Sherlock Holmes is one of the most widely recognized figures of literature and pop culture. But how did the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, come up with a character who has become the universal archetype of the independent detective?
In his book, Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes, my guest today explores the biography of the fictional detective by looking at the life of the real-world author. His name is Michael Sims and we begin our conversation with the early life of Conan Doyle and his experience in medical school studying under a renowned diagnostician who helped inspire the character of Sherlock Holmes. Michael then walks us through the cultural world of Victorian England and how it was the perfect environment for a character like Holmes to be birthed. He shows how writers like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe laid the groundwork for detective fiction, how the Sherlock stories differed from theirs, and how they were initially received. We then delve into the characterization of Holmes and his crime solving methodology, before ending our conversation discussing Conan Doyle’s intense interest in spiritualism and why Holmes is such a captivating figure even in the 21st century.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- What inspired Doyle to write?
- What was his career like as a doctor? How did that influence his writing?
- The state of medicine in the late 19th century
- Edgar Allan’s Poe creation of the detective genre
- What set Holmes apart from other fictional detectives?
- Were the novels and stories a hit right away?
- The odd inconsistencies from story to story
- What was Watson’s role in the Holmes adventures?
- Holmes surprising tobacco and cocaine habits
- Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism and how it influenced his work
- Doyle’s interesting friendship with Harry Houdini
- Why does the character of Holmes still capture audiences today?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Lessons in Manliness From Hardboiled Detective Philip Marlowe
- The Life and Times of Dashiell Hammett
- Joseph Bell
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens
- C. Auguste Dupin
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes
- The Baker Street Irregulars
- Sherlock Holmes adaptations
- Spiritualism as a movement
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most widely recognized figures of literature and pop culture. But how did the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, come up with a character who has become the universal archetype of the independent detective?
In his book, “Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes”, my guest today explores the biography of the fictional detective by looking at the life of the real-world author. His name is Michael Sims and we begin our conversation with the early life of Conan Doyle and his experience in medical school studying under a renowned diagnostician who helped inspire the character of Sherlock Holmes.
Michael then walks us through the cultural world of Victorian England and how it was the perfect environment for a character like Holmes to be birthed. He shows how writers like Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe laid the groundwork for detective fiction, how the Sherlock stories differed from theirs, and how they were initially received. We then delve into the characterization of Holmes and his crime-solving methodology, before ending our conversation discussing Conan Doyle’s intense interest in spiritualism and why Holmes is such a captivating figure even in the 21st century. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/sherlock.
All right. Michael Sims, welcome to the show.
Michael Sims: Thank you very much. I’ve been looking forward to it.
Brett McKay: So you are the author of a book called, “Arthur and Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes”. So what’s the story behind the book? Why do you feel you needed to write a biography of not only Conan Doyle, but Sherlock Holmes?
Michael Sims: Well, I felt that for most people, they’re very much joined into the same story and Conan Doyle wrote pioneer science fiction such as The Lost World. He wrote historical stuff that he himself thought was deeper and more important. You know of course, that Robert Downey Jr. is not rushing to make movies of The White Company. And so Sherlock Holmes is the character that caught the global imagination and is still being reinterpreted now. And I wanted to write about the origins of that character and whether I’m writing about scientists or children’s authors, such as it’d be white or whatever, Henry David Thoreau, I’m always looking at, to me, the origins of creativity. And so for Conan Doyle, what needs just suited me most is what about his era, his upbringing, his own psyche, his own bent played into the creation of this iconic detective. It was great fun.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah. And it was a lot of fun to read. So let’s talk about Conan Doyle. Did he have ambitions from a young age to be a writer? Or was that something that he kind of fell into as he became an adult?
Michael Sims: I don’t think as a child there’s any indication that he was fantasizing about being a writer at a very, very young. But then he discovered a certain skill for it when he was at boarding schools in Austria and elsewhere and in England at Sandhurst. One of those kids who later talked about how he would learn to tell stories to his classmates and stop in the Shiraz odd manner of at the key moment and make them give him a snack or something, you know? So he learned early how freelancing works. And so he then wanted to write, I think, not out of grand ambitions, but out of the most basic and wonderful that led Dylan Thomas and Ray Bradbury and many other people to write, which is he wanted to live in a certain space in his mind, and he wrote the kinds of things he loved to read.
