Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Monday, December 28, 2009

Close to Holmes by Alistair Duncan - UPDATED

Subtitle: A Look at the Connections Between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

MX Publishing, 2009. ISBN 9781904312505. 206 pages.

UPDATE: I try not to republish posts but it occurred to me that I have a few photographs that supplement this review. Take a look at my Sherlock Holmes set on Flickr.

I didn't have Alistair's book on our visit to London earlier this year but marital harmony it is just as well. My wife doesn't share my interest in all things Holmsian and I have an idea how it would have worked out had I wanted to explore all the locations described by the author.

Duncan's book is not a walking tour but takes the approach of looking at locations in historical London important to both Sherlock Holmes and his creator, Author Conan Doyle (ACD) and why he might have chosen those locations for his stories. The author also provides an historical context for the locations such as construction history and events associated with those locations.

He rightly begins on Baker Street and the conflict over the famous address of 221b. In the 1930s Upper Baker Street and Baker Street were merged and 221 was assigned to Abby House. The Abby Bank at this location capitalized on the famous address and hosted a Sherlock Holmes Exhibition which included a recreation of 221b. The recreation was relocated to the Sherlock Holmes Public House. The Sherlock Holmes Museum is also located on Baker Street. It overcame the unavailability (Abby House refused to give it up) of the famous numbers by registering 221b as a company name allowing it to be displayed above the door without official recognition.

I have visited this museum and it is delightful. The staff is very liberal about photography and provide props for visitors to pose with while having their pictures taken. Scenes and characters from the stories are recreated with mannikins in several rooms. Visitors may be startled at how small the rooms are but this is histgorically more accurate than what we see in the movies, including the latest.

The author does his own detective work in analyzing locations based descriptions in the books. For example, ACD only referred to one actual hotel by name, The Langham Hotel. Doyle attended a dinner there at the end of which he received a commission to write The Sign of Four. The hotel is mentioned in The Sign of Four, A Scandal in Bohemia, and The Disappearance of Lady Francis Carfax. For other hotels, Duncan considers which hotels were on the street at the time, the direction by Holmes might have been walking and makes an informed speculation as to the actual location.

Alistair continues by looking at famous streets (Regent, Pall Mall, The Strand), eating establishments, theatres, railway stations, Covent Garden, hospitals and houses, all important to either or both ACD Sherlock Holmes.

As I mentioned earlier, I didn't have this book with me in London and thus blundered around unaware of the importance of locations. Actually, I have to confess, I was so agog at actually being in London that I didn't have Holmes in mind at all. Heresy, I know! This is embarassing to recount but when we arrived in Paddington Station on the Heathrow Express I didn't stop to think that this is the station mentioned most often in The Canon. Likewise, on the Victoria Embankment looking at the statue of Queen Boudicca (nifty statue by the way, I was ready to attack the Romans myself) while being crushed by Scandanavian and German school groups I didn't know that I was across the street from the building that housed New Scotland Yard until 1967. I'm equally embarassed to mention that I took the tube to Piccadilly Circus on my first night to go to the the Waterstones bookstore not noticing that I passed by the Criterion Theatre, a pivotal location for Holmes stories -- Watson met Stamford in the Criterion Bar which, of course led to meeting Sherlock Holmes. All this and more I discovered reading Alistair's book.

Alistair's book is a nice addition to a Sherlock Holmes reference library, one I will refer to as I read the stories, and one I plan to take with me on my next visit to London.