In the 2011 film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—the sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes—the actors Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law completed their transformation of the great detective and Dr. Watson into Victorian action heroes (with just a touch of “bromance” to their relationship). The two movies (with a third in the offing) might not be your father’s cinematic Sherlock Holmes—for an older generation Basil Rathbone and the doltish Nigel Bruce will always be the denizens of Baker Street—nor are they mine. I remain fond of Jeremy Brett’s neurotic Holmes and the stolid, admirable Watsons portrayed by David Burke and Edward Hardwicke in the Granada series of the 1980s.
More recently, viewers have been transfixed by the six episodes—three in 2010, three in 2012, with more to come—of the BBC’s enthralling Sherlock. Setting the stories in the present, the creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (best known for revitalizing the classic science fiction serial, Dr. Who) update and rejigger everything and yet remain true to the spirit of the original works. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a kinetic, pallid Sherlock, dressed in vampiric black, and brimming with Asperger’s-like intensity.
The Byronically handsome actor is wildly popular, with one group of female fans being inspired to form the online group the Baker Street Babes and some others even calling themselves Cumberbitches. Taking the more difficult role, Martin Freeman creates a war-damaged Watson who is, despite his steady and romantic nature, at heart an adrenalin junkie. Life with Holmes allows Watson to reexperience some of the exhilaration of battle. Their deepening friendship is beautifully delineated.
Just this September, CBS inaugurated yet another take on Sherlock. In Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller portrays Holmes as a recovering drug addict, heavily tattooed, with a painful past. Dr. Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu, is his quietly professional minder, hired by a wealthy father to look after a troubled son during the latter’s sojourn in modern-day New York City. Together the duo end up assisting the NYPD, even as details of Holmes’s past gradually emerge. At first, there seemed a little too much about Miller as an emotionally wounded brainiac (à la House or Monk) and not enough Sherlockismo to the CSI-style plots. But you can’t take your eyes off the charismatic actor, or Liu for that matter, and the series has grown better and better.
While all these screen interpretations of Holmes and Watson are, more or less, enjoyable, they have also served to generate renewed interest in the written record: Arthur Conan Doyle’s original, incomparable stories. My own initial encounter with the great detective, more than fifty years ago, remains one of the great reading experiences of my life—and generations of readers can offer similar memories. At the beginning of fifth grade the TAB Book Club sent around a newsletter listing its latest classroom offerings. In my 2012 book On Conan Doyle I describe
the newsletter’s capsule summary that compelled me to buy The Hound of the Baskervilles—as if that ominous title alone weren’t enough! Beneath a small reproduction of the paperback’s cover—depicting a shadowy Something with fiery eyes crouching on a moonlit crag—blazed the thrilling words: “What was it that emerged from the moor at night to spread terror and violent death?” What else, of course, but a monstrous hound from the bowels of Hell? When I opened my very own copy of the book, the beast was further described on the inside display page:
“A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smoldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dream of a disordered brain could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog.”
Eager as I was to start immediately on this almost irresistible treat, I staunchly determined to put off reading the book until I could do so under just the right conditions. At the very least, I required a dark and stormy night, and the utter absence of distracting sisters and parents. Finally, there came a Saturday in early November when my mother and father announced that they would be visiting relatives that evening—and “the girls” would be going along. Yes, I might stay at home alone to read. The afternoon soon grew a dull metallic gray, threatening rain.
With a dollar clutched in my fist, I pedaled my red Roadmaster bike to Whalen’s drugstore, where I quickly picked out two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush. After my family had driven off in our new 1958 Ford, I dragged a blanket from my bed, spread it on the reclining chair next to the living room’s brass floor lamp, carefully arranged my provisions near to hand, turned off all the other lights in the house, and crawled expectantly under the covers with my paperback of The Hound—just as the heavens began to boom with thunder and the rain to thump against the curtained windows.
Naturally, anyone who starts The Hound of the Baskervilles will finish the book and cry for more. My local library possessed just one title by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but it was the right one: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, with a preface by Christopher Morley (who, I later discovered, was the principal founder of the Baker Street Irregulars). In that essay—titled “In Memoriam”—Morley chronicled his own boyhood passion for the detective and his creator, recalling how he would check out a Conan Doyle book from the Enoch Pratt library in Baltimore and start reading on his walk home, pausing under each streetlight to devour one page after another.
There are, alas, only fifty-six short stories and four novels (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of the Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear) in the Sherlock Holmes “canon.” So where does one turn after the last, “Shoscombe Old Place”? There are essentially two options. First, like Morley, one can seek out the many other works of Conan Doyle, who was, according to the editor of The Strand Magazine, “the greatest natural-born storyteller of the age.” Most people first go on to The Lost World, in which Professor George Edward Challenger leads an expedition up the Amazon to explore a plateau where dinosaurs still roam the earth. Conan Doyle captures its quality in his epigraph:
I have wrought my simple plan
If I give one hour of joy
To the boy who’s half a man,
Or the man who’s half a boy.
Challenger reappears in four further stories, most notably The Poison Belt, in which life on Earth is threatened with extinction by a cloud of deadly cosmic ether. Unfortunately, the professor’s final adventure, The Land of Mist, is little more than an apologia for the spiritualist beliefs that its author publicly espoused during the last fifteen years of his life. In fact, Conan Doyle (1859–1930), like so many late Victorians, had long been fascinated by “psychical research” and the possibility of survival after death. His many superb ghost stories and supernatural tales testify to this. “Lot No. 249” and “The Ring of Thoth,” for instance, gave rise to the revived mummy subgenre (and almost certainly inspired the classic Boris Karloff film).
