The late Trevor H. Hall devoted 21 pages of his book Sherlock Holmes and His Creator to well-trod path of trying to figure out who was the “real” Holmes. That is, and always was, a fool’s errand.
Hall begins the chapter by poking holes in Michael Harrison’s bizarre theory, unveiled in 1971, that Conan Doyle was inspired to create the world’s first consulting detective by reading about a German private inquiry agent working in London. The agent, Wendel Scherer, called himself a “professional consulting detective.”
Scherer’s name made its way into the London newspaper in 1882 in connection with his unsuccessful efforts a missing person’s case, a matter which Harrison professed to have some similarities to the Enoch Drebber murder in A Study in Scarlet.
After demolishing the notion that the character of Sherlock Holmes owed anything to the hapless Scherer, Hall goes on to consider whether Holmes was in some sense “really” Dr. Joseph Bell or Arthur Conan Doyle himself.
Adrian Conan Doyle, one of the author’s playboy sons, was much invested in proving the latter. He claimed in an interview that Bell once wrote to his father, “you are yourself Sherlock Holmes, and well you know it.” Notably, Adrian apparently first made this often-quoted claim decades after his father’s death, and he never published the letter itself.
But it doesn’t really matter. As I wrote in my essay on “The Royal Mallows: Irish Regiments in the British Army” in Corporals, Colonels, and Commissionaires: “The truth is that Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Joseph Bell and given life by Arthur Conan Doyle. He has traits of both men, and but he is neither. As a fully realized character, he transcends his models.”
My own experience as a writer of mystery fiction tells me that the notion of characters being “based on” real people is overly simplistic and highly misleading. Once they hit the printed page, fictional creations take on a life of their own.
Only one chapter of Sherlock Holmes and His Creator really resonated with me. Michele Lopez, my Italian friend who appears on Facebook as John Sebastian Moran, drew my attention to the one on “Thomas Stearns Eliot and Sherlock Holmes.” In it, Hall fully details the many connections between the world first consulting detective and the man I regard as the greatest poet of the 20th century. For me, that was worth the price of admission.
But the “real” Sherlock Holmes is . . . Sherlock Holmes.