Brett McKay: So, telling stories as a young child, he didn’t go into writing right away. In fact, he became a doctor. What was that career like for him and how did it influence him as a writer later on?
Michael Sims: I think it influenced him greatly. He had this sort of enlightenment excitement about what could be learned and how much was happening in the world in scientific terms. He was very interested in the paranormal, increasingly so over the years and he famously became an active spiritualist, and he even believed in the Cottingley Fairies, the two girls who claimed they had seen fairies and claim they produced photographs of them, which were clearly figures cut out of a book illustrations, but he was passionate in that regard. But he also at the same time, had a strong enlightenment sort of passion for evidence and science and justice and evidence-based thinking. And so, he wanted to write in the fields he knew, fields he loved, such as crime and adventure fiction, but he was influenced by his own training as a doctor and then he met, he famously worked under a famous diagnostician in Edinburgh who later about eight or 10 years later inspired Sherlock Holmes.
Brett McKay: Well, tell us about the guy, his name was Dr. Bell, right?
Michael Sims: Yes, Joseph Bell and he met him. Doyle met him at a perfect time in 1876. Doyle was 17, coming home to Edinburgh from boarding schools, and he was very much in search of a father figure. His own father was a very sad alcoholic who was doing the Edinburgh Victorian version of breaking into his children’s piggy banks and in drinking furniture polish practically. He was in bad shape. And Doyle needed someone to turn to and to emulate. And Joseph Bell was a legendary diagnostician, and this was an era in which diagnostics was coming of age as a profession because there was very little diagnostic technology. So it had to be the position as a scientist, as detective reading the physical signs and behavior of each patient very quickly to do a quick diagnostic tentative biography of the patient and what was going on inside the patient. And so, Doyle saw that every day and Joseph Bell was legendary then. And there were other diagnosticians at the time in Austria, Germany, and elsewhere, who were doing this kind of thing, and Bell was famous, even among them. A very influential teacher, scientist and physician. And he would do all those things that we now all associate with Sherlock Holmes. No one can give that to a detective character now without it looking like Sherlock Holmes. But a patient would come in. Bell would glance at the coat she was carrying realize it was too large for the child who was holding her hand and say, “Where did you live the other Baron?” He would look at the mud on their shoes and say, “Did you enjoy your walk down from Leith?” and on and on and on. And he was very, very good at it and it, and Doyle was not the only one who wrote about these techniques that we now call Sherlockian. So there’s confirmation, Bell himself became famous as Doyle talked about him in interviews and Bell credited Doyle’s imagination for most of it, but he then was asked to talk about his own techniques. And so there’s a lot of firsthand primary information. Fascinating, wonderful, funny stuff about how Bell behaved toward patients.
Brett McKay: You’re talking to and one of the goals of your book was to see how the time that Conan Doyle grew up in or was raised in influenced his writing. This, I thought is great, the history of medicine at this time. This was changing before the medicine was sort of, I don’t know, it was more art than science. You know, doctors kind of, “I think this will work and give it to you.” But as you said, Dr. Bell was able to see exactly, or at least try to use a scientific method to figure out what’s wrong with patients and then treat them with the scientific method.
Michael Sims: Yes, it was wonderful. A wonderful era. And part of why I keep returning to the Victorian era to write about into anthologized stories from is that so much was happening at the same time in Conan Doyle’s lifetime. Anesthesia was invented, the Telegraph was invented, photography was invented. All of these things, just during his lifetime, well, just shortly before his lifetime, they came of age and really flourished during his lifetime. He was born in 1859, so there were a little bit prior to him. And so the ways that those played in the history of medicine was almost medieval until some kind of anesthesia came along and then the germ theory of disease was late in the century.
Brett McKay: So Conan Doyle became a doctor first, what was his career like as a doctor? Was he a good doctor? Was he able to do what Dr. Bell did and be able to look at somebody and say, “This is what’s wrong with you.” Or did he not that great at it?
