although he does not provide a bibliography of such sources. (He does have a page or so describing the world of Sherlockian societies or scholarship, and it lacks both the high rate of errors and the "wow, aren't they weird" tone that some other books have provided.) But his perceptive analyses of issues such as Holmes's interest in women and his social and political views have more depth than we are accustomed to finding in volumes published for, as a publicity flyer puts it, "both the Holmes aficionado and the gift market."

Smith's is not the first book in this genre to be organized around a page devoted to each of the sixty stories. He is careful not to spoil the plot, but for the most part what he does is summarize it, up to the point where Holmes homes in on the solution. One might think that anybody who would spend time with this book has already read the tales, or at least is prepared to read and enjoy them — and capable of understanding them. The sixty pages used in this way are thus to some degree wasted. One might wish that Smith had provided more analysis or background and less plot material, although admittedly some of the pages might have been easier to fill in that way than others.

The publisher describes this Companion as "lavishly illustrated," and whatever the definition of lavishly might be, the illustrations are certainly extensive, including much material that I do not remember ever seeing before, from Victorian cartoons and paintings to snippets from obscure editions of the Canon. Smith has earned a compliment that cannot be paid to most other Sherlockian books: the illustrations and their captions add real meaning and value to the text they accompany.

Among the book's many short chapters are eight that are titled "Holmes and Me" and that consist of interviews with figures who have a special light to throw on Mr. Holmes and his adventures. Perhaps inevitably, since Jeremy Brett was not available, two of the eight are David Burke and Edward Hardwicke, but the others are more interesting choices: Roger Llewellyn, who has played Holmes in a one-man show on stages around the world; Catherine Cooke of the Marylebone Library and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London; Caleb Carr, author of the more than eccentric pastiche The Italian Secretary; actor Philip Franks, who has played Watson opposite Peter Egan; classic actor Douglas Wilmer; and radio dramatist Bert Coules. The choices emphasize, if it was not obvious otherwise, that the book is pervasively British, with very modest attention to Sherlock Holmes elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

The one truly regrettable feature of this book is its title. To the collector, to the Sherlockian historian, to anyone who believes in giving credit where credit is due, The Sherlock Holmes Companion is the book produced in 1962 by Michael and Mollie Hardwick, the first volume in the genre to which Daniel Smith is now contributing. It would be so much more acceptable if he had found a new title for his work — but perhaps his glances at Sherlockian scholarship and fandom did not go back as far as 1962.