“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”
That was what Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson in “A Case of Identity”. The line between fact and fiction can become a little blurred at times, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “faction”. It can leave you wondering where one ends and the other starts.
A good example is the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, adapted for television with Martin Clunes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Basing his novel on the true story of George Edalji, which was indeed investigated by Conan Doyle, Barnes produced a readable and very approachable account of the shameful treatment of an innocent man by police who were either incompetent, prejudiced or frankly corrupt.
Turning fact into fiction, especially for television, usually entails adding some extra excitement and drama – sinister outlines of cloaked figures, a good chase or two, that sort of thing. If you want to read an account less tinged with romanticism, as Holmes would have said, try Outrage: The Edalji five and the shadow of Sherlock Holmes by Roger Oldfield.
Then there are other elements to the drama that might pique your interest. What about Conan Doyle’s own Watson figure – Woodie? His secretary was indeed Major Alfred Wood, whose handwriting is thought to appear at one point in the manuscript of The Dying Detective. Interestingly, he is played by Charles Edwards, who himself played the young Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Richardson’s Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms, dramatizations and novels by David Pirie.
Then there is the interesting Miss Jean Leckie, who did indeed become his second wife. Conan Doyle’s sister was married to E W Hornung, creator of Raffles, and they did fall out over Miss Leckie.
George Edalji was not an isolated case. The biographies will tell of other cases investigated by Conan Doyle, including that of another outsider falsely accused, this time of murder – Oscar Slater. You can get a more detailed account of that from Oscar Slater: the great suspect by Peter Hunt or Thomas Toughill’s Oscar Slater. If true crime is your interest, Peter Costello’s The Real World of Sherlock Holmes gives an overview of many cases which interested Conan Doyle, including those of Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen. Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his criminological friends by Stephen Wade discusses his involvement with The Crimes Club, a group of gentlemen who formed the club to share their interest in criminology.
So much for fact. If you fancy something a little lighter, Sir Arthur appears as a character in a number of novels other than those of Pirie mentioned above. Gyles Brandreth makes Oscar Wilde his detective, with Conan Doyle appearing as a semi-Watson figure in his series of Victorian murder mysteries, while Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth M Cameron has his first wife Louisa as the detective. Finally, there are a number of novelizations of real crimes where Sherlock Holmes investigates – try Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper by Ellery Queen.
Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries. The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.