Perhaps only a fiction writer can fully understand how characters take on a life of their own, even if they start out in some sense based on a real person. My sleuth, Sebastian McCabe, is Orson Wellesian in many respects—but also very different from that worthy. And Mac’s friend and narrator Jeff Cody is not Dan Andriacco, no matter what my wife thinks.
It is undeniable that when young Dr. Conan Doyle picked up a pen to try his hand at writing a detective story, he drew inspiration from one of his medical school professors. As he wrote in Memories and Adventures, “I though of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but disorganized business to something nearer an exact science.”
The oversimplification that Joe Bell = Sherlock Holmes infuriated the late Adrian Conan Doyle, who led a life-long crusade to insist just as falsely that his father was “the real Sherlock Holmes.” He even claimed in an interview that Bell wrote a letter to Conan Doyle saying, “You are the real Sherlock Holmes, and well you know it.” But that letter has never surfaced.
Holmes is neither Bell nor Conan Doyle, although he certainly has parts of each.
As Rex Stout wrote in 1963 for the cover of a record album of Basil Rathbone reading Holmes stories: “Holmes, is a man, not a puppet. As a man he has many vulnerable spots, like us; he is vain, prejudiced, intolerant; he is a drug addict; he even plays the violin for diversion—one of the most deplorable outrages of self-indulgence.” But Stout went on, there is much more to him than that: “He loves truth and justice more than he loves money or comfort or safety or pleasure, or any man or woman. Such a man has never lived, so Sherlock Holmes will never die.”
In other words, the real Sherlock Holmes is . . . Sherlock Holmes.