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Professor McCaw, who teaches Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Winchester, has just produced an eminently readable compendium on "the most portrayed human character" (Guinness World Records, 2012, qtd. xiii). The "Dictionary" proper, organised in the classic A-Z way, is accompanied by an academic critical apparatus of the highest interest, the most innovative element being the 13-page "Introduction" which strives to discover and explain why Sherlock Holmes "has transcended his stories and taken on a life of its own" (2). Remarkably, this "life of its own," far from being confined to the British Isles, has now become a global phenomenon. McCaw draws from a UNESCO report of 2018, Index Translationum, to indicate that by that year the total reached 1,170 translations – "more than the number of translations of any single Shakespeare play" or "the famed international icons James Bond (278) and Harry Potter (731)" (2). Dwelling on the early success of Sherlock Holmes in Russia (the first foreign translation, in 1893) and recent vogue in Japan (the 2018 series, Miss Sherlock), McCaw writes:

Doyle fashioned an eternally desirable time and place that inherently exploits a nostalgia that seemingly transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries, appealing even to those non-English peoples for whom such a Victorian world has no presence in their historical memory. […] As a result, global readers and audiences are drawn into a sentimental imagining of a past that has never been their own. [6]

One possible reason is that "most of the translations […] have in truth been partial rewritings of those original stories reconfigured to suit the local context" (9). Another is that Sherlock Holmes embodies "a sense of common values and interpretation across national and ethnic boundaries" (7). McCaw speaks of "the diverse complexity of the processes by which Sherlock Holmes has been repackaged and reproduced" (9) and he concludes his Introduction, which abundantly quotes his predecessors (with two pages of "Works Cited"), on the twenty-first-century status of the Great Detective: "The global Sherlock Holmes is effectively an integrated international network of texts" (10).

Left: Nostalgia — Sherlock Holmes's living-room recreated in a museum in Meiringen, near the Reichenbach Falls, which features in "The Final Problem." Right: Statue of Holmes outside the museum (which occupies the crypt of the English Church there).

The A-Z begins with the improbably named village of Abbas Parva (13), which sounds more like some exotic place than the Berkshire location of "The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger," and it ends with Zoology – a science in which, we are reminded, characters of The Hound of the Baskervilles and "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" were interested (404). The A entries include a summary of all the "Adventures" – arguably an unnecessary addition to the useful details of first publication. But then this raises the perennial problem of what to include in a dictionary of this nature. Some readers will complain that it includes too little, others that it includes too much. Why for instance is Garroter given an entry in connection with "The Adventure of the Empty House," when the other object introduced by Doyle to characterise the murderer, Jew's Harp, is not? ("Parker by name, a garroter by trade, and a remarkable performer upon the Jew's-harp.") This is all the more puzzling as we have three entries with Jew (Jew Broker, Jew Peddler, Jews), and entries which do not seem warranted, like KKK – or, even less, Ford, Henry (1863-1947). Likewise, most readers will deplore the unexpected brevity of Watson, Dr John H.

"Sherlock Holmes ... half asleep, with his long, thin form curled up in the recesses of his armchair. A formidable array of bottles and test-tubes, with the pungent cleanly smell of hydrochloric acid, told me that he had spent his day in the chemical work which was so dear to him." Sidney Paget's illustration (1891) for "A Case of Identity."

In these days of almost universal access to websites of all description, McCaw's Historical Dictionary naturally faces their competition, since entries like Abbas Parva are readily found on them. Its strength therefore lies in entries which are not directly derived from words and names found in the Sherlock Holmes canon. Among these, one finds the delightful Poison, which recalls the film Divorce Italian Style:

Poisons were not regulated in the United Kingdom until the 1868 Pharmacy Act, which had been rather hastily drafted in response to an irrational government panic about the number of wives who had murdered their husbands. This anxiety was at least in part fed by the extraordinary popularity of sensation novels, which imagined alternative, more liberated futures for wives who chose to take the law into their own hands. [291]

Curiously, however, the entry does not tell us in how many Sherlock Holmes stories poison is used or suspected. On the other hand, if Police does not tell us in which adventures one meets it, the entry very convincingly explains why "the lack of respect which Sherlock Holmes shows towards the regular police is less than surprising" (292). We also learn when reading Lestrade, Inspector G. that he "features in nearly a third of all the Sherlock Holmes stories" (231) – a list then follows.