Michael Sims: I think he was doing okay at it. We have mostly his own account. But he didn’t have time to pursue it very far because he became successful. He had perhaps a decade of trickling short stories into magazines, and at the time they were published anonymously, and that had become the norm at a time when it protected writers from government explosions in response to his opinions expressed. But it had remained the norm even when in an era when the same writers were developing something like the publishing culture we have now with the kind of fame attributed to authors for their novels and their names would be on there. And so, Conan Doyle kept thinking, “I have to have my name on a book. I have to write a novel.” And that’s when he thought, “I should consider writing a detective story.” But he had been not terribly successful as a physician, not as poorly received, as he himself joked in later interviews because there’s enough factual, physical documentary evidence that he was making a living in Portsmouth as a physician, but his success in writing just snowballed so quickly and so dramatically that he soon just abandoned medicine completely.
Brett McKay: So talk about, he wanted to write a novel that gets his name out there, get him famous, as he said, “I’m going to write a detective novel.” Where did he get that idea? I mean, were there such things as real-life detectives in London who were solving crimes, or was this something he kind of made up on his own?
Michael Sims: Well, he had read about detective stories. It was a genre. It wasn’t very much like what we imagined now, but it was a genre and it had been only in 1829 that a real first metropolitan police force had been formed in London and only in 1842 I think that the detective force was founded. And so even police detectives came along only 17 years or so before Doyle was born. So real police force at the time was getting organized and established, and detectives were a phenomenon. And just before Doyle was born, Charles Dickens was writing articles about the new detective force. And so Dickens later wrote about one of them in Bleak House. And so, it became a genre that was catching on. There had been a lot of allegedly true crime like now, allegedly true crime stories being published in newspapers and magazines, and that was fueling interest in the real police, real detectives and Wilkie Collins and numerous other writers were writing about the era writing about London and detectives at the time. And so Conan Doyle found a flourishing genre and soon practically owned it.
Brett McKay: Right. And you also talk about I thought that the history of the detective or mystery genre and literature, you know, you saw it a little bit in London with Dickens writing about it, but you also talk about, Edgar Allan Poe played a big role in the development of mystery/detective fiction.
Michael Sims: Yes. Poe, when he wasn’t writing someone being walled up in a tomb or a cat being accidentally buried with a murder victim. He founded the detective genre as we think of it now with three short stories, especially the first one, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841 published in an American magazine that he was himself at the time editing, which is, I’m sure, a very handy writer. And he created C. Auguste Dupin, and it was Poe, so it’s filled with Gothic trappings, but this was a character who was an amateur and it launched this whole notion that you see all the way through Miss Marple and everybody else. This very curious notion that somebody who lives in a little village in England or in this case, Dupin in Paris, happens to have, is almost born with a genius-level ability to solve crimes, which is a ludicrous fantasy, but often very entertaining. And Dupin was a character who was holding forth a lot about his intelligence and his ability and reading people and the nameless narrator was very admiring. He made Watson look cold-hearted by comparison because he was so admiring of the detective. But Poe had not witnessed what Conan Doyle had. Poe was making this up as in a sense of kind of extension of notions of logic into crime and everyday life. And he hadn’t seen anyone do this. And so when Conan Doyle decided he wanted to do this, he thought of Joseph Bell and he didn’t consciously do this, but what he would up doing was combining Dupin and other detectives of the era and Joseph Bell. And so Conan Doyle had examples. He showed us, very convincingly again and again, how Sherlock Holmes was making these observations.
Brett McKay: We’ll talk about this deductive process used by Sherlock Holmes because it’s famous. So let’s talk about how Conan Doyle decided to make Sherlock Holmes different.
So he combined a bunch of different detectives that were famous and Bell, but what’s set Sherlock Holmes apart from everyone else? Why did Sherlock Holmes capture the imagination of not only England but the world, really fast, really quickly?
