Author: Michael Harrison
Published: 1958, revised 1971
Publisher: David & Charles
In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes examines London as it was during the last half of the nineteenth century. In an era when hansom cabs rambled through mud-clogged streets, and the thick scent of coal smoke mingled with the sulphuric acid of the underground to produce the now infamous London fog, Harrison examines the stage and setting of Canon, providing valuable insight into every aspect of the world in which Sherlock Holmes lived and worked.
Footsteps is a wealth of knowledge; it really is.
It is quite obvious that Harrison has done his research. In fact, the amount of information amassed is almost overwhelming. Harrison manages to touch on everything from the cost of a pint of beer, to the layout of the surrounding districts, to the political scandals of the day, to the shops in London that Holmes likely bought his tabacco; every thing the student of Canon could possible want to know about Holmes’ London is provided, often in excruciating detail.
Most of this information is put forth in such a manner as to draw the reader in, and, indeed, very often I found myself swept away by Harrison’s descriptions. There were times, in fact, when I could close my eyes and see before me London as she was, and this, I suspect, is part of what has made Footsteps such a popular piece of scholarship.
Sadly, however, it takes a particularly deft hand to manage the amount information Harrison managed to gather, and too often Harrison proved that he was not quite up to the task.
Harrison rambles. Not constantly, or even consistently, but often, and this tends to distract the reader from Harrison’s intentions. In addition to rambling, Harrison also has a tendency to get side-tracked. In fact, on numerous occasions, Harrison mentions a topic in passing, then abandons the topic (promising to return to it in due time) in favour of a completely unrelated point. This would not, of course, be a problem, except that Harrison never (not once) returns to the original topic, leaving the reader completely baffled and clueless as to why it was ever mentioned.
This occurs throughout Footsteps and there are several chapters that completely lack in cohesion. It should be noted that I was reading the revised (1971) version, so it is entirely possible that the original version was far more cohesive, and that these lapses in concentration are a direct result of Harrison’s attempt to modernize his work.
Still, it was quite frustrating to read, as the entire work came across as rather incomplete; which was nearly as frustrating as the decided lack of focus.
Beyond Harrison’s inability to present his thoughts in a coherent manner, there is also the issue of timeliness.
When writing reference work, it is my opinion that an author should not attempt to compare and contrast past events to events that take place in ‘modern day’, as ‘modern day’ is a relative term and will (very quickly) become obsolete. This has occurred with Footsteps, and Harrison spends a good portion of the book referencing events that no longer hold any relevance.
Perhaps the clearest example of this occurs with pricing. When attempting to contrast the price of goods, Harrison neglects to factor in the revaluation of British currency (both in terms of decimalization, and Britain’s move away from the Gold Standard), nor does he take into consideration inflation or the time value of money. In essence, by failing to include these considerations, Harrison’s ‘cost comparisons’ become absolutely useless. The information amounts to drivel, and it is quite frustrating (particularly for an economist) to see such blatant errors in printed form.
Finally, there are Harrison’s ‘theories’. These theories are very carefully threaded into his research, and while Harrison does present evidence for each (and, indeed, some of his theories are quite fascinating –Watson’s methods for deriving names, for example), he attempts to pass these theories off as fact; an act which only serves to confuse an already muddled work. This is particularly true when we examine the obscurity of Harrison’s theories, as many are quite ridiculous (Watson as Holmes’ paid retainer, comes to mind) and, indeed, laughable.
While overall I was less than impressed with In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes, Harrison is due consideration for the time and effort that went into gathering the vast amounts of information included in his research. In fact, I would absolutely love to see his research put forth in a clear and methodical manner, as it does provide extremely valuable insight into Victorian London. While I do not begrudge Harrison his long-windedness, I only wish that he would have come to the point, as it was quite vexing at times to endure what I can only describe as his wandering thoughts. For this, In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes earns only two out of five pipes. The information is there, for those that care to seek it out.