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"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." [HOUN]

Image credit: Royal United Services Institute Interior, Wikimedia Commons (public domain - CC BY SA 4.0)

It is always 1895 — and it was precisely 1895 when an elegant building was erected at 61 Whitehall, in London's government district, for the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank focusing on military issues. From this somewhat unlikely venue, and specifically from RUSI researcher Andrew Glazzard, comes a new book rich with insights into what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories what they are.

I have been reading about the Sherlockian Canon for decades, and rarely have I learned as much from one book as I did from this 250-page work, The Case of Sherlock Holmes, published by the Edinburgh University Press (hardback 2018, paperback 2020).

It speaks strongly to Sherlockians even though Glazzard is not a Sherlockian himself (he certainly spends no time on the so-called canonical Game) but an academic, whose previous book was about Joseph Conrad. There have been other academic books about the creator of the great detective, of course, such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: Detecting Social Order (1995) by Rosemary Jann and Arthur Conan Doyle and the Meaning of Masculinity (2000) by Diana Barsham, but this one is strikingly readable and moves along briskly.

An example of Glazzard's insights comes in a chapter titled "The Guardians of Securities", where he points out a curious change in emphasis between the very early Sherlock Holmes stories and the ones written after 1892.

From The Sign of Four to "The Beryl Coronet," the early stories have largely been about physical treasure: gold bullion, counterfeit half-crowns, a massive blue jewel. But the later stories, from "The Stock-Broker's Clerk" to "Black Peter", begin to emphasize paper wealth such as stocks and bonds, or at least to include passing references (Sir Charles Baskerville got rich on South African investments, for example).

The details are often surprisingly current. Hall Pycroft in "The Stock-Broker's Clerk" was out of work because of developments in Venezuela; Glazzard the RUSI researcher points out that Venezuela did, in reality, suffer a revolution and a civil war starting in 1889, something Arthur Conan Doyle must have noticed in the newspapers that he loved to read.

He also probably started reading the stock quotations; Glazzard credits Conan Doyle biographer Andrew Lycett with pointing out that after the success of the first dozen stories from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was suddenly comparatively wealthy and would naturally have started to take an interest in investment opportunities, as Watson did at the time of "The Dancing Men."

Something like 30 of the 60 canonical stories get the spotlight in chapters headed "Finance", "Class", "Family," "Sex," "Race," "War," and "Secrecy." The book doubles down on the widely recognized homosexual subtext to "Wisteria Lodge," then finds a similar theme in "The Blanched Soldier" — and for good measure suggests that there is evidence of pedophilia in "The Priory School."

Glazzard looks at story after story identifying themes that interested Doyle and, even more, themes that were already preoccupying his readers in the Strand and other popular media. 

Divorce law and dysfunctional families, a nation crawling with foreign spies, the scandalous behaviour of the aristocracy, "the growing political power of women and industrial workers," the Canon has them all. Few of the things Glazzard points out are particularly obscure; anyone who has read a little about Victorian history has heard of them. But like poor Watson, we see but we do not observe until somehow they are shown to be relevant.

Several decades after the RUSI building opened in 1895, an equestrian statue was erected in the middle of the road just outside the front door, honoring World War I commander Douglas Haig. Haig's reputation among historians is now dubious, but the living man made such an impression on Arthur Conan Doyle during the Great War that his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, includes an embarrassingly effusive fanboy tribute. 

Glazzard quotes ACD's words about Haig in a late chapter of his book titled "That Secret History of a Nation," a phrase borrowed from "The Bruce-Partington Plans." He places several canonical stories in the context of the spy fiction that fascinated the British public in the late 19th and early 20th century, in anticipation of the Great War that was to come.

One of his insights explains a lot about the Canon's espionage stories, as illustrated by the names given to three top-level spies: Hugo Oberstein, Louis LaRothière, and Eduardo Lucas — a German, a Frenchman, and a Spaniard. They represent "geopolitical reality" as interpreted by Conan Doyle, the author says, explaining a major shift within barely a decade: "Where France had been the presumed enemy in 'The Naval Treaty', 'The Second Stain' was first published in The Strand in December 1904, shortly after the Entente Cordiale was agreed between Britain and France," making Germany the popular foe.

This volume arrives on Sherlockian and Doylean shelves as Edinburgh University — Arthur Conan Doyle's alma mater — begins to establish itself as a centre of scholarly studies about the author and his greatest literary creation.  It's eminently worth attention from any serious Sherlockian. 

If I have one cavil about the book, it would be the subtitle, "Secrets and Lies in Conan Doyle's Detective Fiction." There may be secrets, there may be lies, but mostly there are themes that interested the author, that were totally familiar to the Canon's original readers, and that will show today's Sherlockians where to find much more in the text than they knew was there.

Editor's note:

You might want to check out the related episode of I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere, a conversation with Marsha Pollak, BSI ("A Small But Select Library") and Michael Quigley, BSI ("A Large, Brass-Bound Safe"): Corporals, Colonels, and Commissionaires: