Sunday, November 12, 2006

Book Review: "Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography"

Is it possible to write a "biography" of a fictional character? Apparently it is, for Nick Rennison has done it, and done a lovely job of it to boot. His Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography (just out from Atlantic Monthly Press) is a full-length, scholarly treatment of the life and times of the world's greatest detective: the fact that Holmes never really existed is really of little matter at all.

Rennison has culled every available biographical fact from the Holmes canon and used them to full advantage, while filling in around the edges with entirely plausible additional details. We learn of Holmes' childhood on the Yorkshire moors, his whereabouts and business during the "Great Hiatus" when the world thought him dead at the foot of Reichenbach Falls (he was traveling, Rennison suggests, on assignment for the British government in Tibet, Mecca, and the Sudan). We learn about the extent of Holmes' involvement in the Jack the Ripper case, his pursuit of Irish terrorists, and of other great unrecorded achievements.

In this book, we also learn much about Holmes' erstwhile Boswell, Dr. Watson, and about the detective's great enemies Moriarty and Moran. The relationship between Holmes, Watson and the "literary agent" Arthur Conan Doyle are also outlined in some detail; Holmes, we come to find, was rather picky about his portrayal in print, and did not hesitate in sharing his concerns with the man with whom his name has become inextricably linked.

Skillfully utilizing the Holmes stories as well as an extensive knowledge of the later Victorian period, Rennison has fashioned a readable, interesting and wonderfully detailed biography of Holmes - from the bibliography (read the whole thing) to the footnotes and beyond. If you are a Holmes fan - casual or otherwise - I cannot recommend this new volume highly enough.