On Looking into Sherlock Holmes

By Leslie S. KlingerJune 30, 2015

The Great Detective by Zach Dundas

DOROTHY SAYERS, in her classic introduction to the anthology Omnibus of Crime, described the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887), as “flung like a bombshell” into the mystery genre. A very small bombshell, it must be said — the book sold only modestly. This was followed in 1890 by The Sign of Four, also only a modest success. In July 1891, however, an explosion went off that is still felt almost 125 years later. The first of a series of 12 short stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson appeared in The Strand Magazine; these would be followed over the years by 44 more stories and two more novels — and the reading public went wild for the Great Detective and the Good Doctor.

The first parody of Holmes, “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes,” appeared in a rival magazine in November 1891, after only five stories had been published in The Strand. By 1893, after 24 stories, Holmes’s career was apparently over: “The Final Problem,” appearing in December 1893, reported that Holmes had perished at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland at the hands of his archnemesis, Professor James Moriarty. With the demise of Holmes, The Strand rushed to fill its pages with imitations — eccentric detectives of every stripe, amusing but mostly long-forgotten today. This did nothing, however, to slake the public’s appetite for more Holmes.

At nearly the same time that The Strand was informing the public that no more of Watson’s adventures would appear in its pages, Holmes appeared on the London stage, in a one-act burlesque called Under the Clock. A few months later, the first real Sherlock Holmes play, penned by Charles Rogers, was performed in Glasgow and toured extensively for a few years. Neither Watson nor Conan Doyle had anything to do with either production, and because Rogers had used no material from any published stories, under English law of the day, Conan Doyle had no claim to a share of the profits. In 1899, however, permission was granted to the American actor William Gillette to write a play based on several published stories. This production, entitled Sherlock Holmes, and starring Gillette in the title role, was an enormous success. Gillette toured in the role for 30 years, and his visage became the public face of Sherlock Holmes, so much so that when stories began to appear in 1903 in Collier’s in the United States, the American artist Frederic Dorr Steele drew images of Gillette as Holmes.

Meanwhile, Holmes jumped to another medium. The first serious Holmesian film was the 1905 Vitagraph production entitled Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom. More than 100 additional silent films starring Holmes were produced, and in 1929, Clive Brook played the detective in the early “talkie” titled The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes was no stranger to radio either, with a recording made in 1930 of an abridged version of Conan Doyle’s play The Speckled Band (starring Gillette, of course).  To date, well over 200 Sherlock Holmes films and over 700 radio shows have been produced. There have been five English-language television series, as well as Czech and Russian series. The current CBS-TV series Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller, who has now appeared as Holmes in more stories than any other actor in history.

Holmes and Watson have not been neglected in other media. Scholars estimate that over 7,000 “pastiches” — stories in the style of the originals — and parodies featuring the duo have been published. These include works by authors contemporary with the original adventures, such as Mark Twain, Robert Barr, J. M. Barrie, and A. A. Milne, and modern, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Michael Connelly, Sara Paretsky, Cornelia Funke, and many, many more. They come in the form of mysteries, romance, thrillers, science fiction, Westerns, comedy, horror, and even erotica. Hundreds of different comic strips and comic books have portrayed the duo, usually under their own names but often under parodic or fantastic versions, such as Hawkshaw the Detective or a robotic Watson. Manga or anime versions of the Detective and the Doctor are very popular in Japan and elsewhere. Of course, merchandise abounds as well, ranging from stuffed animals dressed as Holmes and Watson to porcelain figurines, from mugs, teapots, and cookie jars to playing cards, board games, video games, and even action figures.

Curiously, the line between fiction and reality blurred almost immediately for Holmes readers. As early as The Sign of Four, Conan Doyle reported receiving a letter from a Philadelphia tobacconist requesting a copy of Holmes’s monograph on tobacco ashes. In 1901, something must have been in the air, for no less than three separate articles appeared, in England, Canada, and the United States, from three unrelated writers, taking Holmes — not the author of the tales — to task for mistakes in his handling of certain cases. Later, a new generation of fans of the stories took this point of view as their credo: Holmes and Watson really lived, and Watson’s stories were true, if distorted, accounts of historical events. This point of view has become known as the “Game,” and Sayers averred that “it must be played as solemnly as a county cricket match at Lord’s.” Its followers call themselves “Sherlockians” or “Holmesians.” Today, there are hundreds of international, national, and local groups of such Sherlockians who meet “to keep green the memory of the Master,” as one of the oldest groups, the “Baker Street Irregulars,” has it.