Michael Sims: I think in part that he is a very protean character. He has lots of different factors playing into him and you can see that. I don’t mean to jump way ahead, but you can see what appealed to people then and how he’s been represented in our own era. That elementary, the TV show would emphasize addiction. Benedict Cumberbatch, his version would emphasize the autistic aspect of Robert Downey Jr. Emphasizes the physicality, the running, the chasing, the barehanded bare-knuckle fisticuffs. And so, all of those factors were in there and he was very much an enlightenment hero that he believed in justice above and beyond the legal system. So he had a strong sense of that he knew best, and I think a lot of readers wanted that in a hero and identify with it. He was courageous and he was brilliant. He was very much detective as a scientist. And it was an era that believed very strongly in science and the progressions and the ability of science to help us understand the world, to help us reduce the thousand natural shocks, the pleasures there to maybe a manageable hundred. And so, on and on, Science was in that era. It wasn’t yet creating atomic bombs and mustard gas, which was around the corner in world war one and two, but it was still very much an optimistic force and Conan Doyle saw it that way in many ways. And Sherlock Holmes, I think, embodied that.
Brett McKay: It was almost like a superhero to do like a Marvel comic character.
Michael Sims: He really is. And I think, he is very often even an informal survey of my friends indicated that he’s perhaps most popular with people who also love superhero movies and things like that. And it’s interesting that Robert Downey Jr. portrays one of the most popular superheroes and the most popular detective and alternating movies for a while there.
Brett McKay: So, he gets the idea for Sherlock Holmes. What was the first novel that he published or was it a short story that came out first or did he go right to a novel with Sherlock Holmes?
Michael Sims: He first did a novel, A Study in Scarlet, and at the time, a study in a certain color was a style of title used by rather more decadent, modern kinds of writers. And so there was a little bit of a whiff of decadence in the title.
Brett McKay: And then, what was the response? Did it gain like a lot of critical claims, was it popular right away?
Michael Sims: The first two novels were A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, the first one got some notice not as much as one might imagine now. The second one got more, but what really caught on is when he was commissioned to write a series of a dozen short stories, the ones that now are published as and were then published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and that’s the title of the very first collection of 12 and those caught on.
Now, they were a little bit of a hard sale in the US at first, because they weren’t the standard periodical length. And in a sense, it’s as if the magazines and newspapers at the time were like the TV programs of say, the 1970s and ’80s prior to other options that we have now, cable and digital and everything else. And so they were the primary form of entertainment. And Conan Doyle wanted to write for that market, but he didn’t usually write within exactly the specifications. And so editors had to be talked into trying these, trying to syndicate them and reprint them in their periodicals. And gradually they caught on, editors themselves became enthusiastic, enthusiastic readers and enthusiastic in promoting them, and it gradually grew into a phenomenon that led Arthur Conan Doyle to famously write a letter to his beloved mother, I think Sherlock is catching on. The great understatement in literary history.
Brett McKay: And another thing I didn’t know about the Holmes series was that there wasn’t a lot of continuity between the stories. Right? It was just like each story was sort of a self-contained world and sometimes he wouldn’t even reference things that happened in previous stories or he contradicts something that happened in a previous story, but for some reason that worked for him.
Michael Sims: Yes. Again, this is hardly an iconoclastic view, I think the Sherlock Holmes’s work is very much his best work. And he did not think it was deep enough, but what he was doing was riding out of his true essential self, which from my point of view in reading a vast amount about him and writing about him, his essential self was adolescent. He was basically, he remained, it seems to me pretty much, a 14-year-old boy who wanted to read about an adventure and he wanted to write about an adventure. So he was doing, I think a lot better with Sherlock Holmes and he realized, but he wasn’t one to take them seriously. So that famously, infamously or whatever, notoriously he forgot where Watson’s war wound was, and it might be in his shoulder in one story, and in his leg in the next. Watson’s name was from the very first page established as John. But in one of the short stories, his wife calls him James and on and on, a number of things like that. And the lack of continuity was kind of a great idea because there had been a lot of serialization of novels, which most famously Dickens had built his whole reputation on that and his worldwide fame. And so, magazines would have to commit to the entire novel. They’d have to sign a contract, or they couldn’t run a piece of it. And so, there were lots of things. And the idea was if you’re caught up in this story, you will go and get the next issue. But if you’re not, there’s nothing to attract you. And so, Doyle was very smart about let’s have self-contained stories and we see this, the effect of this and the value of this all the way through TV series until our own era. When TV series usually evolve, characters tend to grow and change and evolve. And in the 1970s so when I was 12, a TV show, what was on then, I don’t know, a Colombo, it was hardly going to evolve from episode to episode or Mannix or something like that. And so that was a stroke of genius and it became the norm in detective stories that each one is like a modular unit that can be inserted into your brain at any point. It’s a great idea.
