One of the most consistently pleasurable aspects of re-reading Sherlock Holmes stories is that, in each of them, there will be a surprise: that Persian slipper, or that sly reference to a forbidden adventure. To the reader who returns to him sparingly, Sherlock Holmes will always surprise, and the stories always give the illusion of layers beneath. Partly this is a result of the inconsistencies present in Conan Doyle’s routinely slapdash continuity, but in large part it is to do with his skill as a writer, rather than his deficiencies: the duo at the heart of his stories, and the world in which they live, is so deftly blocked in with such tiny details that one develops the sense of looking into hidden corners rather than skating over the penny dreadful surface.
For the dedicated Sherlockian, I’d imagine, the problem is quite different: endless repetition and analysis of the stories catalogues each and every one of their kinks and details, leaving only the inconsistences to puzzle over, to beg time and again a return to the canon in search of the thread that joins it all together. This seems to me a sadder kind of appreciation, but for many it is addictive – Sherlockians the world over derive deep pleasure from returning endlessly to stories which possess no master narrative, and yet which may yet yield to one.
One of the best things about Nick Rennison’s Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorised Biography is the manner in which it captures both these experiences. On the one hand, its central conceit – that Holmes was a real man, and that a definitive biography of him is therefore possible – is pure Great Game, offering the Sherlockian pleasures of intellectual leaps and forced links. On the other, Rennison’s constant return to creases in the individual stories themselves, and his insistence on connecting them, scatter-gun, to genuine Victorian social and cultural history, reminded me most of re-reading, for instance, The Three Garridebs – and rediscovering the filigree or two which can give the part-time devotee such pleasure.
The chapter in which Rennison theorises that Holmes and Mycroft planned the death of Moriarty all along, or the several in which he chronicles Holmes’s movements during the Great Hiatus, draw on both the great sweep and the telling detail to piece together a bravura piece of factional. Though the reader wearies at times of Rennison straining credibility, or his tendency to over-do the urge to render Holmes friend and servant to every famous Victorian you’ve ever heard of (and many you haven’t), that is also part of the strange frisson of the book: from the off, it’s so clearly a jeu d’esprit, a bit of sly fun, that every plate Rennison sets spinning deserves a round of applause in and of itself, even if the sight of all of them whirling around together might make you sick.
“At the time of his death,” Rennison writes towards the end of his book, “Holmes was, paradoxically, both a forgotten man and one of the most famous people in the world.” This biography’s real purpose, of course, is to muddy the waters even further: to push deeper into myth the life of a detective who might never have lived – but about it is felt, as with Robin Hood, that he might have done. If Rennison doesn’t quite achieve Kate Summerscale’s feat in The Suspicions of Mister Whicher – of writing a book about a detective interesting to to an audience far wider than simply crime readers – he’s still fine company. As an example of abstruse reasoning from disparate and limited evidence, here is a biography of which Sherlock Holmes might have approved.