The Real World of Sherlock by B. J. Rahn

Review by Chris Redmond

This book by B. J. Rahn contains little that is new — at least, little that is new to those who have read a number of biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle, a number of books about the history of Scotland Yard and policing in general, and perhaps the several volumes that have been published recently about Sherlock Holmes and science. For those who have not yet mastered that considerable body of work, The Real World of Sherlock offers a useful and readable analysis of Sherlock Holmes as he is seen in the stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. (There is not a word in this volume about actors and television scripts, and one wonders why its title uses “Sherlock” alone for the character, suggestive of the BBC's popular series.)

Rahn tells a plausible story of how literary influences, one larger-than-life figure, and the author himself together account for the character and techniques of Sherlock Holmes, and how Holmes's professional work fits into the development of policing and, in particular, forensic science in the last years of the 19th century. Thus the book shows the ways in which Holmes was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin, by the author's mentor Joseph Bell, and most importantly by the personality of ACD himself. Poe's introduction of the formula for a detective story, Bell's application of medical expertise to the solution of crime, ACD's own interest in the Edalji and Slater cases — all these matters are well set out, but Rahn offers little or nothing that is original.

The latter part of the book bogs down a little as it offers a rather disorganized and tedious history of London policing, with great emphasis on a succession of administrative reforms. Some of the names and cases discussed in these pages are repeated in the final major section, a narrative of the development of forensic science, most importantly fingerprinting.

Rahn examine Holmes's proposed haemoglobin test, mentioned in the early pages of A Study in Scarlet, in chemical detail, and does reveal something that may not be well known among Sherlockians: the familiar test for fecal occult blood, widely used as a first screening for colon cancer, relies on the guaiacum test which Holmes thought he had made obsolete in 1881. In general, according to Rahn, Holmes in the canonical stories is not seen taking advantage of the technological developments that had been achieved by the late 19th century.

The book is in general very well written, with, by my count, only three technical errors in the whole volume — a remarkable achievement by the standards of contemporary Sherlockian literature. The writing style is mature and clear, though it is necessary to say that verbs, at least in the sections talking about Holmes and his characteristics veer irritatingly between present and past tense. Admirably, the author goes to some trouble more than once to refer to the plot of a story without quite spoiling it for readers who may not yet have enjoyed that tale.

Rahn has fallen into one significant blunder, accepting quite a number of statements about Holmes's birth and background as canonical when they are no more than fanon, based on the writings of William S. Baring-Gould. One might suspect reliance on the notes in Baring-Gould's Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but that massive work does not appear in the bibliography, whereas Baring-Gould's less well known Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street does, and somehow Rahn has swallowed some of its tall tales. It would also be good to have more confidence in Rahn's references to ACD's criminological library, much of it apparently purchased from W. S. Gilbert, and his membership in the Crimes Club. Attributing any biographical information to John Dickson Carr's rather credulous 1947 life of ACD is a very risky proposition.

In addition to a substantial bibliography, the book has extensive notes, but they are awkwardly placed after the entire text rather than at the foot of the page — a particularly irritating arrangement when the book must be read, as it was for the purposes of this review, in PDF format. There are also a few photographs — Poe, Bell, ACD, early policemen — collected at the very end of the book.