Brett McKay: If there were literary forms or blogs back then, I bet it’d be driving people nuts. I’d be like, “What is Conan? What is Watson’s real name?” They’d have debates about it like people have debates about stuff now.
Michael Sims: Oh yes. And it would be all over Twitter and it would be nonstop. And even now, among the Baker Street Irregulars, many of my friends are Baker Street Irregulars. I’m not actually a member, I’ve been their guest speaker and so on. And a lot of my friends are there and they remind me that the word fan is a shortened form of fanatic that the Baker Street Irregulars to this day are arguing about those things.
Brett McKay: Are the Baker Street Irregulars are fans of Sherlock Holmes?
Michael Sims: Oh, yes. That’s the international organization of fans of Sherlock Holmes. In England, there’s the Sherlock Holmes Society, but both are really international. And the Baker Street Irregulars was Holmes his nickname. In the second novel, I think it is for the street urchins that he used to gather information on people because they were invisible on the street and he said, “This is the Baker Street or regular force, regular police force.” And so, the fans, as early as about– right about 100 years ago, the fans began forming this organization, the Baker Street Irregulars, to study and celebrate Sherlock Holmes in the many incarnations.
Brett McKay: So let’s talk about his detective process, you mentioned he had this sources that he would go to, but the thing that made him famous was that he would actually walk people through, walk the reader through, how he came to his conclusion, and we typically call this like the deductive process of Sherlock Holmes, but it was this really deduction or was this induction? I’m always confused by that.
Michael Sims: I think it was technically induction most of the time he would do both. Deduction is inferring a general law from particular instances. And so that you might look at all the little clues and build up a larger picture. And particular instances that you observe can lead to a general law or principle in induction. And so the two are very related. And there’s also a version called abduction, that is the merging of them and the whole idea of that, all of these forms of observing are playing into each other, and are tentative in their assumptions that have to be constantly refreshed by incoming facts. And that’s what I love most about, I think, detective stories, aesthetically, and it’s the respect for adjusting your theories for incoming facts. And it’s what I like most about the scientific method as a way of thinking, or even politics or anything else. It’s like, how about some evidence-based decision making? And you realize how late that came along as an idea in history. Before that, it’s like whatever.
Brett McKay: And it’s amazing, this thing you’re the sort of, I guess you’d call it, we call it a trope that Conan Doyle used of like Holmes explaining how he came to the conclusion like, you see this through the rest of the detective genre. You see it in movies today, like I mean, clues like, remember that movie clue from the 80s?
Michael Sims: Yes.
Brett McKay: That the end, they explained everything that goes, like everything is tied up with a nice bow, and that you can trace that all the way back to Sherlock Holmes.
Michael Sims: And I think that’s part of the great aesthetic pleasure of the detective genre is you have a tentative narrative that you’re reading; you’re witnessing it as it unfolds. And then you realize there are several tentative narratives being tossed around. But at the end, everything that you have experienced, gets reconfigured into what we’ll call the actual story. And so, there’s a great pleasure in that on a literary critical kind of level. But there’s so many versions of it, as you said about Sherlock Holmes going out and finding out everything. He was very much someone who did it all himself. And then Agatha Christie could come along with Erico Poro and I think their first one was in 1920 and he’s sort of decrying this kind of scurrying around on your knees with a magnifying glass and saying, “It’s about the little gray cells Hastings.” And then Nero Wolfe comes along, and since Archie Goodwin out to do the legwork but someone still has to do the legwork and Nero Wolfe consider home theorizing. And so, I love that Sherlock Holmes has– to me these three sexiest words in the English language I work alone, the sexiest phrase in the English language. And Sherlock Holmes very much did and he just did everything himself. And I think, that combining of what he had seen in Joseph Bell, the notion of a sort of romantic action hero, and an enlightenment thinker, I don’t think Conan Doyle had any idea he was emerging three vibrant strands of literary history into one thing right there.
Brett McKay: And part of the process of Holmes be able to do his deduction or induction was observing, observing things that other people didn’t see. And in fact, Sherlock Holmes, like Conan Doyle have Sherlock Holmes say things like that, like I actually observe what other people merely see like, he made a distinction between those two things.
