by Henry Zecher
Xlibris, March 2011, $34.99

William Gillette (1853-1937) wrote the play Sherlock Holmes and played the role on stage for decades, but his other contributions to American theatre are even more significant. As a low-key realistic actor, he sought the illusion of speaking the words for the first time rather than reciting a set speech, a goal which seems obvious now but was novel then. His 1895 Civil War espionage melodrama Secret Service was a better play than Sherlock Holmes and a greater contribution to the stage thriller. (For proof, see the TV presentation of the 1977 Broadway production with Meryl Streep and John Lithgow, available on DVD.)

As the first full-scale biography of an important figure, this excellent book should have been taken up by a major publisher. Zecher, covering all aspects of his subject in great detail, is unfailingly readable and only occasionally succumbs to antiquarianism or tangents of limited relevance to the subject. The Sherlockian material is thoroughly and knowledgeably covered, including Gillette’s relationship with A. Conan Doyle and how his stage portrayal influenced the image of Holmes for years thereafter, including being the model for the illustrations of Frederic Dorr Steele. Architecture and building buffs will enjoy the description of Gillette’s homes, especially his idiosyncratic retirement abode, Gillette Castle, still a leading tourist attraction in Connecticut. The account of Gillette’s support of Theodore Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy in the election of 1912 offers an interesting summary of the political and social inequities of the time, not so different from today. Quotes from Gillette’s letters and speeches display a satirical sense of humor reminiscent of his friend Mark Twain. Based on his one mystery novel, The Astounding Crime on Torrington Road (1927), Zecher puts the mechanically minded author closer to John Dickson Carr than to Christie or Gardner. The author does not mention that Gillette was the model for detective Drury Lane in four early-’30s novels by the Ellery Queen team writing as Barnaby Ross. (Reviewed from the ebook edition, both economical and fine for reading the text, but the many source notes are extremely difficult to trace in that format, and the illustrations, though very sharp, are reduced to postage-stamp size. The unexamined print edition is presumably better for these purposes.)

Jon L. Breen

The first full-scale biography of the Sherlock playwright and actor is an excellent read.

Teri Duerr

by Henry Zecher
Xlibris, March 2011, $34.99

March 2011