Read this exclusive guest post from Kaite Welsh about her fascination with Sherlock Holmes, and then make sure to sign in and comment below for a chance to win her thrilling debut novel, The Wages of Sin!
I met the man of my dreams in the school library during a rainy September. I was between books, and I had been making eyes at The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, a giant hardback that took up most of the shelf, for a couple of days. I don’t think I put it down for the two weeks it took me to finish it, sneaking chapters like cookies from a jar—a page here in the hubbub before a test, a few more there while I was loading the dishwasher. To this day, I can't stop at just one case.
There’s a phase I think every Holmes fan goes through, whether they encounter the Great Detective through the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original books or via the perfectly sculpted cheekbones and dulcet tones of Benedict Cumberbatch. Suddenly, every tiny detail takes on a greater meaning—the mud tracked in from the hockey pitch and the crumbs on a school tie all start to tell a story. It gave me a love of forensic detail that may never solve a crime in real life but has at least given me an impressive batting average when it comes to guessing fictional murderers.
As I grew up and read further, I encountered Sherlock’s descendants: Kay Scarpetta, John Rebus, and VI Warshawski. And yet, I never forgot that first love. While I can, and frequently do, power through one or two crime novels a day when I have time, I linger over Holmes. I re-read a half-forgotten story starting at the end, trying to reverse engineer his deductions. I devour the spin-offs and adaptations—from Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series to Brittany Cavallero’s compulsive modern re-working, A Study in Charlotte.
It was probably inevitable that I ended up in Edinburgh, living around the corner from Conan Doyle’s childhood home. But it never registered until I took a shortcut through the quad from the old Medical School and spied two blue plaques that planted a seed in my mind.
The first commemorated Sophia Jex-Blake, one of the first women to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in an attempt to smash the academic glass ceiling. Despite violent protests from the male students—and some of the faculty—she and the other six women excelled in their studies, only to be barred from graduating. Jex-Blake finally got her MD in Switzerland and then moved back to Edinburgh, where a young Arthur Conan Doyle was just embarking on his own medical studies. Thanks to his gender, Doyle had no problem graduating, and his relationship with lecturer and occasional detective—and honoree of the second plaque—Dr. Joseph Bell was to prove fruitful in an entirely different arena.
If you’re going to be a crime novelist, you could do worse than follow in the literal footsteps of the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Edinburgh is infused with mystery and death, from the twisting back streets they call “wynds” to the leafy green public park called the Meadows, which is built on old plague pits. There’s even an entire underground city beneath the cobbles—caverns, tunnels, and vaults which housed some of the city’s most destitute and desperate.
The Wages of Sin owes a lot to Sherlock Holmes and Joseph Bell. But my book takes place in a very different kind of Victorian city than the one Conan Doyle wrote about. Mine is populated by the prostitutes, abortionists, and fallen women that he could only relegate to subtext. In fact, Bell himself plays a role of sorts; without giving anything away, I can say that his influence as both doctor and sleuth is felt by more than one character.
There’s a statue of Sherlock Holmes at the top of Leith Walk. As a student, I barely noticed it as I drunkenly staggered past on my way home from clubs. But now, when I soberly pass him once or twice a day on my average daily routine, he feels like a talisman, the city’s very own guardian angel, his expression unreadable beneath his bronze deerstalker. And as I pass, I pause and remember that there is no problem that three pipes can’t solve; there is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact; and that when you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains—however improbable—must be the truth.
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Kaite Welsh is an Edinburgh-based journalist and critic and the Literature Officer at Creative Scotland. She writes a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph and makes frequent appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. She was included on the Independent on Sunday’s 2015 Rainbow List, which recognizes the 100 most influential LGBTI people in the UK. In 2014, Kaite was shortlisted for both the Scottish New Writers Award and the Moniack Mhor Bridge Award.