Over the years, there have been numerous books, essays and papers that examine the links between London, Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Many of these are very worthy but seldom do they give equal attention to both Doyle and his legendary detective. I suspect that this reflects the reluctance of many Doylean and Sherlockian scholars to stray too far from their respective academic beats. Alistair Duncan is a refreshing exception to this general rule - he is a kind of scholastic chimera, who is equally at home with both Doyle and Holmes.
'Close to Holmes' is a marvelous mixed-grill of juicy morsels about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and South London. I made the error of reading this book on an airplane that had just departed from Heathrow. Two hours later, I reached my destination and felt utterly homesick - my every sinew ached to return to the metropolis so that I might explore it further in the company of Duncan's book. It particularly compelled me to try and retrace the route that Doyle might have walked between his home in Montague Place and his ophthalmic practice in Upper Wimpole Street (1891). It also beckoned me to travel to South Norwood in order to ascertain for myself why the local community does not do more to celebrate the fact that Doyle wrote nearly one-third of the Holmes tales whilst living there (1892-1894)!
'Close to Holmes' is compulsive reading for any Doylean or Sherlockian, expert and novice alike, who intends to visit London. This 213 page book is beautifully finished-off with original cover art by Phil Cornell and an astute foreword by Roger Johnson. My recommendation? Buy 'Close to Holmes', a pocket-sized 'A-Z Street Atlas of London' and a `3 Day Travelcard' and then commence a fascinating tour of the capital for less money than the admission charge to most local exhibits.
Close to Holmes: A Look at the Connections Between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle The answer is a resounding "No." Anyone not aware of Holmes or Doyle could still enjoy this book. For fans, it's inevitable they will already be familiar with certain facts; but it is equally probable that even they will discover something new, and I thoroughly enjoyed this work. Every chapter contains something of interest. The footnotes are clearly marked, bibliography and index more than adequate and the photographs are superb. On the subject of those, the author does seem to have stretched a point. There's even one of Charlie Chaplin - and also (for Doctor Watson fans) an unfortunate cab driver with the evocative name 'Netley'. Who may or may not have driven Dr.Gull, who may or may not have been Jack the Ripper, round London. All the same, it would not be possible for an honest reviewer to do anything but recommend this book.
As the cover text suggests, there are three strands to this fascinating book: Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, and Victorian London. Of the first two I knew absolutely nothing before reading Close to Holmes, as I'm not a Sherlockian and confess I have never read a Holmes novel; of the third I had some knowledge, being a historian with a broad interest in our capital. However, I finished the book with a much greater knowledge of all three: an understanding of the essentials of Conan Doyle's life and career as it related to London; an introduction to many of the themes, sequences and events in the Holmesian "Canon"; and a vivid sketch of the social, literary and political atmosphere of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century London.
Alistair Duncan skilfully weaves these strands together as he guides the reader around the capital which Conan Doyle - and Holmes too, in his world - would have known, but he also brings the story up to date with biographical information about the locations involved, what they contained then and what is there now, what is known about them and the factual uncertainties which linger. Pubs, stations and hotels (amongst other locations) are transformed from buildings that we might otherwise pass without thought, into hotspots of history which the curious might pause at and enter. Copious photos and contemporary illustrations accompany the text.
Whilst, not being a Sherlockian, I'm unlikely to use the book to follow Conan Doyle's trail around the capital, Close to Holmes will be invaluable to others wishing to do so. Meanwhile my copy has taken up residence on my bookshelf as a literary quick-reference to Conan Doyle, a taster of what I might expect fictionally if I do eventually take a look into Holmes's world, and a fascinating introduction to London in the late Victorian era.
As a London tour guide, writing a walk about Sherlock Holmes and trying to track down actual and fictional locations in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was no easy feat. I needed to get into the head of ACD and look at his view of London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I didn't achieve that, however Alistair Duncan's "Close to Holmes" gave me a good pen-picture of Victorian London that ACD would have known and where he probably placed Sherlock Holmes adventures in London. To channel a well-known United States politician, when tracking down Sherlock Holmes locations there are 'known knowns', i.e. actual places like Barts Hospital. There are 'known unknowns', fictional locations based on real ones, e.g 'Where is Saxe-coburg Square?'. Tracking these, and better still, having your theories accepted, is a never-ending game for Sherlockians. In "Close to Holmes" Alistair Duncan informatively entertainingly describes the 'known knowns' and elegantly extrapolates without lurching into speculation, the possibilities of the 'known unknowns'. A companion/gazetteer that should be in easy reach on every Sherlockian's bookshelf.
Extract from - The Newsletter of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London - The District Messenger, Edition 291, Feb 2009.
"Of the dozen or so guides to Holmesian London, there are two that I recommend to visitors: Arthur Alexander's Hot on the Scent and Tom Wheeler's Finding Sherlock's London. Now there's a third book to recommend. Close to Holmes: A Look at the Connections between Historical London, Sherlock Holmes and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Alistair Duncan is, I think, the first to give equal consideration to the places associated with Conan Doyle. Reading it, we feel that we're in the company of a knowledgeable, enthusiastic and witty friend. I should mention that I contributed the foreword; I did so because the book is both valuable and a pleasure to read. As much a historical and literary exploration as a travel guide, Close to Holmes doesn't compete with The New Finding Sherlock's London; instead, the two complement each other."