"The Man Who Would Be Sherlock"

Biographer Christopher Sandford’s “The Man Who Would Be Sherlock” is an interesting and insightful portrait of the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In this biography, Sandford focuses on Arthur Conan Doyle’s long career as an amateur investigator who lobbies for justice in controversial criminal cases. Along the way, he identifies incidents and cases from Doyle’s life that could have inspired the cases brought before Sherlock Holmes. Sandford also explores Doyle’s other major pursuit: his belief in spiritualism and communication with the dead.

Scotland Yard Assistant Chief Commissioner Sir Basil Thomson said that Doyle “...would have made an outstanding detective had he devoted himself to crime detection rather than authorship.”

Sandford’s biography seems to have been created to support Thomson’s hypothesis. Doyle, however, would have been a frustrated man had he worked for Scotland Yard’s bureaucracy. Time and again Doyle expresses his disappointment in “the careless attitude of officialdom” who let their “almost incalculable stupidity and prejudice” run ahead of the evidence. Doyle, like his creation Sherlock Holmes, cannot let an unjust case go undefended.

The amount of time Doyle devotes to righting injustice is astounding. His best known cases are taking up the defenses of the two wrongly convicted men—George Edalji and Oscar Slater. The latter case lasted in excess of 15 years, with Doyle ultimately prevailing upon the courts to overturn Slater’s conviction. Sandford devotes a large part of the book to the cases of these two men.

There are other, smaller cases. Sandford write about how Doyle advocates on behalf of an American woman imprisoned for theft, arguing that she should be sent to a “consulting room and not a cell.” Sandford notes that Doyle’s notions of chivalry and honor made him moved by the plight of the fairer sex. Doyle even takes on a couple cases while on a trip to South Africa. Though Doyle has valuable insight into the South African murders, they do not resolve themselves in a neat and satisfactory way.

This is the first biography I have read about Doyle. As such, I cannot say how much Sandford adds to what is already known about Holmes. However, as an amateur Holmes enthusiast, I found Sandford’s book full of the interesting details that made Doyle’s life such a fascinating affair, and how those details found their way into the adventures of Holmes and Watson.

Was Doyle himself more Holmes or more Watson? You can read this biography and decide for yourself. Regardless, I don’t think anyone who reads this book can dispute the inscription on Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave: “Steel True, Blade Straight.”