The Old Master: The Enduring Fascination of Elderly Sherlock Holmes




WHY HAVEN’T WE CRACKED the case of Sherlock Holmes? By now, the evidence stacks deep. But more than 130 years after a young doctor scrawled notes for a novel provisionally titled A Tangled Skein, the “Great Detective” (Arthur Conan Doyle, mercifully, reconsidered the branding for A Study in Scarlet) continues to elude any final verdict. 

The latest chapter in the adventure of the deathless detective comes in the form of Mr. Holmes, the exactingly crafted new film from director Bill Condon, based on Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind. As a 90-something Holmes sliding into dementia, Ian McKellen alternates from regal to shattered as his Sherlock struggles to reconstruct his bygone final case, sometimes meandering, sometimes flashing the rapier acuity of old. In flashback, a mature but still in-form Holmes performs the original investigation, aware of and wryly amused by his own celebrity. McKellen’s double-layered performance and the film itself refresh an illuminating tradition in the larger Sherlockian phenomenon: Old Holmes.

As I researched my recent book The Great Detective, an examination into the history of Sherlock Holmes in popular culture, I was struck by the degree to which Conan Doyle’s creation belongs to others as much as to him. Long before the post-meta-everything fan fiction milieu took over, Sherlock Holmes evolved as a boundless collaborative project, with many hands molding critical components of the mythos. The actor William Gillette, for example, helped enshrine “Elementary, my dear Watson” as the detective’s motto; illustrator Sidney Paget welded Holmes to his deerstalker. The character thrived because so many people grabbed this and that from Conan Doyle and made it their own. And yet, paradoxically, Holmes remains Conan Doyle’s creature, too — essentially of the author, but not wholly by him any more.

So it is with Old Holmes: the idea of the detective in his retirement, even dotage, aged far beyond the Victorian era of his canonical adventures. Many have taken their crack. At this point, with literally millions of fan-fiction stories adrift on the Internet’s high seas and uncounted thousands of more conventional pastiches and parodies gathering dust in collectors’ libraries and used bookshops, there have been innumerable extra-Conan Doyle versions of retired Sherlock Holmes. A quick consultation of amateur fan-fiction websites like Archive of Our Own reveals “Retirementlock” as a healthy subgenre within a vast literary sub rosa.

But like all things Sherlockian, Old Holmes starts with Conan Doyle himself. In 1905, in the espionage yarn “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the author let Watson slip in a curious aside: the detective had retired from Baker Street to the Sussex Downs to keep bees. It’s worth noting that within the 60-story Sherlockian corpus, this story ends the 13 tales collected as The Return of Sherlock Holmes — the moment when Conan Doyle found himself financially obliged to resuscitate Sherlock, whom he’d killed off a decade before. The author always found Holmes’s wild popularity both inconvenient and irresistible; it obscured his other work, of which there was a lot, but also funded his existence, which was extravagantly expensive. So while the Return summoned a welcome small fortune — the initial US magazine fees alone ran to more than $1 million in today’s funds — Conan Doyle remained eager to sweep Sherlock offstage. Retirement, perhaps, seemed a better investment on future returns than murder.

During World War I, Conan Doyle produced “His Last Bow,” a single-act propaganda number featuring a disguised Holmes and delightfully obvious Watson operating against a German spy ring. Set in August 1914, it ends the Sherlockian chronology created by Conan Doyle. Famed for an elegiac speech by Holmes — “Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk we shall ever have” — the story is a rare bird: narrated in third person, rather than by Watson, and Conan Doyle’s only attempt at showing the duo in action in their later years. The formula may have struck the author as commercially implausible: did readers, as the Teens roared into the Twenties, really want to see the 60- or 70-something old boys of Baker Street tootling around an automotive Britain, tut-tutting the decline in commissionaire’s service? After “His Last Bow,” when he did condescend to write the occasional Holmes story, an aging Conan Doyle generally opted for nostalgia pieces set in the detective’s classical period.

The one exception presents the remainder of what we “know” about Holmes’s retirement. In “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane,” Conan Doyle makes a solo Sherlock his narrator of a seaside mystery, with no Watson in sight. Set long before the events of “His Last Bow,” the story is bland and unremarkable. Along with Sherlock’s one other outing as narrator, “The Adventure of the Blanched Solider,” it suffers a dubious reputation among serious Holmes fans as one of the saga’s lowest artistic moments. Without the humanizing, energizing filter of Watson’s narration, the retired Holmes fails to engage the imagination in the old way. It turns out that even a true detective is boring without a sidekick. Besides, the villain is a jellyfish.

Still, as with other stories collected in 1927’s valedictory Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, this excursion to Holmes’s Sussex apiary shows Conan Doyle seeking — half-heartedly, at times, but with an occasional glimmer of creative curiosity — to reboot Sherlock. (By 1926, the year he published “Lion’s Mane,” he’d lived with Holmes for exactly 40 years.) That this particular effort fails points to a pair of problems that all Old Holmes iterations must confront.