Holmes and Watson travelling into London together: "The view was sordid enough": Sidney Paget's illustration (1891) for "Adventure of the Naval Treaty."

Though he does not give the key quotation from the last paragraph of "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot": "I never loved, Watson, but if I did and if the woman I loved […]," or Watson's remark in the first paragraph of "The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter" about Holmes's "aversion to women," McCaw naturally tackles the usual questions on Sexuality and Homosexuality – with great tact, based on his perfect knowledge both of the historical evolution of attitudes since Victorian times and the existing literature on the subject. The two entries inevitably overlap: "The issue of Sherlock Holmes" sexuality […] has been matter of speculation among Sherlockian readers and enthusiasts" (Sexuality [330]); "From relatively early on in Sherlock Holmes criticism, there has been debate as to the "true" nature of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson" (Homosexuality [194]). It is difficult not to agree with his repudiation of those who "make the mistake of conflating homosexuality with homosociability and implying that two men of a certain age living together must necessarily have some form of sexual interrelation" (Homosexuality [194]) – and he is even more explicit in Sexuality:

And yet, the canon of stories provides only the most general basis for such speculations – Holmes and Dr. Watson have separate bedrooms at 221B, but in other stories when they stay away from London, they share a bedroom. And although for some modern readers this might suggest some kind of homosexual liaison, the reality is that in the 19th century, such behaviour would have appeared entirely conventional as part of the sort of homosocial relationship that many men enjoyed with male friends. [330]

Holmes detecting: "For a long time he remained there" — Sidney Paget's illustration (1892) for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”

The Dictionary also includes abstract entries, like Knowledge, which refers the reader to Abduction, Deduction and Induction – all part of a discussion of Sherlock Holmes's forms of reasoning. Astonishingly, in this respect, there is no entry on Psychology (though there is one for Journal of Psychology) – in spite of its undeniable importance in penetrating and reconstructing the mental process of master criminals like Professor Moriarty.

One could of course continue to discuss the choices made for the entries ad libitum, but the remaining space will be better used examining the copious annexes and appendices which complement the A-Z proper. The volume offers two Chronologies: one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (xvii-xviii), the other of The Sherlock Holmes Stories (xix-xx). But for most readers, the pièce de résistance in this supplementary material will no doubt be the 23-page classified Bibliography (405-427), each of its sections being preceded by a commentary of varying length, and the whole by a two-page Introduction in which McCaw modestly explains that his Bibliography "will seek to provide readers with some of the breadcrumbs they need to follow in pursuit of their own answers" (406) to questions like the enduring popularity of the Great Detective and the reasons for the multiplicity of the Sherlock Holmes adaptations. He is fully aware of course that he cannot compete in comprehensiveness with the mammoth Universal Sherlock Holmes Bibliography by De Waal and Vanderburgh now available on-line on the site of the University of Minnesota.

Holmes gets his man: "It's no use, John Clay," Sidney Paget's Illustration (1891) for "The Red-Headed League."

