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Not So Elementary, Watson

Hull Museums and Art Gallery
Arthur Conan Doyle, third from left, during his six-month Arctic voyage, July 11, 1880; from Conan Doyle’s Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, recently published by the University of Chicago Press
Looking back over my years as a detective, I recall many problems the solution of which made me modestly proud, but though all of them undoubtedly presented certain features of interest and tested my powers to the utmost, I can think of none of my feats of ratiocination that gave me more pleasure than the unmasking of the man Sherlock Holmes, now better known as The Fiend Of Baker Street.

While Holmes lends himself to comedy, people have also long wondered about those tantalizing cases for which, to quote Watson, “the world is not yet prepared.” What horrors lie behind that allusion in “The Sussex Vampire” to “The Giant Rat of Sumatra”; what sinister adventure awaits in the case of “The Politician, the Lighthouse, and the Trained Cormorant”?

These days a reader could devote all his or her time to Sherlockian pastiches. Ever since Nicholas Meyer’s 1974 best-seller, The Seven-Percent Solution, there has been a steady stream of novels featuring the duo of Baker Street, many of them extremely clever and well done. Just the titles are intoxicating: John Gardner’s The Return of Moriarty, Loren D. Estleman’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula (recently complemented by an excellent collection of short stories and essays, The Perils of Sherlock Holmes), Michael Dibdin’s controversial The Last Sherlock Holmes Story, Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by John H. Watson, and Carole Nelson Douglas’s series about Irene Adler, starting with Good Night, Mr. Sherlock Holmes: to the great detective, after all, “she is always the woman.”

Perhaps the most popular Sherlockian fiction today is Laurie R. King’s ongoing Mary Russell series, which began in 1994 with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. In that novel, a young Jewish-American woman encounters a still vigorous Holmes on the Sussex Downs and lures him out of retirement. The couple—they soon marry—undertake a wide range of adventures in the years after World War I, most recently in Hollywood (Pirate King) and the Middle East (last fall’s Garment of Shadows). In The Game, for instance, we learn that during Holmes’s lost years after his supposed death at the Reichenbach Falls—usually referred to as the Great Hiatus—he traveled through India with British agent Kimball O’Hara. Mary turns to her husband and exclaims: “He’s real then? Kipling’s boy?” To which Holmes replies: “As real as I am.”

In 2011, Anthony Horowitz, the much-admired scriptwriter of the British detective series Foyle’s War, also entered the Sherlockian stakes involving young victims with the excellent, and chilling, pastiche The House of Silk, which turns on a sadly familiar contemporary crime. About the same time, Kim Newman brought out Professor Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, loosely linked to his many stories about the secret activities of the Diogenes Club. Even last year’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for drama, awarded by the Mystery Writers of America, went to Ken Ludwig’s tangentially Sherlockian farce, The Game’s Afoot! When the actor William Gillette—best known for playing the hero of his stage play Sherlock Holmes—invites his friends home for Christmas Eve, murder and mayhem ensue.

One 2011 collection of Baker Street stories stood out—and would eventually lead to a court suit. A Study in Sherlock, edited by Laurie King and Leslie S. Klinger, offered a series of pastiches by notable mystery and fantasy authors including Thomas Perry, S.J. Rozan, Jacqueline Winspear, and Neil Gaiman (whose contribution, “The Case of Death of Honey,” was short-listed for the 2012 Edgar Award for short story). Like many other books and films using Sherlock Holmes as a character, this anthology was duly licensed by the Conan Doyle estate.

But was this authorization necessary, given that nearly all the adventures, except for those in the 1927 Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, are out of copyright? Can Holmes and Watson be legally trademarked? After signing a contract to coedit a second anthology, Leslie Klinger refused to pay any fee to the estate and this February filed a suit arguing that Holmes and Watson are actually in the public domain. No ruling has yet been made.

Dressing up or acting like the sleuth of Baker Street, as Gillette does in Ludwig’s play, is commonly thought to be de rigueur for members of the Baker Street Irregulars, the famous literary and dining society of Holmes enthusiasts. Not so. A few people might sport a deerstalker or don Victorian garb, but that’s about it. So why do folks work so hard to become Irregulars, to be “investitured,” i.e., given a new name taken from the Sherlockian canon? According to Michael Saler—in his recent book, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality—the BSI, like similar science fiction and fantasy fan groups, allows members to participate in a shared world and enjoy the camaraderie of other aficionados. At their most intense, these associations provide an opportunity for a primordial version of virtual reality role-playing.

In fact, belief in one particular “virtual reality” quite aptly describes what Irregulars call “playing the game.” To BSI purists Watson’s accounts of Holmes’s adventures are the records of actual events and Conan Doyle is simply Watson’s literary agent or front man. To explain inconsistencies and anomalies in the “canon,” Irregulars have taken to producing reams of scholarship, attempting to establish the chronology of Holmes’s life and adventures, make intelligent guesses about where he attended university (Dorothy Sayers strenuously argued for Cambridge), and sometimes to be as outrageous as possible with a straight face. In one notorious paper, the mystery writer Rex Stout sought to prove that “Watson was a Woman” and, to be more precise, that he was Irene Adler.

