Author: William Baring-Gould
First Published: 1962
Publisher: Bramhall House
I will start by mentioning that I didn’t love this. There were parts that I enjoyed, parts that annoyed me, parts that frustrated me, and parts that were met with indifference.
For those that haven’t read the book, I will start by giving you a small, relatively spoiler-free summary. Consider this the abridged version.
Baring-Gould plays the Game. By this I mean that he pretends (or believes) that Sherlock Holmes was real. He treats Holmes as though Holmes was a real person; a historic figure rather than a literary one. In this particular chronicle, Baring-Gould attempts to fill in the blanks of Holmes’ life. In short, he has written Holmes’ biography.
The book begins with Holmes’ family, moving through Holmes’ birth, his childhood, his adolescence, his entry into adulthood, his adult life and his retirement, ending his death.
Baring-Gould writes in such a way as to allow us to see the process by which Holmes became the man that he was in Doyle’s (or Watson’s, rather) stories. Each incident of his life became a fundamental part of his development (we learn why Holmes speaks several languages, how he came to be an expert fencer and boxer, even how he gleamed such incredible insight into the world of crime). In this respect, the book is quite interesting (not to mention entertaining).
We see Holmes grow from a small, sickly child into an energetic, curious adult. We watch as he begins his career as the world’s first, and only, consulting detective. We are there when he meets Watson. We follow the formation of their partnership, learning several biographical facts on Watson in the process. We learn exactly what took place during Holmes’ lengthy ‘death’ after his encounter with Moriarty. We see Holmes’ return and hear of several cases that never made it into print. We follow Holmes to Sussex, where he kept his bees. Finally, we watch as Holmes’ passes on to his next great adventure (for those that believe in the concept of an afterlife).
Ninety percent of this book is sensationalized conjecture. It is theory, and musing, and filled with random ‘maybes’. Some of these hypotheses are fascinating, some very probably, and some completely ridiculous. I’m not going to touch on all of them, as that would require far more time and energy than I am willing to give this book, but I am going to break out a few points of interest.
Baring-Gould put forth several theories that I am rather fond of. Theories that I find, not only probably, but highly interesting, completely entertaining, and very keeping with the Holmes that I know.
The Jack the Ripper Case
Several Sherlockians have theorized on the role Holmes might have played in the Jack the Ripper murders. This is fairly natural, as the Jack the Ripper slayings occurred during 1888, a time when Holmes and Watson were well into their partnership, and one can assume that Holmes would have been highly interested in a case that terrified and baffled London.
What I like about Baring-Gould’s take on the subject is that it is Watson, rather than Holmes, who solves the case. He figures it out, using Holmes’ methods, long before Holmes’ does, and, in fact, ultimately saves Holmes from certain death. Baring-Gould writes the encounter like a case, and it was quite possibly the sweetest, most endearing thing I have ever read.
Too many Sherlockians, I have found, consider Watson to be somewhat of a bumbling idiot. Baring-Gould, on the other hand, considers Watson to be far more intelligent than Watson would have us believe. Given that I too believe Watson to be far cleverer than he let on, this is a theory I can certainly get behind.
Many Sherlockians (and, indeed, casual SH readers) have remarked that the Holmes that returned from Reichenbach Falls was not the Holmes that first drew the public’s eye. There is a slight shift in his personality that suggests that something profound occurred either during this time, or immediately after it. Upon his return (Empty House), Holmes tells Watson I traveled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa, and spending some days with the head Lama, which has led several scholars to suggest that during this time Holmes became a student of Buddhism. Baring-Gould elaborates on this theory, providing examples from future stories to prove the hypothesis. This is exceptionally well done, and really rings true.
Baring-Gould puts for an entire history of Holmes’ formative years. There are several suggestions contained within this ‘biography’ that I found quite compelling. I like the idea that Holmes spent a good portion of his youth traveling. I also like the suggestion that Holmes was quite ‘weak’ and ‘unhealthy’ in his childhood. Some of the theories Baring-Gould puts forth are rather unlikely, but a good portion of it makes sense given what we know of Holmes (and his brother, Mycroft) today.
Holmes the actor
This was particularly interesting. According to Baring-Gould, Holmes (prior to becoming a consulting detective) became interested in theatre (largely due to the need for funds) and joined a company that traveled extensively (included a small tour in America). This theory has potential, because it explains two things; the first being Holmes’ intimate knowledge of disguise, and the second being his canonically unexplained connections in (and knowledge of) America.
Naturally, Baring-Gould puts forth several theories that I find utterly ridiculous. In addition to this, there were several elements of his book that I found quite redundant. I’m going to touch on those now.
I will never understand the Sherlockian obsession with this woman. She appears once, and has no real contact with Holmes as his true self. Holmes admired her –this is true– as she did best him at his game. But Watson very clearly notes:
It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.
And yet, for whatever reason, a good many Sherlockians choose to ignore this and claim that Adler was the ‘love of Holmes’ life’. Baring-Gould is among these.
Baring-Gould mentions her frequently, going so far as to invent an affair between Adler and Holmes (taking place during the hiatus) that ends in with the birth of a child. He goes even further than this and claims that Holmes’ retirement was brought on by the death of Irene, and, worse still, hypothesizes that Holmes final words, the moment before his death, were, “Irene, Irene.”
The entire concept was laughable.
According to Baring-Gould, Holmes lived to the ripe old age of 103. This was made possibly by Holmes’ discovery of a substance produced by bees that is fed strictly to the ‘queen bee’. By ingesting this substance, Holmes had managed to find the secret to ‘eternal youth’. Anyway…
Watson’s multiple marriages
Apparently Watson had a sum total of three wives. Constance, was the first, who passed away mere months before he met Mary. Mary was the second, followed by a woman of unknown name and origin.
In some respects, this does make sense, as Watson does confuse dates and refer to wives that shouldn’t exist. Still, I myself am a fan of the ‘never actually married, but secretly gay’ theory, rather than the ‘was addicted to marriage and hence married every woman who looked at him crossways’ theory.
The fact that Watson met his first wife in America (while there attempting to save his alcoholic brother) only makes the theory that much more laughable.
One of the things that annoyed me was Baring-Gould’s attempt to remind readers of the particular case he is referring to. By this I mean that he would often reprint entire sections of Canon (although he does change the text from Watson’s first person point of view to a neutral third person point of view). For someone who is aware of Canon, this is very annoying. Removing Watson from the perspective takes something away from the stories, and so reading a story I loved in this butchered form did not exactly sit well.
It probably wouldn’t have been a problem if he’d kept it brief, but there are entire chapters that contain two or three original sentences, with the remaining pages nothing but copied and altered text. There were times when I actually had to skip whole pages just to avoid reading Baring-Gould’s mechanical version of Canon.
Overall, there are some interesting points and theories that come up in this book, but, for the most part, I found it rather slow reading. I can’t say I’d recommend it, although it is worth reading if you plan on playing the Game or interacting with fellow Sherlockians. Baring-Gould can write, and when it’s his original writing, he writes well, so I will read more of his work, but I certainly wouldn’t put this particular book on the top of my list. In fact, I suspect it will end rather near the bottom.