All of this is surveyed in a charmingly eccentric book by Zach Dundas, a lifelong devotee of Holmes and Watson, titled The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015). Dundas, a journalist, was enchanted by the Holmes stories as a boy, and in this memoir he tells of his hunt for others who fell under the spell of Watson’s tales. Along the trail, he discovered the vastness of the world’s embrace of Holmes. Dundas succinctly retells many of the key stories in the Sherlock Holmes “Canon,” as it is known, in the order of publication. He weaves into this chronicle, spanning the period from Conan Doyle’s early medical career through his Spiritualist years in the late 1920s, the histories of Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen, in scholarship, and the growth of Holmes societies, sharing his personal experiences. Dundas also records his encounters with some of the more colorful members of the world of Sherlock Holmes, some of whom, including me, he interviewed for the book.

Dundas saves the important question — the reasons for Holmes’s immortality — for the last chapter of the book. He concludes that Holmes’s penchant for facts, filtered through art and mercy, makes him a man for our times. He points out Holmes’s superpowers, the warmth of the Holmes-Watson friendship, and the charm of their adventures together. However, none of these are wholly satisfying explanations, and in the end, it seems, the answer must be different for every reader.

But in looking at the stories and impersonations, Dundas misses the most important element that binds the Sherlockian world in its many varieties. Christopher Morley, the founder of the Baker Street Irregulars, coined the word “kinsprits” to describe his pals who, in the early 1930s, eagerly sat in a speakeasy talking about Holmes. That spirit is abroad today. At a recent gathering of Sherlockians, one speaker observed, “For us, it begins with Sherlock Holmes, but it ends in friendships.” Two people’s discovery of a common affection for a Canonical tale or a favorite portrayal of Holmes or Watson may give them temporary respite from the buffeting winds of the world; for some, it leads to lifelong relationships, even marriage. More than anything, once one discovers Holmes, one cannot help but find that Holmes is at the center of a community.

The reader who has met Sherlock Holmes only in film or on television, in comic books, or even in the original 60 stories is likely to be surprised and, yes, amazed at Dundas’s skillful account of the rise of Sherlock Holmes and his appearances in other media. For those who are already part of the large company of Sherlockians, little reported in the book will be new — Dundas makes no pretense of a scholarly approach to the subject. This is not to dismiss Dundas’s achievement, however — quite the opposite. For all who enjoy the company of Sherlock Holmes, in any of his many forms, reading Dundas’s account will be hours well spent. The book feels like a long conversation with a new friend, who comfortably shares his passion for the “two men of note / Who never lived and so can never die” (as Vincent Starrett called Holmes and Watson in his sonnet “221B”). So pull up a chair, settle down with Dundas’s book, and as Sherlockian poet William Schweikert advises, “spend a long evening with Holmes!”


Leslie S. Klinger is The New York Times–bestselling editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The New Annotated Dracula, and, most recently, The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft for Liveright Publishing/Norton, as well as Annotated Sandman (Vertigo/DC Entertainment).

LARB Contributor

Leslie S. Klinger is The New York Times–bestselling editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The New Annotated Dracula, and, most recently, The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft for Liveright Publishing/Norton, as well as Annotated Sandman (Vertigo/DC Entertainment). He also co-edited, with Laurie R. King, the anthologies A Study in Sherlock (Random House) and In the Company of Sherlock Holmes (Pegasus Books). His newest book is In the Shadow of Edgar Allan Poe: Classic Horror, 1815-1916 (Pegasus Books), out October 2015. He is currently co-editing Anatomy of Innocence with Laura Caldwell, true stories of exonerees as told to top thriller writers (Liveright Publsihing/W. W.  Norton, 2016) and is completing The New Annotated Frankenstein for Liveright, to be published in October 2017. Klinger practices law in Los Angeles and lives with his wife, dog, and three cats in Malibu.


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