Tuesday, 10 June 2014

McLevy: an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes?

We recently went for an amble around Wimpole Hall, a stately pile situated just down the road from us in Cambridgeshire. At the end of the walk ┼×encan dragged me towards the little bookshop situated in a corner of the rather ostentatious stables.

Whilst browsing, I found a hardback book called "The Casebook of a Victorian Detective", published in 1975. This is a selection of stories from a couple of books written by a real-life Edinburgh detective, James McLevy. McLevy served in Edinburgh for thirty years from 1830, and became the city's first detective. He published his books after he retired in the 1860s, and they look back over a career that saw thousands of crimes successfully solved.

As I am interested about writing about Edinburgh in the 1830s, I thought it would be a good book for research purposes So I parted with £3.50 and took it home.

The book contains a series of cases from McLevy's long and illustrious career, and depict an Edinburgh that is very different from today's city. He even has a website at http://jamesmclevy.com. This website features research that shows that some stories are between 80 and 100% accurate - not bad considering he was writing about events that in some cases occurred decades before. But what struck me most were the links between the real-life detective McLevy and his most famous fictional counterpart, Sherlock Holmes.

So what are the links between McLevy and Sherlock Holmes?
  • McLevy published his books in the 1860s, whilst Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes book "A study in scarlet" in 1887. Therefore McLevy's stories precede Doyle's.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle studied at the University of Edinburgh Medical School from 1877, which McLevy had consulted for pathological evidence in some of his cases. McLevy would therefore have been known to people who knew Doyle. It is perfectly possible, indeed likely to my mind, that Doyle was aware of McLevy's work.
  • A (criminal) character in one of McLey's stories is called 'Holmes'.
  • McLevy sometimes uses deduction in a similar manner to Holmes.
  • McLevy is also adept at using disguises to catch his man, as is Holmes.
  • The cases are presented as a series of short stories, as are most of the Holmes canon.
What is more, some of the story titles have a certain Holmesian lilt: "The White Coffin" or "The Dead Child's Leg".

I am hardly the first person to discover this connection (indeed, some are mentioned in the book's preface). Whilst Sherlock Holmes is entirely Doyle's brilliant creation, I find it hard to believe that McLevy would not have been a minor influence. After all, how could he not have known about stories written by someone who was connected with the department he was studying in just fifteen years before?

Professor Joseph Bell taught Doyle at the school, and Bell was himself a student at the school when McLevy was still serving. Given Bell's acute deductive skills are famed as being Doyle's inspiration for Holmes, could Bell himself have learnt some of these from the detective?

That is to take nothing away from Doyle's adept skill. His stories are rich and utterly readable, whilst McLevy's style tends to be rather heavy and proselytising in places. Whilst McLevy's social views were undoubtedly ahead of his time - he believed that only early education could stop criminals, not punishment, and was in favour of the Ragged Schools - he is rather overfond of promoting those beliefs and the nature of crime.

So, was McLevy an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes? We can never know for sure, but given the above links, I would say it is probable.

As an aside, only when I started reading did I realise that I knew the McLevy name - BBC Radio 4 has done a series of adventures loosely based on McLevy's stories. Also, if buying the stories, be aware that new stories have been written using McLevy's character. Whilst these may be excellent, the real voice lies in the original stories from the man himself.

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