Fun Fact Friday - Ten Books About 'The' Real Life Sherlock Holmes


The name Sherlock Holmes has been assigned as a compliment to those who exhibit the fictional detective's incomparable skills and ability at solving crimes. 
Photo Coutesy: crystal-of-ix on 

Each week I set out to research and document ten "fun facts" on a topic loosely based on the two books I've reviewed that week.  "Loosely" being the operative word. 

This week I reviewed The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, and Kate Winkler Dawson's American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI.

In The Swerve, Poggio Bracciolini is a fifteenth century figure who puts his talents and training to work sleuthing out ancient writings long hidden from view in monasteries, and  expertly copying them to share with the wider world. 

Poggio's well respected expertise and professional determination is not unlike that of Oscar Heinrich, the hero of American Sherlock. Heinrich put his talents and training into becoming an early American pioneer of forensic techniques, sleuthing out clues in his lab and applying his deductive skills to solving crimes.  

Heinrich was called the "American Sherlock" by the newsmen of his day. In his own way, Bracciolini was also a Sherlock - a Sherlock of Ancient Books - though of course no one had yet heard of Sherlock Holmes in 1400 AD.

Sherlock Holmes stands in a class of his own among fictional detectives. People often wonder - was Holmes inspired by a real person? Has anyone in real life displayed the crime solving talents of Sherlock Holmes? The answers to these two questions are Yes, and Yes. Bracciolini might be interested to know that a number of books have been written about these real life Sherlock Holmes men (and one woman).  

Here then, the subject for this week's Fun Fact Friday - Ten Books About "The" Real Life Sherlock Holmes:

Ten Books About "The" Real Life Sherlock Holmes

  1. Arthur Conan Doyle - The author of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Doyle (b.1859 - d.1930) was reluctant to credit any single individual as "the" real Sherlock Holmes, and it is likely that the Holmes character and plot lines were based on many people and events that Doyle himself knew of or was involved with himself. In his book The Man Who Would Be Sherlock, Christopher Sandford makes the case that Doyle himself was an inspiration for the great detective. (3 Stars on Goodreads)
  2. Joseph Bell - Early in his career as a medical doctor, Doyle worked as a clerk for Joseph Bell (b.1837, d.1911) at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Bell was a surgeon and professor who was very skilled at close observation of individuals, often able to deduce their occupation and recent activities just by observing them. Doyle acknowledged Bell as an inspiration for Holmes' similar skills. More than one book has been written about Bell as the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, including the 1982 Dr. Joe Bell: Model for Sherlock Holmes by Ely Liebow. (4 stars on Amazon)
  3. Henry Littlejohn - Littlejohn (b.1826 - d.1914) was Edinburgh's first Medical Officer of Health, also serving as police surgeon and medical adviser in criminal cases. In 2018's The Ardlamont Mystery, author Daniel Smith makes the case that both Littlejohn and Bell, in their roles as prosecution witnesses in an 1893 murder case that gripped Victorian Britain, together served as role models for Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. (4.6 stars on Amazon)

  4. Jerome Caminada - Starting as a police office in Manchester, England, Jerome Caminada (b.1844 - d.1914) later struck out on his own as a "consulting detective" who was a master of disguises, solved crimes with logical reasoning, and had a nefarious nemesis named Bob Horridge, a violent criminal ala Professor Moriarty. Caminada captivated Manchester, and was at the height of his fame in the 1880s when Doyle published his first Holmes book. In her book The Real Sherlock Holmes: The Hidden story of Jerome Caminada, Angela Buckley makes the case that there are so many similarities between Caminada's career and that of Sherlock Holmes that Doyle must have been basing Holmes, at least in part, on Caminada. (4 Stars on Amazon)

  5. Grace Quackenbos Humiston - With the ongoing fame of Doyle's famous detective, a sensationalist press took up the habit of nicknaming the latest rising crime solver a "real life Sherlock Holmes". Most so named were men, but there was at least one woman - Grace Humiston (b.1869 - d.1948).  At a time when women weren't yet allowed to vote, Grace was a successful lawyer who went on to become the first female US District Attorney in New York. In his book Mrs. Sherlock Holmes: The True Story of New York City's Greatest Female Detective and the 1917 Missing Girl Case That Captivated a Nation, Brad Ricca tells the story of Humiston's rise, with a focus on the case of the 1917 disappearance of 18 year-old Ruth Cruger. (3.25 stars on Goodreads)

  6. John Vance - An early forensics expert in Vancouver and throughout British Columbia, John Vance (b.1884 - d.1964) gained a reputation as Canada's Sherlock Holmes. Vance applied his forensics expertise to some of Canada's most sensational murder cases. Because of his success in these cases, attempts on his life were made more than once. Eve Lazarus covers his career in her book Blood, Sweat and Fear: The Story of Inspector Vance, A Pioneer Forensics Investigator. (3.93 stars on Goodreads)

  7. James McParland - In America the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was rising to fame at the same time as Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.  The final Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear is loosely based on Pinkerton agent James McParland (b.1844 - d.1919) and his infiltration of the often violent Irish American secret society known as the Molly Maguires. Beau Riffenburgh's book Pinkerton's Great Detective: The Rough-and-Tumble Career of James McParland, America's Sherlock Holmes documents the workings of McParland and the Pinkertons. (3.23 stars on Goodreads)

  8. William J. Burns - William Burns (b.1861 - d.1932) was an American law officer and private detective. His Burns Detective Agency was a chief rival to the Pinkertons. He was an early Director of the Bureau of Investigation, succeeded by J. Edgar Hoover. He was forced to retire under scandalous conditions, and was later caught up in the late 1920's Teapot Dome scandal. William R. Hunt's book America's Sherlock Holmes: The Legacy of William Burns covers the highs and lows of Burns' career. (2.67 stars on Goodreads)

  9. Ellis Parker - With a reputation as the greatest detective in the world, Ellis Parker (b.1871 - d.1940) solved 98% of the murder cases he pursued. Unfortunately, his actions in the case of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby became his downfall. He was accused of kidnapping Paul Wendel and torturing him in an attempt to gain his confession, leading to Parker's conviction, and his death in prison in 1940. John Reisinger tells Parker's story in his book Master Detective: The Life and Crimes of Ellis Parker, America's Real Life Sherlock Holmes. (3.27 stars on Goordreads)
  10. Oscar Heinrich - A pioneering forensics practitioner and lecturer in California, Oscar Heinrich (b.1881 - d.1953) was notable for the sheer breadth of forensic techniques he utilized. His work single-handedly identified the DeAutremont brothers, who in 1923 had killed four people (the only eyewitnesses) in a botched train robbery. The brothers identity as the murderers was unknown until Heinrich was able to identify them, solely from examining one pair of overalls. He was involved in many famous cases, including that of movie star Fatty Arbuckle, accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. In one of the books I reviewed this week, Kate Winkler Dawson tells his story in American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI. (3.63 stars on Goodreads) 
So there you have it. Ten "real life" Sherlocks in ten books. Are you a fan of Sherlock Holmes? Have you read any of these books? Leave a comment below.