Daniel Smith’s The Sherlock Holmes Companion – An Elementary Guide takes readers back to the source of the global phenomenon that is the English private detective Sherlock Holmes – the author of his original stories, Arthur Conan Doyle.
Smith’s tome is an essential and invaluable guide to aficionados of the world Conan Doyle created. The book contains synopses of all four full-length novels and fifty-six short stories that form the authentic canon. Printed on glossy, high-quality paper, and containing many well-reproduced and often full-colour illustrations (including famous official depictions by the likes of Sidney Paget and Frank Wiles), The Sherlock Holmes Companion is an attractive and informative book packed with Sherlockiana. The only frustration with the design of a book about Conan Doyle’s character is the standard and inaccurate Hollywood image of Holmes on the front cover – wearing the deerstalker and Inverness cape he reserved solely for the country, and smoking the calabash pipe that never crossed his lips.
Commendably, there’s no attempt for the book to cash in on the successful BBC ‘reboot’ of Sherlock Holmes, though mention of it is made amongst the screen adaptations. The text isn’t a simple love-in for Conan Doyle: Smith points out the writer’s weaknesses as well as his strengths, and sometimes gives an assessment of which stories in the canon are the runts of the litter (notably ‘The Five Orange Pips’).
Most of the book is given over to the original source material of the stories, and includes a necessarily brief history of Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a fascinating man who lived during interesting times. It’s hard to do justice to him over only a few pages, and researchers can look elsewhere for extensive biographies; though Smith provides useful background information to the casual reader. Smith is perceptive on the basics: the success of Sherlock Holmes was a mixed blessing for his creator, who wanted to be remembered as a ‘serious’ writer, and that is a fascinating human story to delve into within these pages.
Smith offers useful information about Holmes and his environment, providing a chronology of the world events that may have informed Conan Doyle’s writing. There’s a startling photograph beside the introduction of the built-up Victorian slums of London, and our preference would have been to have seen more information about what daily life was like for the vast majority of people at the time. Perhaps Smith is correct to exclude this: he rightly contests that Conan Doyle’s social conscience wasn’t as evident as, say, Charles Dickens’.
There are fans of Sherlock Holmes who have never read a single line of Conan Doyle, thanks to the hundreds of screen adaptations, and Smith touches on all of the important ones ranging from Ellie Norwood in the silent era, to Hollywood’s Basil Rathbone, to the man many aficionados regard as the definitive screen Holmes – Jeremy Brett – who played the part in the 1980s and 1990s for Granada Television. Smith also notes other series that have borrowed the Sherlock Holmes idea and updated it, such as the Hugh Laurie medical drama House MD. It could be argued that the BBC’s Sherlock, bearing virtually no relation to the source material beyond the titles, belongs in the latter category, but here it is treated as a bona fide Holmes adaptation.
The book encompasses a wide range of voices to give their views on what makes a good Sherlock Holmes performance and why the stories continue to appeal. The actor Philip Franks, known for the Darling Buds of May and Heartbeat, talks about playing Watson opposite Peter Egan’s Holmes on stage. One of the better-regarded TV Sherlocks, Douglas Wilmer, comes across as a little bit pompous, whilst Brett’s second Watson, the late Edward Hardwicke, sounds every bit as warm as his screen persona would lead you to believe. Bert Coules, a radio writer who made many contributions to the BBC’s very fine long-running series starring Clive Merrison as Holmes (actually the only actor to have played Holmes in an adaptation of every single canonical story), talks about bringing the series to life in an audio medium. Brett’s first Watson, David Burke, also lends his voice, whilst Mark Gatiss, who writes and performs in the BBC ‘reboot’, is a contemporary contributor.
In the same way he approaches the Conan Doyle stories with his critical faculties switched on, Smith is thankfully not too blinded by passion to offer objectivity on the big screen adaptations either. Adopting a gentlemanly approach, Smith is never scathing: only gently discerning.
Despite one or two minor reservations, we wholeheartedly recommend The Sherlock Holmes Companion. It’s a great celebration of part of our cultural heritage. Smith’s prose is lucid, economical and informative, and the book is a treasure trove of details about the world of the famous detective and his human creator. It’s the kind of book likely to persuade you to revisit the literary canon once again, and as each generation finds inspiration from the stories, to remember the richness of the world that Conan Doyle created. It’s one that resonates with readers and audiences worldwide to this day.