Michael Sims: Yes. And I think that’s very helpful. For example, I think about it when I’m driving around on a street, I see the other cars, but my mind is on sort of radar mode of I simply am avoiding large objects. I don’t really observe the other cars, the way my brother does, who knows a lot about cars. And so I think Holmes demonstrates that kind of thing again and again and he says, “Well, I’ve written a monograph on cigar and cigarette ash, really nothing is more helpful than being able to tell them apart. And now of course, we have specialists for all those things, even on Veera, the wonderful TV series Veera, if they need that kind of information, they just cut to a 45-second scene with an expert. And so, there weren’t specialist in these corners of the time, and so Sherlock Holmes did it all himself and in the very first part of the first book, a study in Scarlet Watson is recently involuted from the African more. He is looking for an inexpensive place to stay in London. And a mutual friend introduces him to Sherlock Holmes, who was a medical student at the time. And while he was doing special research at the medical school, on how far bruises can be shown in a body after death, so he’s doing his own forensic pathology experiments. In other words, he’s just about the creepiest guy you could ever imagine actually meeting in the real world.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about Watson. Like what role did Watson play in the Holmes stories? Was he an important character?
Michael Sims: I think Watson was a great invention. And again, to contrast Edgar Allan Poe, hes narrator of The Dupin stories was nameless and existed entirely to do variations on Gee whiz, you’re a genius. And Watson is skeptical, he says, “Reader, I think of all man, I must be the most long suffering.” I mean he sort of complains like a roommate or a husband, or wife. He serves as the bridge between our skepticism about genius and the genius. And so, that gives us a sense of, “Okay, yeah, I’m not just painting superhero here, I understand this is weird.” and it gives Sherlock Holmes a reason to hold forth. And so I think those are great. And in the early movies, like Basil Rathbone, Naijo versus Dr. Watson was sort of a bumbling lap dog almost at times. And in the stories, Watson is actually quite sharp, very skeptical of Holmes, and very loyal and quick to put a gun in his pocket if they need to run out to do something. And so I think Watson, in that regard, is almost as parody and a character as Holmes, by which I mean that he can be represented through many different aspects. And so you see, Martin Freeman’s version on Sherlock versus Jude law’s version. And so, all of those things are in there, in the original stories, Watson is smart, loyal, active. He was a soldier until 10 minutes before Sherlock Holmes met him practically. And so, these are the kinds of things that make Watson an ideal narrator. And of course, Doyle himself had a very quick lively style filled with texture and detail and atmosphere, and without realizing it, he created a time machine, a time capsule of the late Victorian era.
Brett McKay: So, one of the reasons why Sherlock Holmes has become such an iconic figure, he’s got a cool uniform, at least what we think is his uniform which is–
Michael Sims: Yes.
Brett McKay: Right? It’s the skinny guy, usually the skinny guy with a magnifying glass wearing the deerstalker hat, smoking a pipe. And here’s the question, did Conan Doyle ever describes Holme looking like that?
Michael Sims: He did. He did not describe the deerstalker an illustrator added that early on, and the illustrator didn’t understand that the deerstalker was a country thing. So some illustrators who can- -which show Sherlock Holmes wearing it at a pub in London, where he would just look like a rube. And so, those are little things that gradually were added on. The skinniness is several factors playing into that, I think one is that he smoked constantly. 221 The Baker Street was constantly filled with smoke, and he famously kept his fierce Turkish tobacco in a slipper on the mantel. And so, whenever he was bored, he would inject himself with a cocaine solution. And so, that was a very common notion at the time, opium dens were no more illegal than that the nearest bar here, at the time. And they were seen as decadent epicenters of exploitation but they weren’t illegal. And so, I think, all those factors play into it and also something we forget and something the movies tend to not pay much attention to. Conan Doyle was in his 20s when he created Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and all the evidence in the stories, the original stuff indicates that he conceived the detective and his sidekick, as pretty much in their late 20s are no more than 30 years old. And that’s not how they’re usually portrayed.