First, what does Holmes look like — what does the Sherlockian milieu amount to — when excised from London? A simple cottage on the Sussex Downs no doubt has its attractions. All the honey you could eat, one imagines. Still, the setting does not exactly fire the engines of intrigue like 221B, wreathed in London fog and decorated by Sherlock’s interior revolver practice. Apart from the swarm of metropolitan humanity, Holmes runs the risk of seeming like a creature in a poorly equipped zoo.

Second, where’s Watson? Holmes without Watson is a heartbreaking prospect. In Conan Doyle’s two attempts, the doctor’s absence deprives the whole scene of its animating warmth. And yet it seems impossible to imagine Watson, committed clubman and devoted husband to an unknown multiple of wives (one at a time), uprooting himself to the provinces. So who serves as Holmes’s mandatory foil?

The approaches have varied. In Mr. Holmes and its source novel, the elderly detective acquires a new counterpart in the form of a bright young boy named Roger. In The Final Solution, a 2004 novella by noted Sherlock Holmes addict (among other things) Michael Chabon, a character known only as “the old man” encounters a young German-Jewish refugee in 1944, and then a police inspector who recruits him into various minor mysteries with vast, horrifying implications.

As in Chabon, leaving the detective’s identity vague is an established strategy for dealing with Old Holmes — and, again, owes to Conan Doyle, who occasionally included lightly veiled, nameless references to the detective in non-Sherlockian short stories. In a 1941 genre classic titled A Taste For Honey (and a pair of subsequent, lesser-known novels), Gerald Heard, writing as HF Heard, created a certain “Mr. Mycroft,” an unmistakable Sherlock given his brother’s name for reasons perhaps equally artistic and copyright-related. Mr. Mycroft’s counterpart, a local honey enthusiast, fulfills the Watsonian role.

Leaving Holmes completely on his own, staring at the bees, seems the only truly unworkable formula. Perhaps the most durable — and arguably most successful, and definitely most heretical — solution comes from Laurie King, author of the successful series of Mary Russell mysteries. Young Miss Russell, an early-century proto-feminist, is Sherlock Holmes’s wife. Beginning in 1915, just after the chronological end of Conan Doyle’s canon, the dozen Russell novels so far send Mary and Sherlock through the inter-war world, from Jerusalem to India to San Francisco. (And thus, King merges two of the most popular Sherlockian pastiche formats, Old Holmes and “Sherlock Goes to ______________.”)

When I interviewed her for The Great Detective, King shed some perceptive light on the attraction and narrative possibilities of Old Holmes, and by extension the enduring intrigue the Baker Street investigator holds for creators of fiction in many media. “Arthur Conan Doyle opens many doors that he never explored himself,” King told me. “Conan Doyle could not envision Sherlock Holmes after the war. As far as he was concerned, the world had no place for that kind of mind any longer. Mary Russell is the young, female, early 20th-century-feminist version of Sherlock Holmes’s mind, and to begin with, I was primarily interested in her […] But once I paired Russell with Holmes, I began to see his possibilities.”

Possibilities: here King hits on why Old Holmes and the rest of the Sherlockian phenomenon persist. In his 60 stories, Conan Doyle layered on the detail — the devoted Holmesian knows more than she ever wanted to about possible Victorian monograph subjects — but, somehow, left vast stretches of canvas blank. This is, in fact, the accidental artistic brilliance of the Holmes tales: they encompass a robust but tantalizingly unfinished fictional world. Intriguing characters drift in and out of Conan Doyle’s texts in a page or two: Mycroft, the smarter older brother; Moriarty, the evil mathematician; Irene Adler, the femme fatale who beats Sherlock Holmes. Watson constantly teases us, name-dropping incidents and adventures so terrible, not even he can reveal them. (Let us raise a glass to the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant; to poor Isadora Persano, rendered catatonic by a worm unknown to science; and to the Giant Rat of Sumatra, definitely capitalized.) The canon’s internal chronology is just nonsensical enough to make just about anything possible. Ever since — and, indeed, well before — Conan Doyle laid down his pen, others have tried to fill in these gaps.

Old Holmes, and what might have befallen the great detective during his apparently permanent vacation on the Sussex Downs, represents one of the most inviting gaps of all, the ne plus ultra of the ingenious authorial negligence that helped Sherlock Holmes become not just one writer’s character, but a mass-made myth.

“Because I started in 1915,” Laurie King told me, “I could do whatever I wanted with him, because at that point Conan Doyle is done with him.”

¤

Zach Dundas is co-executive editor of Portland Monthly magazine, a longtime journalist, and the author of The Great Detective.


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