Logically, the first section gives an exhaustive list of the first editions of the Sherlock Holmes books (the individual "stories" having been given in the initial Chronology) both in Britain and in the United States, "Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes." This is followed by "Sherlock Holmes Adapted," with the author once again modestly announcing that he gives "no more than a few selected landmarks along the way – not an indication of the "best" but more of a snapshot of some selected highlights" (409) in this filmography (including stage and television) after listing four books of bibliography entirely devoted to Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Five pages cover "History, Autobiography, Biography and Bibliography," mixing both Conan Doyle and his fictional detective – sometimes considered as a real person. The newcomer to Sherlock Holmes Studies will readily understand why the two are mixed, because there is an abundance of titles like Arthur and Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and his Creator or The Doctor and the Detective. Analysis, interpretation and discussion of the narratives form the last section: "Sherlock Holmes: A Critical Heritage," divided into six sub-sections. (1) "The Canon," described as "a primarily textual examination of the Sherlock Holmes stories" (418), with more academic articles than monographs, the first one chronologically being a piece by T.S. Eliot in The Criterion (April 1929). (2) "The Sherlock Holmes Phenomenon," in which a number of other great names are to be found: Kingsley Amis, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers. (3) "Sherlock Holmes and Detective Fiction" – the first author to be mentioned here being W.H. Auden, for an article of 1948 in Harper's Magazine. (4) "Sherlock Holmes and Other Writers / Genres," which "includes questions of intertextuality and influence" (422). The prominent name in this sub-section is Isaac Asimov, with "Why I love Sherlock Holmes" (1984) and "Thoughts on Sherlock Holmes" (1987). (5) "Adaptations," which seems self-explanatory, has in fact become extremely complex "because our understanding of "adaptation" has broadened so extensively over recent decades" (423).* One of the articles listed sums it all up: "Sherlock Holmes: Tech-Geek" (2018). (6) "Context and Implications of the Sherlock Holmes Stories and Phenomenon" – the last sub-section – examines "studies of those same tales [= the Sherlock Holmes canon] in terms of their broader contexts, issues and implications" (424), which recalls what others have called "Fan Phenomena." Among the authors listed, one finds two famous Italian saggisti, Umberto Eco (1983) and Franco Moretti (2000 & 2005). McCaw's Bibliography ends with a short list of theoretical writings on bibliography – an evident sign of his own passion for the subject.

No review would be complete without a few regrets. In this instance, younger readers and "gamers" will no doubt deplore the absence of an entry on Video Games, and the paucity of references to that major aspect of Sherlock Holmes "adaptations" in the Bibliography. French readers will note the mistake in "Le Fin de Siècle" (though the grave accent is commendably correct) and wonder why Leblanc, the creator of Arsène Lupin, becomes "Le Blanc, Maurice" in two words.

Holmes in the famous hat that Paget added. This image comes from the cover of the The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes — a reprint of the Strand Magazine pages.

Finally, unless they are experts like Professor McCaw, most readers will be frustrated by the absence of identification of the artists who drew the illustrations given in the Dictionary. Those by Paget are generally easy to identify since they usually bear his initials, SP. But, for instance, the image captioned "Irene Adler outwitting Sherlock Holmes in "A Scandal in Bohemia" (15) does not. So – who is the illustrator?, the unitiated may ask. Likewise, if the first name, "Howard," is perfectly clear on the signature of the image captioned "Professor Presbury from "The Adventure of the Creeping Man" (24), the surname is not. If one is not familiar with the name, one has to resort to Holmesian detective work, identifying the illustrator after looking at the date of publication given in "The Adventure of the Creeping Man": March 1923, and then searching the Web for a chronological list of Sherlock Holmes illustrators, which leads to "Elcock, Howard K. (1887-?)." Elementary, my dear McCaw (there is of course an entry on Elementary) – but not really user/reader-friendly. But then, of course, most people will buy the Dictionary for its copious written information, not for its illustrations.

It is a pity that, owing to the not inconsiderable price, sales of this excellent book will largely be limited to libraries – to which it is unreservedly recommended.


* It must be noted that Professor McCaw contributed the chapter on "Adapting Holmes" in the recent Cambridge Companion to Sherlock Holmes edited by Janice M. Allan & Christopher Pittard (Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: University Press, 2019).

Related Material


McCaw, Neil. Historical Dictionary of Sherlock Holmes Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts Series. Lanham (Maryland): Rowman & Littlefield, 2020. Hardcover. xx + 429pp. ISBN 978-1538123157. $100/£70.

Created 10 December 2020