Brett McKay: No, yeah. They’re always portrayed older. And speaking of the drug use, that’s something I always forget about. The Holmes story is that he would shoot up cocaine. But again, as you talked about the influence of the 19th century the Victorian area had on these Holmes stories. That was a common thing people did, they did heroin, they did cocaine. This was like the rise of like pharmaceuticals, and drugs like this that are no longer pharmaceuticals.
Michael Sims: Yes. And, again, throughout history, each individual human being has always been Physicians guinea pig. I mean, we’re all that that doctor will say to you, “Well, let’s try this for two weeks and the unspoken thing is if it doesn’t kill you will raise the dosage or try something else. And if it does kill you, well, I’m insured.” And so, I think the cocaine aspect is interesting. I picked up I don’t collect in any serious way, the Sherlock Holmes stuff, but I usually if I see a different edition, I’ll pick it up and look at it. I picked up one from the 70s, that was a children’s book edition of the second book, The son of the four, and the book normally opens with Sherlock Holmes stabbing himself with a needle, with a cocaine solution. And that was completely taken out of the 70s children’s book version. And it’s just not something we wanted to associate with heroes, it’s done.
Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, that would be funny if they left that in there.
Michael Sims: Yes.
Brett McKay: Okay. So you mentioned earlier, Conan Doyle famously got involved with spiritualism. And it’s an aspect of, I guess 19th century history in England as well as in America that often people forget about. Can you tell us about the spiritualist movement? And then how did Conan Doyle get involved with it? And did it influence his work at all?
Michael Sims: Conan Doyle very much got involved with it and spiritualist movement. It doesn’t seem this way to us now but originally at the time, it was seen as rather scientific evidence of an afterlife. It wasn’t just belief. Spirits are communicating with us and we can take these ectoplasmic spirit photos, we can communicate with them through knocking out a table or whatever in the dark. And this was gullible figures such as Doyle, who very much missed his mother when she died, who lost his son in World War One and was desperately eager to remain in touch with both of them. Spiritualist were via sciences and other things praying upon the gullible and the grieving. And as someone said about Conan Doyle in this regard regarding spiritualism, he was no Sherlock Holmes. And it’s really one of the weird contradictions between author and character. There’s even a story in which Sherlock Holmes says, “No ghosts need apply Watson.” This agency stands with his feet planted firmly on the ground. And to the very end, Sherlock Holmes remains an icon of rational investigation. And all the time Conan Doyle is steadily becoming more and more obsessed with him, preoccupied with spiritualism. And it began in the 1840s with the fox sisters in upstate New York and the idea that spirits were communicating with them, really one of them had a very flexible toe joint, frankly, I mean, there’s tons of evidence for this, and she would tap it on the hollow floor underneath the table and it would resonate throughout the room. And her most commercial minded sister said, “Let’s take this toe snap and show on the road, basically.” And they began to make a lot of money and they became the headliners and the launchers of the spiritualist movement. And so, it was very well-established form of con game by the time that Conan Doyle was involved in it. And everyone was saying, “This is clearly crap” and Conan Doyle was saying,“ This is clearly a channel to the afterlife.”
Brett McKay: But then this is kind of a geez to this– how different things can connect during this time. So Conan Doyle was actually friends with Houdini, Harry Houdini, the magician. But Harry Houdini was like the great debunker spiritualism.
Michael Sims: Yes, there’s a wonderful encounter between them. They became friends and Conan Doyle was so by this time besotted, it seems to me and I admit I’m beyond skeptical. With spiritualism, he actually said to Houdini, “Why do you pretend this is all a matter of gimmickry when clearly you dematerialize and rematerialize somewhere else?” And Houdini is offering to show him how he does this and Conan Doyle is going, “I don’t know why you have to pretend. You don’t have this deep spiritual power.” So it’s part of the fun of my book was concentrating on the creation of Sherlock Holmes and I carry the book only to where Sherlock is really hugely successful. I don’t carry it on through to Holme, to Doyle famously getting tired of Holmes and killing him off The Reichenbach Falls and all that sort of thing. And I don’t go into the spiritualism other than the very beginnings of it. And that’s fun for me because I find– there many great full length biographies such as Andrew Licence about Arthur Conan Doyle, but I would find exploring his spiritualism in depth, maddening. Referring frankly.
Brett McKay: Because this wouldn’t make sense to you? Like it just be too much like, how can you have this character Sherlock Holmes, and then how could you be like this?
