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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

When Biography Gets Too Creative

Grace Dunbar with Mrs. Gibson in "Thor Bridge" 

All right, then, I’ll say it: William S. Baring-Gould just made stuff up.

The Sherlockian giant’s revered biography, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, is riddled with unCanonical material that he invented or borrowed from others who did, such a romantic relationship between Irene Adler and Sherlock Holmes, the identification of Athelney Jones as Jack the Ripper and (following Vincent Starrett) Mrs. Hudson as the “Martha” of “His Last Bow,” and Holmes dying on a Sussex bench at age 104.

All of this, and much more from Baring-Gould, would be surprising news to the author of the Sacred Writings. Maybe Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street should have been subtitled "A Fictionalized Life of the World's First Consulting Detective." It is refreshing, then, that June Thompson in her double biography Holmes & Watson dismisses a number of theories with the phrase “there is no evidence in the Canon.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t apply that same yardstick to some of her own theories, such as the one that Grace Dunbar of “The Problem of Thor Bridge” was the second Mrs. Watson.

Holmes & Watson, published a generation ago, lies in quality somewhere between two other works of what name – the wonderful S.C. Roberts book from 1951 and the odiferous Will Farrell movie from 2018. Parts of Thompson’s tome are quite good and the scholarly rigor of her thought process in many cases is exemplary. Most of her speculation is well-reasoned.  

However, the book is not as well-written as some of the finer examples of the Higher Criticism – those by S.C. Roberts and Vincent Starrett, for example. Her style is a bit clunky and the dozens of footnotes referring readers to the appendices are stumbling block to reading enjoyment.  

Some of her errors of fact are quite jarring. She says, for example, that “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” written in the third person in 1921, was “the first instance within the whole of the published canon of the use of this narrative form.” Hardly. “His Last Bow,” also in the third person, preceded it into print by four years.

Thompson also refers to the first two series of Holmes adventures as “twenty-three accounts,” whereas in fact there were 24, of which one (“The Cardboard Box”) wasn’t collected in book form until His Last Bow.

But at least she didn’t make stuff up.


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  2. I think both bios are entertaining reads but most of us don't take the content too seriously. The real, and significant, virtue of the B-G book is the bibliography at the end. It introduced me, as a teenager to the world of The Higher Criticism and the existence of The Baker Street Journal.