Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"A Detective Rare" - Angela Buckley's "The Real Sherlock Holmes" (Jerome Caminada).

"Has the real Sherlock Holmes been deduced?" wondered the headline to Jasper Copping's review in The Telegraph 15 March 2014 .

Angela Buckley's "The Real Sherlock Holmes - The Hidden Story of Jerome Caminada" is not the first to propose the Manchester detective as inspiration for Conan Doyle's fictional detective. Don Hale's (much slighter) November, 2013,  publication commits to the title  "JEROME CAMINADA - The Victorian Detective - The inspiration for Sherlock Holmes" (sic). Intrigued by the Copping piece I read the Buckley biography.

Attractively produced with 16 pages of contemporary illustrations, the book comprises four thematic strands: the author's family history, Sherlock Holmes, Manchester and Caminada himself. A Preface records the genesis of research conducted into the last two - the author's discovery that an ancestor lived on Caminada's first beat and was likely acquainted with him.

Such is often the way a family connection can inspire a broader interest in local history and it is a pity this thread is not developed beyond the Preface, which ends with a statement of the book's prime purpose:"I hope that, after decades of silence, the voice of this extraordinary Victorian super-sleuth will be heard once again". Well, it is and it isn't.

 I want to stress that I think the book well worth reading. It is enthusiastically researched (with a useful, extensive bibliography). Caminada and Manchester vie fascinatingly for the reader's attention. And they are strongly related, for, policeman that he was, the story and character of Caminada naturally highlight the condition of the poor during his career in Cottonopolis. Buckley indicates her book's strongest theme in an initial quotation from the detective, himself quoting Dickens:

"Cant as we may...we shall to the end of all things find it very much harder for the poor to be virtuous than it is for the rich, and the good that is in them shines the brighter for it."

 The book and its subject stand on their own two feet upon this powerful theme and it is a continuing irony that recourse is made to the fictional Sherlock Holmes only to mask "a detective rare" as a ballad described Caminada in 1893 (quoted in full on p114). I turn now to the Sherlockian content.

I have to conclude that the author and/or publisher felt the fictional detective would help to sell the real one. A title which employed the indefinite article before "Real" and a text which avoided anything beyond a casual reference to the character whose name fast became a byword for any good detective would not have shifted the spotlight off Caminada. Unfortunately, the title and references to Doyle's creation strain to draw parallels and befog the clarity of Buckley's portrait.

Copley and others propagate the notion that Doyle took inspiration from Caminada, that this is a unique selling point for this book. Whatever she may say outside its pages, Buckley makes nothing like a sustained attempt to connect the two men. The closest to a claim of this nature is expressed in the final paragraph: "His widely publicised cases could easily have provided inspiration for the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle."

References to Sherlock Holmes in the text are patchy, too loosely related and, at times, inaccurate. That Doyle (but neither Holmes nor any cases) figures in the Index is in keeping with the superficial treatment of this heavily advertised aspect. 
My own suspicion that the author's interest and research were not with Holmes was aroused on p17 where "Star Blaze" survived proof-reading. Chapter 12, "The Beautiful Crook" thinks Irene Adler appeared in "novels" and proceeds to draw a parallel with the real-life Alicia Osmond that does not hold water. Similarly, the presentation of burglar, Bob Horridge, as Chapter 9's "The Professor Moriarty of the Slums" reveals a career criminal whose direct hands-on approach is the very opposite of Doyle's "spider in the centre of his web" who "only plans". All they in truth have in common is to have been the most formidable men encountered. 

"The Stockbroker's Clerk" and "A Case of Identity" provide initial quotations to two other chapters with little relevance and what is remarkable (to the Sherlockian) is the absence of apposite reference to the Canon where you may have expected it were this a serious attempt to relate the two detectives. Thus, the absorbing section in Chapter 5 on "Next-of-Kin" fraud is oblivious of, for example, "The Three Garridebs". 

On more than one occasion, the author argues against her own claim. Page 87 avows "Detective Camanada was not a 'first-class chemist' like Sherlock Holmes". By Chapter 19 he has become "The Garibaldi of Detectives" and Buckley quotes the Manchester Courier: "Mr Caminada was not exactly a Sherlock Holmes, but as a detective he did good service to Manchester."

The real detective is credited with powers of observation, disguise, deduction and wide knowledge of criminals as if this were so exceptional that he might readily have inspired Doyle. The book however illustrates little more than excellent local knowledge of beats he knew well and a logical use of disguise in streets where you were well known. Caminada's move in retirement to private detection was common and, while a parallel is drawn here with Holmes, the more obvious reference to Altamont in "His Last Bow" is not made when either the Fenians or Caminada's spying are discussed.

Most seriously, the author seems not to realise that the comparison of detective fiction and real-life detectives at the opening of Chapter 12 is in fact a strong argument NOT to haul Sherlock Holmes into this biography.

I have had occasion frequently this year to look at periodicals of the period. It is clear that from the moment Sherlock Holmes achieved popularity across the World, from the USA to Australia, his name became a byword (a shorthand) applied to detectives who solved a tricky case or was employed as a cry of desperation that "a Sherlock Holmes" was needed. I do not sense Angela Buckley knows this. Nor should she. Her absorbing work on Caminada and evocation of a Manchester thankfully long gone are good enough to stand alone.

When I re-read the story of Jerome Caminada (as I shall) it will be beneath my personal preferred title: "A Detective Rare".
© Ray Wilcockson (2014) All rights Reserved.


  1. Thanks for an excellent review.

  2. Thank you, John. I hope, despite my reservations, I left the impression this is a worthy book. I found it especially interesting to learn more of crime & society outside the metropolis.