Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Can Never Die by the Museum of London and edited by Alex Werner (book review).

How to encapsulate the worlds of Sherlock Holmes in one glossy hardback? It’s not easy and I don’t think this is in any way a summation of what the famous fictional detective Holmes means to everyone who has encountered him in his many different forms. However, this is not the aim of ‘Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Can Never Die’. This volume ties in with the exhibition at the Museum of London which looks at Holmes in considerable detail.


Essentially, the book comprises essays and quite a lot of pictures, reproduced from the museum’s collection. There are excellent colour plates that encompass variously maps, photographs, oil paintings, sketched adverts and movie stills. Even merely flicking through the book, you will encounter a variety of amazing images from the original sketch that Sidney Paget of ‘The Strand’ magazine made of Sherlock himself to the artistically manipulated photograph of Regent’s Canal and the publicity shot of Holmes and Watson as played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the BBC production.

There are several chapters of various lengths that look at different aspects of the enduring appeal of the character and his environment. For example, one of the longest chapters or essays is ‘A Case Of Mistaken Identity’ by David Cannadine looks at how Holmes’ London represented both good and evil in the same location offering opportunity for acts of humanity and depravity and the significance of the turn of the century to how Holmes developed.

The chapter ‘The Art Of Sherlock Holmes’ by Pat Hardy looks at the character of London itself and has some excellent colour plates of art contemporary to the stories including some very atmospheric photographs that have been edited by the original photographer to offer up the atmosphere that London is known for. Much like many stories, these photos are not what they seem and have become impressionist paintings ‘ a counterpoint to the replication and mass production of the age’.

My particular favourite is about how fascinated the silver screen is with the character of Sherlock Holmes. ‘Silent Sherlocks: Holmes And The Early Cinema’ is an fascinating look at how towards the end of the nineteenth century when the fledgling cinema was starting to tell us stories, the character of Holmes was picked up from the stage and transported to the new medium of film. Over 100 years later and this character is still with us. The stage actor William Gillette very much took on the pose and likeness of the original illustrators’ concept of Holmes. The long nose and saturnine brow is all there and rolling through to the beginning of the 21st century we see this trope repeated again and again. Sadly, many of the original films are now lost and only the stills remain. We can’t get enough of Holmes, though what they were thinking with Robert Downey Jr. I have no idea or Jonny Miller for that matter.

This is a book to be savoured and the maps alone, including the reproduction of the maps created by Charles Booth that show where the bad people are likely to live are a treat and quite a revelation.

I do not think you need to go to the exhibition to appreciate that a great deal of work has gone into the curation of this and I saw the exhibition after reading the book which was the wrong way round. The impact of the exhibition was muted because I had already enjoyed the illustrations in the book but if you can get there then you should as they have a lot of Holmes products in the gift shop, too.

Sue Davies

December 2014

(pub: Ebury Press. 256 page illustrated hardback. Price: £17.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-09195-872-5)

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