Well doesn’t that sound like a mystery in itself!? Sherlock Holmes is one of the most well known iconic characters of literature, so much so that we almost forget he is fictional! We all know very well who he is and what he was able to accomplish in his life as an amateur detective. But who was the Sherlock Holmes inspiration? Who are those people that came before that may have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write the original Sherlock Holmes stories? There are in fact many detectives going back in time long before Sherlock Holmes arrived on the scene in A Study in Scarlet.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by people such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Allan Poe, Guy de Maupassant, and Emile Gaboriau. These were very eminent writers that he would have studied. In his own lifetime Doyle was inspired by the forensic surgeon Dr. Joseph Bell whom he had met at the Royal Edinburgh Infirmary. Doyle had noted Dr. Bell’s observant skill and attention to detail which later translated into the Sherlock Holmes adventures.
Conan Doyle once wrote, “Each [of Poe’s detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed…Where was the detective story until Edgar Allen Poe Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”
Edgar Allan Poe wrote detective mysteries using a fellow named C. August Dupin. The character was created before the word detective had been coined and was one of the leading sleuths upon which Sherlock Holmes was developed. It should be noted that Poe wrote into Dupin’s character many of those same skills of observation and detail that we see in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.
As quoted from “The Murders in The Rue Morgue”, “But it is in matters beyond the limits of mere rule that the skill of the analyst is evinced. He makes in silence a host of observations and inferences….”. The Murders in The Rue Morgue is considered to be the first detective story. Edgar Allan Poe’s character Dupin was also the basis for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.
M. Lecoq was the detective character of Emile Gabroriau stories. Unlike Dupin and Sherlock Holmes, M. Lecoq was a professional sleuth as he was a member of French Sûreté. Like Dupin and Holmes, M. Lecoq used methods of observation and deductive reasoning, apparently antagonizing his colleagues in the process. In ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Sherlock calls M. Lecoq “a miserable bungler”.
Other Traits and Commonalities for Sherlock Holmes Inspiration
August Dupin, M. Lecoq and Sherlock Holmes all had another common thread, each of them used armchair detectives. The armchair detective is a term used for a fictional investigator who does not personally visit a crime scene or interview witnesses.
In the case of Sherlock Holmes ‘The Greek Interpreter’ he has his brother Mycroft Holmes. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Mystery of Marie Roget” C. Auguste Dupin, is able to work from newspaper clippings and solve a young woman’s mysterious disappearance while Emile Gaboriau had created an older mentor for Lecoq who helps the hero solve particularly challenging puzzles while remaining largely inactive physically from the comfort of his bed.
Long before M. Lecoq and even Dupin there are books that write about the powers of deduction and observation. One such example is a Persian book called ‘Nigaristan’ (translated as the picture gallery). Written in 1335 it was later founded by an Italian, translated and then used by author Gueulette as the basis for stories ‘Soirees Bretonnes’. These stories revolved around a hero named Zadig who was very much like Sherlock in his ways of problem solving. Sherlock can certainly trace his ‘ancestry’ back a long way.
Without all these writings, whether it be as far back as the 14th century or Edgar Allen Poe writing about C. August Dupin in 1841 or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not meeting Dr. Bell, the adventures of Sherlock Holmes potentially might not have been written.
All of us readers are indeed fortunate!
Some cool additions to your Detective library, your chance to read more Sherlock Holmes inspiration!