The classic work of Irregular scholarship, and a delightful book on every count, is the Chicago bookman Vincent Starrett’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, first published in 1933. Of course, Sherlock Holmes’s life has attracted many scholars. Just last year, Don Libey, a retired businessman and part-time antiquarian book dealer, brought out The Autobiography of Sher lock Holmes. It is a surprisingly convincing work, revealing the truth about Watson’s marriage, detailing the expenses and earnings of a “consulting detective,” and packing nearly every page with a sly allusion to the known stories:

My first birthday was observed at a villa on Lake Geneva where the now numerically larger Holmes family lived during 1853. It was there, during reportedly pleasant hours of conversation at a lakeside coffeehouse, that my father became acquainted with, and thereafter maintained a many-year correspondence with, a brilliant private tutor in theoretical astro-mathematics who would, in later years, have a profound influence on my career, and I on his.

Need one be more explicit about the identity of that tutor, the future Napoleon of Crime, Professor James Moriarty?

There are several collections of Irregular criticism, but the gist of what has been discovered can be found in the two invaluable volumes titled The Grand Game: A Celebration of Sherlockian Scholarship, compiled by Laurie King and Leslie Klinger. Volume 1 covers the years 1902–1959, and includes not just work by Sayers and Stout but also Ronald Knox, A.A. Milne, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (who was an honorary member of the BSI). Volume 2, published in 2012, takes up the years 1960 to 2010 and includes essays by many of our most noted living scholars of Sherlock Holmes.

But not all of them.

In former times, a radical division existed between the Sherlockians (or Holmesians, as they are called in England) who Played the Game and pretended Holmes was real, and the Doyleans, who simply studied Conan Doyle as an important writer. The prickly Adrian Conan Doyle used to grow incensed when the BSI pretended that his father was only the literary agent for Watson. For the Doyleans, there should be no guff about Moriarty really being Fu Manchu or speculation that the H. in John H. Watson might stand for Hamish or whether the good doctor was married once, twice, or even five times. The two schools even rely on quite different editions of the works: Sherlockians gravitate to the massive three volumes of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie Klinger, and Doyleans to The Oxford Sherlock Holmes, nine compact volumes under the general editorship of Owen Dudley Edwards.

But the dividing lines can grow blurry, as in Bohemian Souls, edited by Otto Penzler and published in 2011 as part of the BSI Manuscript Series. The first half of the handsome volume presents a facsimile of Conan Doyle’s holograph for “A Scandal in Bohemia” with a typed transcription on the facing pages. Philip Bergem then supplies scholarly annotations, supplemented by Randall Stock’s two-part bibliographical description of the manuscript and a punctilious account of its provenance. Yet the second half of the volume is taken up with essays about Irene Adler’s possible background, possible bipolar disorder, possible suicide, and possible affair with Holmes. The essays are delightful, and many of them are written by friends of mine, but for all the rigor of their arguments they are not scholarly in the same way as the presentation and analysis of the actual manuscript.

There is no question of folderol in three important Conan Doyle publications of the past year and a half. The Illustrated Speckled Band reprints Conan Doyle’s “Original 1910 Stage Production in Script and Photographs,” the pictures deriving from a scarce issue of Playgoer and Society Illustrated magazine. This is unquestionably scholarly work, even though it is edited by one of the most active Sherlockians, Les Klinger again, and made available by the outstanding Sherlockian publisher Gasogene Books/Wessex Press.

But Doyleans rejoiced even more at the publication by the British Library last year of their author’s “lost” first novel, The Narrative of John Smith, edited by Jon Lellenberg and Daniel Stashower (with Rachel Foss of the BL). One couldn’t ask for better scholarship. Lellenberg is the learned and extremely dedicated representative of the Conan Doyle estate in North America (as well as the author of an archival history of the Baker Street Irregulars) and Stashower is a noted biographer whose books include an Edgar Award–winning life of Conan Doyle, Teller of Tales. Written in 1883, The Narrative of John Smith is definitely more a “narrative” than a novel, focusing on a middle-aged protagonist laid up with gout who passes the time and 120 pages in daydreaming, reflecting on history, chatting with a retired major about the empire, and entertaining amorous feelings for a pretty neighbor.

Conan Doyle originally sent the manuscript to a publisher and it was lost in the post. He later remarked: “I must in all honesty confess that my shock at its disappearance would be as nothing to my horror if it were suddenly to appear again—in print.” Yet he did rewrite a large part of it—the portion now published—and then stopped. The editors point out that many of its phrases and passages were subsequently reused in later books such as the very funny autobiographical novel The Stark-Munro Letters and Through the Magic Door, Conan Doyle’s charming guide to his favorite books.

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