The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes


It is quite hard to find somebody who has never heard of Sherlock Holmes. With now four new adaptations coming out in just a few years it is somewhat hard to stay ignorant. Not as well known are most of the stories written by Doyle’s contemporaries. They were often inspired by Sherlock Holmes and had similar dynamics: a very intelligent main character and his faithful, somewhat less bright, friend and biographer solve crimes, commit crimes, or hunt ghosts. Like the Holmes-stories most of the ‘rivals’ also appeared as short stories in magazines.

Here are a few:

Thomas Carnacki

Written by: William Hope Hogson
Occupation: Ghost-hunter
Sidekick: Dodgson
Appearances: Nine canonical short-stories plus a handful of pastiches written by others
Availability: Project Gutenberg  (or directly at amazon). Both just contain six of the nine stories.
Other media: An ITV series from the 1970s, called The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes  adapted one Carnacki-story (The Horse of the Insvisible)

What it’s about: Carnacki investigates hauntings. Not in every case there is a genuine ghost behind the spooky occurrences, sometimes the causes are also found in this world. In a somewhat odd narrative choice Dogson is Carnacki’s biographer and the stories are told from his perspective but he never accompanies Carnacki on his hunts. Instead Carnacki visits him at the end of every adventure, tells him what happened and Dosgson then writes them down. Why? I have no clue and in general I found the stories a bit dull despite liking the basic concept (especially that not all cases have a supernatural cause)

Fun Fact: Carnacki appears alongside the Second Doctor, Zoe and Jamie in the Doctor Who novel Foreign Devils.

Flaxman Low

Written by: Major Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard and his mother Kate O’Brien Ryall Prichard, writing under the pseudonym E. & H. Heron (presumably that was easier to fit on the cover)
Occupation: Psychic Detektive
Appears in: Twelve short-stories
Availability: Six are available to read online here or at Project Gutenberg Australia. A Kindle-edition with eight stories is available quite cheaply as well (at least if you live in the US or UK)
Sidekick: none
Appearances in other media: none

What it’s about: Flaxman gets called by people who fear their houses are haunted/the inhabitants are possessed by evil spirits and so on. He helps to find the cause of the spook…usually stuff gets blown up in the cause of his investigation. Unlike most of his colleagues Flaxman has no friend and biographer and the stories are written in the third person.

Fun Fact: In Pearson’s Magazine, which published them, the stories promoted them as “real” which did not please the authors.

Dr John Evelyn Thorndyke

Written by: Richard Austin Freeman
Occupation: Doctor/Forensic Detective
Sidekick: Dr Christopher Jarvis
Appearances: 22 novels and five short story collections
Availability: here
Other Media: A BBC-Series from the 60s adapted several novels but sadly all except the pilot are missing. Later A Message from the Deep Sea and The Moabite Cipher were adapted as part of Rivals. BBC Radio also aired two series of Thorndyke short stories read by Jim Norton and William Gaminara.

What it’s about: It’s like Sherlock Holmes just with real science. Simply imagine Holmes describing in great detail the experiments he conducts to find out what type of tobacco-ash he’s dealing with instead of just telling what he found out.

Thorndyke is somewhat less unapproachable than Holmes, not a genius just a really intelligent man. For crime-fiction lovers it might also be somewhat unusual that the question isn’t always ‘Who did it?’ Thorndyke is often hired by lawyers to prove their clients innocence and this is exactly what he does. He accomplishes this not necessarily by finding the real perpetrator but sometimes simply by finding proof for the client’s innocence. Granted in these cases there is usually somebody around who acts so suspicious that the reader will have a quite clear idea who was really behind the crime.

Fun Fact: Freeman throws quite a few ‘take thats’ at Holmes. Obviously he’s never mentioned but e.g. Thorndyke will explain that you can of course look at a person, their clothes, manners, looks etc. and from what you observe make a deduction about that person’s job and life-circumstances but if you claim that it is certain that your deductions must be right you are a fool…or when the victim of a burglary proudly presents him a hat the burglar lost he will explain that there’s always the danger that the man might not be the first owner of the hat in which case the deductions would be useless (but then discovers that just in this case one can tell from the hat that it’s a new one and where the guy worked so all is well again).

Polly Burton

Written by: Baroness Orzcy
Occupation: Journalist
Sidekick: an unnamed “Man in The Corner” (you could argue about who’s the detective and who’s the sidekick here…)
Appearances: Twelve short stories, collected in one book
Avilability: Project Gutenberg
Other Media: Twelve silent films from the 20s, and The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway for Rivals. The BBC also did a Radio series The Teahouse Detective.

What it’s about: Polly, a journalist, regularly visits ‘the old man in the corner’ who sits in a tea-house where he drinks tea and eats cake. The two discuss cases, some of those they just read about in the papers, others Polly reported on herself. ‘Discussing’ basically means that the old man solves them (without ever getting out of his armchair) while Polly sits there and stares at him in awe.

Fun Fact: I wish there was one but the stories were so terribly dull that I can’t think of anything. But if the name Orzcy sounds familiar to use it’s because she also wrote The Scarlett Pimpernel.

Arthur Raffles

Written by: E.W. Hornung
Sidekick: Harry “Bunny” Manders
Occupation: Gentleman Thief
Appearances: Three collections with short stories and one novel
Availability: Project Gutenberg
Other Media: Quite a lot: Seven films made between 1905 and 1939, a TV-Series from 77 and a TV-movie from 2001 as well as a BBC radio-series. There is also a play, written by Graham Greene, that turns Raffles and Bunny in a gay couple.

What it’s about: Raffles, a gentleman thief (and cricketer) and his faithful companion Bunny rob rich people’s homes to finance their own luxurious lifestyle.

Fun Fact(s): Hornung was Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother in law and just like Holmes, Raffles was also inspired by a real person: George Ives, a poet, talented cricketer and criminologists (not criminal). Ives was also a gay rights campaigner who had a short affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. It is not quite clear if Hornung knew that when he wrote the stories but it does explain how Greene got the idea for his play.

There is also a fanfiction…ehm of course I mean a pastiche by John Kendrick Bangs about Raffles Holmes – the offspring of Arthur Raffle’s daughter Marjorie and Sherlock Holmes.


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