“People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric.”
Like insects trapped in amber, preserved in situ for all time, the cast of characters who populate the environs of 221B Baker Street offer a glimpse into a vanished milieu. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote what he saw. The canonical Sherlock Holmes stories are filled to bursting with charmers and charlatans, machiavellians and muddleheads inspired by, or taken directly from, the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In March 2016 MX Publishing will be setting 800 Sherlockian period portraits in a single gallery, a biographical dictionary to accompany fans as they journey in company with Holmes and Watson.
Canadian author Christopher Redmond is a Sherlock Holmes expert of exceptional standing. His Welcome to America, Mr. Sherlock Holmes (1987) chronicled Conan Doyle’s 1894 tour of America, while his In Bed With Sherlock Holmes (1984) examines the sexual elements in stories of the great detective. Arguably Christopher’s most important contribution thus far is his A Sherlock Holmes Handbook (1993) which went into a second edition in 2009.
The editor, past and present, of leading scholarly journals focused on all things Holmes, Christopher is also a founder and guiding genius behind Sherlockian.Net – the web portal about Conan Doyle’s most famous creation.
Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries
(published by MX Publishing, March 2016). To find out more click here.
Why the lives of Sherlock Holmes’s contemporaries?
Most people who are interested in the original Sherlock Holmes are interested in the world in which he moved, and the people around him. Most of the characters in the Holmes stories may be fictitious, but they are convincing portrayals of how people lived and behaved in that era. Standing just behind them (and, surprisingly often, making brief appearances in the stories) are the real people of the 1880s and 1890s. I wanted to introduce them to readers, in more depth than the footnotes in an annotated edition can do.
Each biography is a paragraph long. How on Earth do you go about scaling down the great and the good to fit that frame?
Of course it means leaving out lots of details and many accomplishments, but it’s always possible to summarize who an individual was and what he or she did. I was constantly asking myself: what would an encyclopaedia say about Willam J. Burns? How would I tell my grandchild the story of Nelly Bly? What’s the elevator pitch for Sir Thomas Lipton?
Lives Beyond Baker Street is going to contain the lives of names who remain household even today, but who’s the who in there who’s been most unfairly overlooked?
That would be Bertha (Ringer) Benz, the wife of automotive engineer Karl Benz, who drove his prototype car 120 miles cross-country in 1886 to demonstrate that it worked, and invented brake linings during her trip. Without her efforts at marketing and technical improvement, the “100-horse-power Benz car” mentioned in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories would never have existed.
What kind of sources have you been using?
My introduction to the book lists a number of Sherlockian sources that have helped me identify people I should include. General information about them came from reference books and, primarily, online reference sources. I have to acknowledge constant use of Wikipedia, which contains a mountain of information about both well-known and obscure historical figures; the hard part is knowing which details to pull out and how to combine them into a narrative that’s interesting and doesn’t waste words.
Why only 800 biographical sketches? Or why so many?
I set that as the target early in the project, when I thought that each biography could be limited to 100 words. Eight hundred paragraphs each 100 words long would make 80,000 words, which I thought was a reasonable size for a substantial book. Unfortunately I rarely was able to stick to the 100-word target. I did manage to write exactly 800 biographies, if my count is correct, although one reviewer has already said that he thinks there are 806.
Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to fascinate, especially North Americans?
People admire superheroes, the larger-than-life figures who fight for justice. They also enjoy hearing about eccentrics, and Holmes certainly is an eccentric. Discriminating readers admire his dedication to sheer logic, pure reason, at the expense of emotion and human frailty. And, to justify my book a little further, the Victorian age in which his life is set has a great appeal because we see it as stable and reasonable, a time when inventors and reformers were making life a little better every year.
How did your own love and fascination for Holmes begin? Does it extend to Conan Doyle’s other work?
I read Sherlock Holmes as a young teenager — most people did in those days — and never really grew out of my enthusiasm. I have read most of Arthur Conan Doyle’s other books but don’t often return to them.
Conan Doyle wrote the original Sherlock Holmes stories, inspiring others to take up his characters and carry on writing where he left off. Sir Arthur was the first Holmes writer, but is he still the definitive and best?
Yes indeed. Of course he is the definitive author because he is the one who created the character and his immediate setting, his Watson and Mrs. Hudson, his Baker Street sitting-room and magnifying glass and all the rest. Any subsequent Sherlock Holmes is based on the original, either trying to match it or deliberately varying from it. And ACD is the best author of Sherlock Holmes because of his brilliantly clear, simple, straightforward and yet imaginative style, which has not been equalled and is infuriatingly hard to imitate.
If you were having a dinner party, and could only invite two of the figures profiled, who would you invite?
I can eliminate many of the 800 immediately: no murderers at dinner, please, no politicians, and I think no soldiers if their talk would all be of blood and battles. I would love to dine with Caroline Otero, but perhaps that meal should be tête-à-tête rather than with a party! So perhaps I’ll choose Anthony Hope Hawkins, who wrote some of the Victorian era’s other popular adventure fiction including The Prisoner of Zenda, and music-hall star Bessie Bellwood, who was known for her uninhibited repartee. That should keep the conversation lively.
What should be playing on the stereo when we’re reading Lives Beyond Baker Street: A Biographical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes’s Contemporaries?
I don’t have a close relationship with music, and I don’t play anything when I’m reading or writing, but perhaps it would be pleasant to hear something by one of the composers or performers mentioned in the book. I wonder if there are any recordings of Sir Charles Hallé’s orchestra, which Sherlock Holmes himself supposedly heard in concert.
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