Saturday, July 21, 2018

Real Sherlock Holmes

This post is about the book 'Conan Doyle for the Defence' by Margalit Fox and inspiration behind creation of Sherlock Holmes.

There is a new book 'Conan Doyle for the Defence' by Margalit Fox. It is getting rave reviews and is about a real life incident.

In December 1908, Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy 82-year-old spinster, was found murdered in her home. A valuable diamond brooch was missing and Oscar Slater, a Jewish immigrant, was arrested. He was convicted and sentenced to death. His conviction had more to do with anti-Semitism rather than his guilt. Later, it was commuted to life imprisonment.

Seventeen years later, a convict released from the same prison had a request for Arthur Conan Doyle – the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The book is about Doyle’s efforts to help Slater in getting justice.  

Slater was not the only person helped by Doyle. Earlier, he had contributed to pardon of George Edalji, a half-British, half-Indian solicitor.  Edalji was convicted of maiming a pony.  His efforts also improved criminal justice system in England. The difficulty in overturning Edalji’s conviction  was cited as one of the reasons to find better mechanism for reviewing unsafe verdicts. This led to establishment of Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907. 

Sherlock Holmes is most famous fictional character ever created. His stories are the best in detective genre. There is plethora of re-adaptation of Holmes stories and TV adaptations. In 1990's there was series on Sherlock Holmes on Doordarshan. It was of his original stories. Then there is modern adaptation to his stories in a series by BBC 'Sherlock Holmes' and by CBS 'Elementary'. Both are set in the 21st century and worth watching. But, how come Doyle, a physician by training, created such a character; from where he got his inspiration?

Doyle was born on 22 May 1859 and studied medicine in Edinburgh Medical School. He started his medical practise but was not successful. While waiting for patients, he turned to writing. 

Dr. Joseph Bell - courtesy Wikipedia
For his detective stories, Doyle wanted a new kind of detective. He thought of his  medical college instructor Dr. Joseph Bell - his curious ways, his eyes for spotting details, and power of reasoning in drawing conclusions from his observations. He modelled his new detective on him and named him Sherlock Holmes. This was  after an English cricketer named Sherlock and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a doctor and renowned poet. He was also father legendary figure - Justice Holmes. 

Dr. Bell was  the eminent Edinburgh surgeon and medical instructor. Perhaps, he is the most brilliant master of observation the world has ever seen; perfecting the science of deduction and analysis. Throughout his life, he amazed people with his observations.  On being asked about her father, his daughter Cecil Stisted said, 
‘When the family travelled in a train, he would tell us where the other passengers in the carriage were from, where they were going to, and something of their occupations and their habits. All this without having spoken to them. When he verified his observations, we thought him a magician.’ 

His students also thought him to be a magician. Years after Dr. Bell’s death, Doyle told an interviewer,
‘Dr. Bell would sit in his receiving room and diagnose patients as they came in, before they even opened their mouths. He would tell them their symptoms, and even give them details of their past life, and hardly ever would he make a mistake.’ 

Dr. Bell always emphasised importance of observation. To every new group of medical students, his standard demonstration was to to take a tumbler filled with liquid and say, 
‘This contains a very potent drug. Its taste is intensely bitter. Now I want to see how many of you have educated your powers of perception. Of course, it can be easily analysed chemically, but I want you to test it by smell and taste. However, as I do not want you to do something that I will not do, I will taste it before passing it around.’ 

Dr. Bell would then dip his finger into the liquid and put the finger in his mouth. He would then pass the tumbler around. Each student would dip his finger into liquid, suck it, and promptly make a sour face. When the tumbler had made the rounds, Dr. Bell would laughing say, 
‘You have  not developed power of perception, which I speak about. If you had watched me closely, you would have noticed that I placed my forefinger in the liquid and it was the middle finger that I put into my mouth.’ 

In 1892, Doyle wrote to Dr. Bell, 'It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.’ In his autobiography, Doyle says 
‘If he [Dr. Bell] were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. ... It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction? It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it — such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards.’ 
At other place, he writes, 
‘It is no wonder that after the study of such a character, I used and amplified his methods when in later life I tried to build up a scientific detective who solved cases on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.’

Many recognised the strong similarity between Joseph Bell and Sherlock Holmes. In 1982,  novelist Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Doyle from Samoa, 
‘My compliments on your very ingenious and very interesting adventures of Sherlock Holmes. ... Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?’ 

There is much more between Dr. Bell and Sherlock Holmes than I have written here. One can read it in the book ‘The Fabulous Originals’ by Irving Wallace or in an article titled ‘The incredible Dr. Bell’ published in the book ‘The Sunday Gentleman’ by the same author.

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