Sherlock Holmes : The Biography, Paperback Book

Sherlock Holmes : The Biography Paperback

3.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography blends what we already know of the great sleuth's career with carefully documented social history to answer the questions admirers have long puzzled over.

Nick Rennison reveals for the first time Holmes's influence on the political events of late-nineteenth-century England and his connections to the British criminal underworld.

It also brings to light his close friendships with key figures of the day, including Oscar Wilde and Sigmund Freud; and exposes the truth about his cocaine use.


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Dull, which a fictional biography shouldn't be, if it can possibly avoid it. I was surprised by how quickly I got tired with Rennison's approach: "the historically documented case Watson hid behind pseudonyms was...." followed by a capsule account of an Edwardian event. The very effort of writing a 'factual' biography of Holmes says to me that Rennison and I share the unaccountable feeling that there is a reality to Holmes. Somehow, nothing seems more natural to us than that Doyle's melodramatic tales hide and reveal the life of the great detective. I love 'the game' where fans suspend disbelief entirely and write and speak of Holmes as a real man. It gives dignity to the odd feeling we all share - that somehow a mediocre early-20th-ce writer created a fascinating man.However, I wish Rennison had been bolder at introducing new material into his canon. I agree with him that there's no evidence in Doyle's life that he was gay, in love with Irene Adler, or, indeed, had any sex life at all. I don't mind when people come up with alternate views (in fact, I was kind of hoping they'd pursue the gay-Holmes train of thought in the new BBC series Sherlock), but I usually prefer fidelity to the original material. On the other hand, I'm very familiar with the Holmes stories, and I have a passing familiarity with the contemporary history, so Rennison's re-presentation of both is a bit... tame. For example, a brief outline of Dr. Crippin's crimes followed by a brief mention that Holmes first had a major theory about the crime (which originated with Crippin's barrister) well, it's too superficial on both sides. Either give me enough Crippin to raise my hackles, bring Holmes' involvement to life, or, even better, give me both. I wish Rennison had splashed out a bit more - given us some more quotations from letters, firsthand accounts from people who knew him, or more vivid details of his life outside the stories. As it is, I don't think I'll reread this, though it does shed some light on potentially interesting corners of history.

Review by

This is a detailed (obviously fictionalised) biography, following in a tradition established by W S Baring Gould back in the 1960s. However, unlike its predecessor, this book goes well beyond the clues contained in Conan Doyle's stories by inventing a whole backdrop to Holmes's family going back centuries and depicting Holmes involved in combating Fenian nationalism in the 1880s and being in at the inception of MI5 and MI6, among many other key events. Needless to say, the cases of Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen also feature. Rennison takes the literary conceit that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely Dr Watson's literary agent and populariser of Holmes's cases to extremes, and shows all kinds of encounters between them, including Holmes assisting Conan Doyle in investigating the real life cases of injustice of George Edalji and Oscar Slater. It all makes for an engrossing read for anyone very familiar with the Sherlock Holmes's stories and their cultural and political background, but I couldn't help feeling the invention of large amounts of material not based on anything in the original stories was a bit of a cheat. On the plus side, Holmes doesn't here survive to an extreme old age and fight Nazis in his 80s as he did in Baring Gould's works (attempting to make the Basil Rathbone films canonical). Overall, worth a read if you're a big fan of the original stories.