Review - The Sherlock Holmes Companion

Daniel Smith’s book appears to polarise opinion. A quick glance on Amazon UK reveals a one-star rating with the reviewer complaining that the plot summaries give away too much and that the illustrations are the best thing. Then there are a couple of five-star reviews that praise the book to the rafters.

It is true that if you are a person who is knowledgeable about the canon this book contains little that you are likely to be unaware of before picking it up. However, this same criticism can be levelled at a great many books in the field (including mine). I also think that the comments about the plot summaries being too detailed are not quite fair. It’s easy, if you’ve already read the stories, to say that the book gives away too much. However you have the advantage of knowing how the stories go. I strongly suspect that if you bought this book before reading the canon – the majority of the story endings would still surprise you.

The illustrations are indeed very good. The wide ranging selection chosen really gives you an idea of how Holmes was perceived around the world. The non-English language illustrations in particular are very interesting. Also interesting are the interviews with Sherlockian personalities such as Douglas Wilmer, David Burke and Catherine Cooke.

However there are downsides. There are some careless editing errors. A paragraph ends mid-sentence and a photograph of New Scotland Yard is inexplicably printed in reverse which is painfully obvious thanks to a sign for Westminster Pier which is as it would be in a mirror.

Smith’s interest clearly lies more with Holmes than Conan Doyle as the sections on Conan Doyle are sometimes misleading / inaccurate. Smith implies that it was only after 1895 and his move to Surrey that Conan Doyle seriously started looking at theatre as a medium. He even singles out the one act play Waterloo as an example. Regrettably Conan Doyle had penned this several years earlier when living in South Norwood and it had even been performed before Conan Doyle had moved to Surrey (which was more 1896 than 1895). Part of me feels that Smith could have used a visit to the British Library to look at Conan Doyle’s diaries and avoid this error.

Smith also tries to hedge his bets in relation to Conan Doyle’s date of entry into the Society for Psychical Research. He repeats the all too common mistake of saying it happened after his father’s death and then mentions that it may have happened before as stated in Andrew Lycett’s biography. A simple communication to the SPR would have cleared this up (as I did for my book The Norwood Author) and told Smith that it was indeed the January date as Lycett and I have stated. The fact that Smith did not undertake this simple check shows, in my opinion, that Doyle does not come too high up his list of priorities. You could argue that this is fair enough in a book called The Sherlock Holmes Companion but I still think the effort should have been made.

In summary, despite the minor irritations mentioned above, this is a good guide to the Holmes stories. It doesn’t give too much away and contains some fascinating illustrations. It won’t teach you much if you already own similar books but it will serve you well if this is the first book in your Sherlockian library.

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