5 Questions with Michael Sims

A series of informal, intimate talks given by literary and cultural luminaries, In Conversation with the Rosenbach delves into fascinating histories, intellectual curiosities, and inspiring ideas. Each program offers the audience a chance to join the conversation after the talk and share their own thoughts and questions. In conjunction with our Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives exhibition, Michael Sims will join us on April 20 to talk about the creation of literature’s most iconic detective.

Michael Sims

Rosenblog: You’ve written and edited books on a wide range of topics, from crime fiction to idioms of the human body to the spider that inspired Charlotte’s Web. What drew you toward a close examination of Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes?

Michael Sims: I think I tend to write a book when I realize that I have a clear narrative in my head that is different from other writers’ accounts of the topic. I did that with E. B. White and with Henry Thoreau—and, come to think of it, with Adam’s Navel, the body book you mentioned. With Arthur Conan Doyle, I realized that I could clearly see the origins of Sherlock Holmes as a story—the exciting narrative of the tributary experiences that eventually converged into the inspiration for and creation of the character. I wanted to unravel that particular story from the fabric of the rest of Doyle’s life, and I wanted to go back and tell my story as an in-the-moment narrative.

RB: In Arthur and Sherlock, you draw a strong link between Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical training and Sherlock Holmes’ powers of detection. Medicine has changed a lot in the past century; how does Doyle’s medical knowledge hold up?

MS: I think Doyle would be delighted to see how much the field has advanced. Early on, especially, he saw medicine as the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals, of respect for facts and evidence—but also of compassion for suffering. He was a big fan of Darwin and Huxley, for example. He wanted to be a man of his time, so he kept up with changes, and I suspect that he would hold his own even now. And yes (good point), his medical training in Edinburgh led to his prof, Dr Joseph Bell, becoming his mentor, and very much serving as the future model for Sherlock Holmes.

RB: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about Arthur Conan Doyle’s life?

MS: Well, one of his most admirable traits, I think, was his support for colleagues. He was a good friend—celebrating the work of others, not jealous, not too cocky about his own success. So I think I would say that his decent modesty is something very much worth knowing about him. You can’t always say that about hugely successful people.

RB: In our Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives exhibition, we’ve got books by Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle all in a room together (with Bram Stoker not far away). As an anthologist and researcher of their work, what do you imagine the authors would say to each other?

MS: I love the idea of the spirits of these authors hanging out there during the night. Because where else would a writer’s ghost be but near a manuscript that had come from its own hand? Stoker and Doyle were friends, by the way, and Stoker was even at Doyle’s second wedding. And Poe was Doyle’s greatest influence, and Dickens one of his favorites. I think they would do what most writers I know do when they get together—complain about their publishers.

Inside the Clever Criminals and Daring Detectives gallery

RB: What have you read recently that sparked your imagination or admiration?

I welcome another chance to applaud a luscious, eye-opening recent nonfiction book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, which I found dazzling in its vision and scope. Haskell has a wonderful voice as a writer. Not surprisingly the book was nominated for every award out there and won many. Right now I am greatly enjoying Andrea Wulf’s glorious book about Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, which appropriately enough is a whole cosmos of a book. And in the car I’m listening to, and being dazzled again by, Moby Dick, this time the Frank Muller reading. It’s so fierce and funny and alive.