On the Shelf

Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography by Nick Rennison

I'm as interested in Sherlock Holmes as the next guy and while I've seen a couple of Basil Rathbone movies on cable, I'm not exactly what you'd call a Holmes afficiando. But I've always wanted to actual get into Arthur Conan Doyle's mythos. I just never knew where to start. I suppose I could just start "at the beginning" or whatever but series like this, with characters that have huge literary backgrounds, are always a little daunting to me. Part of me feels that I'd read the entire series to get a clear understanding of the character and usually that's a metric assload of material.

So when I heard about a new "biography" about Sherlock Holmes was being published, I knew that this what I was looking for. And sure enough, Nick Rennison does a great job of scouring Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories for personal info about Holmes and his male companion, Dr. Watson, and compiled them all into a nice little package. This book is a written in a style familiar to Sherlock Holmes fans ("Sherlockians"). It's written from the perspective that Holmes was an actual historical person and not a literary invention. Thus, history and fiction is mingled through the entire "biography."

Since I wasn't all that familiar with Holmes, I found it pretty interesting. I had no idea that the character of Sherlock's older brother Mycroft even existed until I read about him in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series. Here, Mycroft is dealt with quite a bit and as the author shows, the older Holmes is just as formidable as his more famous younger brother.

Another thing that I found kind of interesting was Sherlock's fairly serious cocaine addiction. I'd always heard references to Holmes' penchant for coke but I never really thought about it. I've always known that in the late 19th century cocaine was mostly seen as a harmless stimulant, and viewed the way we view stuff like Red Bull or Rock Star energy drinks today, I guess. I suppose it was fairly commonplace then but today it may seem a little shocking. The author refers to The Sign of Four in which Dr. Watson describes Holmes, in one of his drug-induced fits, as having "sinewy forearms and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks." Holmes himself explains his drug use away as something to kill time with between cases. Manic drug use can lead to uncanny reasoning abilities? Not a very elementary correlation, I'd say.

If you're unfamiliar with the Holmes mythos then this can be a very interesting book. The only problem that I had with it is that my knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes universe, as well as my knowledge of Victorian history, is spotty at best. So I'm having a tough time distinguishing between historical and fictional characters and events. But while that can be a bit bothersome (to me), it hardly detracts from this very entertaining read.

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