Michael Sims: Yes, yes. It just seems so gullible. And it’s demonstrably false in so many directions again and again, things that he would praise such as those fairy photos that those girls said at the little village accordingly. And Doyle just– once he made up his mind, it was like, I once had an uncle who could find a biblical prediction for absolutely anything that had happened anywhere in the past hundred years, thousand years of the last week. And well of course he could, he just didn’t need any evidence he had. His belief grew like as hardy as a weed, it could grow in any environment. And I think Arthur Conan Doyles credulity and gullibility in this corner where the same. He didn’t use the same kind of thinking for those at all.
Brett McKay: So why do you think this like 19th century character from England still, like captivates people today? Like we’re making movies about them, there’s a TV show about them that’s popular. Like what is it about Sherlock Holmes that people still want to, like read stories or watch movies about them?
Michael Sims: I think in part and of course, I don’t mean to be the– I’m not an expert on this kind of phenomenon. I’m interested in those aspects of celebrity culture that play into a fictional creation becoming a household name but I’m by no means an expert in it. And I think that Holmes himself, again is such a protean figure, one who has so many facets, that different incarnations can emphasize different aspects of it. And the notion, I think once people started the idea that– let’s modernize Holmes, let’s recreate Holmes, let’s do this, let’s do that.
Brett McKay: Was it Steven Spielberg who did the young Sherlock Holmes movie 30 years ago?
Michael Sims: Yes. Yes. And it’s just everywhere. And so now, there’s a whole in a sense, a giant universe. There’s a small community of like an asteroid, that’s actually the stuff Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes and there’s an entire solar system of everything else. The movies, the past issues of every kind. And some of those are good, some are funny, some are very smart, sand that sort of an attempt just a pure homage to resurrect the style. And Conan Doyle was a very good writer, he was very lively, very vivid and Holmes is a heroic figure, who is– this is important to me and it maybe, in just my own personal bent, I’m very skeptical of authorities and of legal entities and the notion of the state and all these thingsa and Sherlock Holmes was also. So that even if growing up I was always interested in the private eyes, not in the cops. And Sherlock Holmes is skeptical about the police force as many Londoners were at the time. When they were first founded in 1829, people were worried about how this would manifest itself. They had seen the French military police across the channel, cause all kinds of trouble and invasions of privacy and everything else and so people were skeptical about that, but they realized they needed a metropolitan police force of some kind. Around early 1840s, when the detective Bureau was formed, there was a huge uproar that these plain clothes people were intended to spy on everyday citizens and more than anything else. And so, there’s had been long been suspicion and mockery about these kinds of characters. And so Conan Doyle played into that with a very sarcastic Sherlock Holmes and he even– Doyle loved Emil Chaparro, the French writer who created Mr. Laycock, a wonderful character that Conan Doyle imitated a lot. And he admired so many these people, but he deliberately had Sherlock Holmes mock them in the stories.
Brett McKay: Well, yes. This is the Art of Manliness podcast. And I think one of the reasons why Holmes is such a popular video and he sort of become like an icon of manliness, as well as with other detectors that point you talked about like they work outside of the system, right? They’re almost like an outlaw but they’re trying to do good.
Michael Sims: Yes. And I think that everybody, every man has to form his own definition of what strikes him as manly or whether he needs that definition. But to me, that independence and that notion of a higher justice than the organization that’s just speaking to you, or the organization that has all kinds of built in biases or whatever, that that in itself is about as strong and independent, a move as anyone can make. And you see it, I see it enacted in politics right now that the strongest and freest place to be is activism, slightly outside the political circle, so that you know it from the inside but you’re not controlled by it. And Sherlock Holmes was that way he knew all the cops, he knew the some of the burgeoning diagnosticians that the notion of pathology that was beginning to develop. But he himself was free of all of it and he defined himself as the world’s first independent consulting detective. So the people with their problems would come to him, not to an institution.
Brett McKay: Well, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Michael Sims: Thank you very much. It’s been great fun.
Brett McKay: My guest, it was Michael Sims, he’s the author of the book, Arthur and Sherlock. It’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also check out our show notes at aom.is/sherlock. We find links to resources; we delve deeper into this topic.
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