Some readers argue that the dashing, and often comic, exploits of Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard are better stories than those about the residents of Baker Street; George MacDonald Fraser acknowledges that they were an influence on his Flashman novels, though the chivalric Gerard is no cad and bounder. By contrast, the dastardly pirate Captain Sharkey—who appears in four stories—makes Long John Silver look like the kindly one-legged old seafaring man he pretends to be. Conan Doyle himself regarded his historical swashbucklers, The White Company and Sir Nigel, as his best literary work.
But, in truth, he could turn a dab hand to any kind of fiction. In The Tragedy of the “Korosko” he examined the reactions of a group of Western tourists kidnapped by Islamic terrorists, followers of the Mahdi. In the lightly comic Beyond the City the admirable heroine is a shrewd, emancipated woman. Mrs. Westmacott, who has just moved to the suburbs, is paid a welcoming call by the spinster sisters who live next door. She asks if they would like some stout:
“I am sorry that I have no tea to offer you. I look upon the subserviency of woman as largely due to her abandoning nutritious drinks and invigorating exercises to the male. I do neither.” She picked up a pair of fifteen-pound dumb-bells from beside the fireplace and swung them lightly about her head. “You see what may be done on stout,” said she.
When the elder Miss Williams protests that “woman has a mission of her own,” Mrs. Westmacott drops her dumbbells with a crash:
“The old cant!” she cried. “The old shibboleth! What is this mission which is reserved for woman? All that is humble, that is mean, that is soul-killing, that is so contemptible and so ill-paid that none other will touch it. All that is woman’s mission. And who imposed these limitations upon her? Who cooped her up within this narrow sphere? Was it Providence? Was it nature? No, it was the arch enemy. It was man.”
It’s worth pointing out that Conan Doyle headed up a movement to reform and liberalize England’s divorce laws.
If investigating the rest of the Conan Doyle oeuvre is one path for the fan of Sherlock Holmes, the second is to plunge more deeply into the Sherlockian world itself. One could, for instance, seek out stories about “the rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” as Hugh Greene called such Victorian and Edwardian detectives as Martin Hewitt, Dr. Thorndyke, Max Carrados, and Professor S.F.X. Van Dusen, aka the Thinking Machine. One might also explore the vast universe of Sherlockian “misadventures.” Holmes and Watson are, of course, two of the most parodied of all fictional characters; Conan Doyle even reprints one send-up, by his friend J.M. Barrie, in his autobiographical Memories and Adventures. Mystery writer and editor Ellery Queen thought the best of them all was Bret Harte’s hilarious “The Stolen Cigar Case”:
I found Hemlock Jones in the old Brook Street lodgings, musing before the fire. With the freedom of an old friend I at once threw myself in my usual familiar attitude at his feet, and gently caressed his boot.
P.G. Wodehouse, in particular, looked to Conan Doyle as his master, and made Jeeves and Wooster a kind of fun-house mirroring of the Baker Street duo. Better still, in one of his wonderful Mulliner stories—“From a Detective’s Notebook”—he goes all out in comic homage:
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.
Even more valuable a publication is this past fall’s appearance of probably the last major work by Conan Doyle: Dangerous Work: Diary of an Arctic Adventure, again authoritatively edited and annotated by Lellenberg and Stashower. While The Narrative of John Smith is a small book, about the size of a trade paperback, this one is a lavish production, almost a coffee-table volume.
Before launching his career as a full-time writer, Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a moderately successful doctor, having trained at the University of Edinburgh (where he studied with Dr. Joseph Bell, the partial model for Sherlock Holmes). Partway through his coursework, the twenty-year-old medical student, built like a rugby player and fond of boxing, was offered a six-months’ berth as ship’s doctor on an Arctic whaler. Dangerous Work reprints his diary of that 1880 voyage (in facsimile and typed transcription), along with two lectures and two important pieces of fiction partly derived from it—the poignant ghost story “The Captain of the ‘Pole-Star,’” in which something haunts an Arctic whaling ship, and the Sherlock Holmes case “The Adventure of Black Peter,” in which the murder victim is found harpooned.
In the course of his seagoing adventures, Conan Doyle falls into the icy water so many times that the captain of the Hope nicknames him “the great northern diver.” The young diarist, who comes of age “only 600 miles or so from the North Pole,” records how seals by the hundreds are clubbed to death, registers a dream about being “beaten by a gorilla,” and describes the death of an old mariner from an inoperable intestinal blockage.
Like Melville, the only other major writer to describe whaling firsthand, Conan Doyle dwells on the danger of the business, especially of being entangled in the line when a “fish” is struck. Though employed as the ship’s medical officer, he joins in the seal hunts and takes his place in the whale boat. “No man who has not experienced it can imagine the intense excitement of whale fishing.” Conan Doyle comes to admire his shipmates immensely and the captain thinks highly enough of his strapping young surgeon to offer to make him a harpooner on his next voyage.
Instead, Conan Doyle returned to medical school, received his degree, and began to work as a doctor. In his free time, he continued his hobby of writing stories and even attempted a novel or two, including one about an eccentric detective. Published in Beeton’s Christmas annual for 1887, A Study in Scarlet might have been a one-shot, had it not been for the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. On a trip to England, J.M. Stoddart took two rising young authors to dinner at the Langham Hotel and commissioned each to write a novel for the Philadelphia magazine. Conan Doyle produced The Sign of the Four and Oscar Wilde composed The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Yet even that second Holmes novel, published in 1890, didn’t persuade its author to quit his day job. Only when the first dozen “adventures” began to appear in The Strand Magazine in 1891—these included “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Red-Headed League,” “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Blue Carbuncle,” and “The Speckled Band”—did Sherlock mania sweep the world. By 1892 Arthur Conan Doyle was famous and Sherlock Holmes was on his way to becoming immortal.