Sherlock Holmes: the unauthorised biography by Nick Rennison

Elementary, my dear Crippen
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The Independent Culture

A biography of a fictional character can feel like a redundant exercise, but Nick Rennison's account of the life and times of the world's greatest consulting detective proves more pertinent, if never quite impertinent enough. The idea is appealing because the Holmes canon is intriguingly limited. Other investigations, such as "the case of the two Coptic patriarchs" and "the adventure of the Paradol Chamber" are obliquely referred to, relationships are tentative, dark pasts are hinted at, backgrounds remain sketchy and emotions are almost entirely absent. That's understandable; Conan Doyle was writing pieces to be read on the omnibus, not plotting the great Victorian novel. His creation's depth comes less from his own writing than from sustained fascination provided by generations of readers, who have always demanded more than was available.

Luckily, this is no mere fanboy's salute to the game afoot, but an addition of depth and character where there was formerly little of either. So here, Holmes's loneliness and isolation as the son of country squire stock makes him self-contained and independent, but also secretive and neurotic. Suppositions are teased from clues embedded in the stories, rather than Conan Doyle's own nature, so that, for example, Holmes's eventual scepticism about the supernatural stems from disillusionment following his once firmly held unorthodox beliefs at Cambridge. It's a peculiarly Frankenstein-like exercise, stitching joins between known events in the career of a creation in order to give birth to a fully formed life, but not without fascination of its own.

For a start, there's the peppering of celebrity walk-ons; Holmes acts on stage with Henry Irving, while his brother Mycroft makes friends with Lewis Carroll, both events throwing light on their natures. Gladstone, General Gordon, Queen Victoria and other key figures of the period are also pressed into the charade. Later, Rennison cheekily adds Conan Doyle himself to the roll-call, making him friends with both Holmes and Watson. It's interesting to note how perfectly the concept of a real-life Holmes slots into this world of gaslit eccentricities.

The social mores of his contemporaries help to inform the reasoning in Holmes's most important cases, to the point where fact and fiction blur in a welter of finely wrought detail. If you know enough about late Victorian England to name-check its greatest political and sexual scandals, you'll find most of them making an appearance here, and Rennison relishes the idea of challenging readers to a game of Call My Bluff, connecting Holmes at various points to the Irish question, the Cleveland Street scandal, Dr Crippen, the Cottingley Fairies and, of course, the Whitechapel murders. Only the last of these affairs provides a disappointing explanation, as confrontations between Holmes and Jack have been explored so frequently (and with such absurdity) in the past that no surprising material remains to be disclosed - although Holmes's theory involving a cricketing psychopath could have shown more potential.

How much is added to what we already know from the stories? Only the most autistic reader would remember every crumb of information concerning Holmes's life, but it's all put to good use here. I can't recall whether Charles Augustus Milverton existed, or if Moriarty was an Irish codebreaker, but such matters are at least settled, if not at much length. Wherever Watson's narratives fought shy of naming names, Rennison imaginatively supplies the long-suppressed details, often blaming Watson for poor reportage or deliberate misdirection when he wishes to add facts that go against the grain of the original accounts. We get more flesh on the bones of the sleuth's great lost love, Irene Adler, the beautiful American prima donna, although his much speculated-upon affair with her is denied proof, as is the matter of his muted sexuality, and his drug use receives a similarly measured response. A trashier "unauthorised" biography would have blown the lid off this drug-taking crimefighter's life.

Rennison can't resist a little post-modern fun describing Holmes's fascination with his own representation on celluloid, and telling us that Watson's accounts too readily tangled reality with invention, thus paralleling him with the present biographer. Perhaps that's what this somewhat conservative exercise lacks - Conan Doyle's own escapist sense of dash and flair. Still, it's a clever idea cunningly executed, and a welcome addition to the library of every Holmes fan.