Review: The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes (2023), by Andrew Lycett

The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lycett

Review by Paul M. Chapman

Andrew Lycett is a well-known figure in the world of Arthur Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes studies for his groundbreaking biography Conan Doyle: The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, published in 2007. He was the first biographer to benefit from the release of the primary source material made available by the sale of the Conan Doyle archive at Christie’s in May 2004, much of which had been under a legal embargo since the early 1970s. Consequently his book was able to present a more rounded picture than most of his predecessors, even those who had been granted (guarded) access to the archive before it was arbitrarily closed to researchers by Adrian Conan Doyle in the 1960s.

Lycett followed Conan Doyle with Conan Doyle's Wide World – a collection of Doyle's travel writing – in 2020. He has now produced The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes: The Inspiration Behind the World's Greatest Detective, an attractive picture book in the tradition of such titles as Allen Eyles’s Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration (1986), Martin Fido’s The World of Sherlock Holmes (1998) and Bruce Wexler’s The Mysterious World of Sherlock Holmes (2008).

According to the publisher’s blurb, Andrew Lycett has recently worked as historical consultant on the forthcoming BBC television documentary series Killing Sherlock: Lucy Worsley on the Case of Conan Doyle, and although this book is not an official tie-in publication, its release is clearly timed to coincide. It is certainly a very attractive volume, well-designed, with an excellent selection of images; some familiar, some less so. The accompanying text is arranged along thematic lines, such as ‘A Sherlockian Sense of Place’, ‘Britain and the Wider World’, ‘Watching the Detectives’ and ‘Stage and Screen Representations’. These attempt to cross-fertilise the actual and fictional worlds of Sherlock Holmes – domestic, professional, artistic and political – with the pervasive and lasting cultural afterlives of Holmes and his creator into the twenty-first century.

Lycett has many interesting and pertinent points to make, but is somewhat hampered by the book’s format, which is both limited and over-ambitious in its scope. There is little room for subtext and subtlety beneath the desire to inform, including the necessity to re-tread some well-worn paths.

There are promising diversions from the usual route in the sections entitled ‘Getting into Print’, ‘Art in the Blood’ and ‘A Few Athletic Tastes’, but they cry out for expansion, and are placed, confusingly, after the ‘Stage and Screen’ section. The latter would have been more fittingly paired with ‘Staying the Course’, which brings the story up to date and examines the increasingly diverse world of fandom and the problems this can present to a long-established literary estate.

Lycett has had his own issues with the Conan Doyle estate – which he blisteringly chronicled in the ‘Afterword’ to Conan Doyle, and subtly weaves into his argument here:

‘Over the past 100 years or so, scholars, fans and publishers of various kinds have vied with the Conan Doyle estate to ensure that Sherlock Holmes remains a subject of fascination.’

Note that confrontational ‘vied with’. And then there is this pointedly double-edged comment on the estate’s motivations:

‘By such benchmarks, the Conan Doyle estate has been reasonable in both its interpretation of the law, which hinges on the definition of ‘Fair Use’, and in its reading of the current social climate. It seems to have made a distinction between writings, usually books, which make their way onto cinema screens, whose audiences come into millions (with commensurate financial returns), and fan fiction, which is often published on websites and read by a handful of people.’

Sadly, such sparks do not typify the book, whose picture-oriented format serves to cramp Lycett’s style and overshadow his text. The easy flow of his Conan Doyle is here too often supplanted by a prose which is stilted and repetitive.

More seriously, there are also a number of factual errors, some of which are unacceptably elementary, and smack of an editorial carelessness that does disservice to both author and reader. These include:

‘Piccadilly Circus and the Criterion, where Holmes and Watson first met.’ (p.18) Whereas, a Bart's Hospital laboratory was the actual location for this, one of English fiction's most celebrated meetings.

‘Irene Adler, the woman who threatened to blackmail the King of Bohemia in A Study in Scarlet.’ (p.57) The King was actually threatened, as the title would suggest, in 'A Scandal in Bohemia'.

Pop cultural references are equally subject to error:

A Study in Terror was not a Hammer production, as stated on p.130 (an understandable mistake, at least.)

Sheldon Reynolds was a film producer, not director, as stated on p.185. He made a series of television Sherlock Holmes films starring Ronald Howard in the 1950s, not ‘a series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Ron Howard for television in the 1970s’!

 The Worlds of Sherlock Holmes is clearly aimed more at the general reader and the neophyte than the established Holmes aficionado and was presumably produced to a tight schedule. For such a fine and attractive book, written by a demonstrably knowledgeable author with much to say, a greater attention to detail would have earned it a ready place as a cornerstone of the modern Holmesian library. A revised edition still could.


Paul M. Chapman

November 2023