You Can Go Holmes Again

sherlock-holmesI always wanted Sherlock Holmes for a hero, but frankly he annoys me. As a kid, I was rather proud of my brain, and I badly wanted to join in the celebration of the detective who champions the power of the mind. Then and now, something always gets in the way: I don’t really like the stories.

My gripes start with Holmes’ insistence on blathering on about “deduction,” when what he most often uses is induction. His personal habits are tiresome, too. He’s rude, smokes like a chimney, and injects cocaine and morphine when he’s bored. He doesn’t have many friends, probably because he constantly belittles the people who stand by him. I could grudgingly forgive all of that. But my real issue is with the wacky crimes that Conan Doyle cooked up. Phosphorous-covered murderous dogs? Snakes trained to climb ropes? Puh-lease! With all the bizarre Victorian flourishes, the Holmes stories often seem silly to me, not the products of a carefully honed logical mind. Maybe I read the wrongbeekeepers-apprentice stories first, but I’ve never managed to get very far into the Holmes canon. Call it sacrilege, continue your own love affair if you like, but I’ve put Doyle’s version of Holmes aside for myself.

With or without my support, Holmes has the love of millions. Nothing proves that more conclusively than the number of times Sherlock has been resurrected. No other fictional character has been appropriated by other authors as often as Conan Doyle’s detective, and it’s in these secondary stories that I can join the Irregulars.

I propose a Sherlock Holmes theme night for your book group. You could stick to the original stories, but why stop there? First, expand your discussion to Conan Doyle himself,  a fascinating character in his own right, not least because of his fixation on spiritualism in his later years.

Take time to indulge the debate about the various media adaptations. Basil pirate-kingRathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Benedict Cumberbatch all have their advocates for favorite Holmes portrayal, and passions run high about the recent Robert Downey Jr. film, the Billy Wilder film, or nods to Sherlock on Star Trek: The Next Generation and House.

Personally, I enjoy some of the Holmes-derived mysteries better than the original stories. My first favorite is Laurie R. King’s long-running series featuring Mary Russell and the older Sherlock. It begins with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and will reach book eleven with the publication of The Pirate King in September. There isn’t a clunker in the batch. King takes the couple on adventures around England, Palestine, India, and America and makes Mary more than an intellectual match for Holmes.

I’ve just finished Steve Hockensmith’s delightful Holmes on the Range, andholmes-on-the-range plan to continue the series. It’s about a pair of Holmes-worshipping cowboy brothers. The conceit in Hockensmith’s series is that Holmes is a real-life detective upon whom Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer models his own love for sleuthing. With the help of his own Watson–his brother “Big Red” Amlingmeyer, a strapping cowhand with a strong body and a gift for rustic metaphors–Gustav solves crimes, even though he can’t read as the series opens. I highly recommend the audiobook, where the amiable Big Red and the laconic Old Red are read into roaring life by William Dufris. Further series entries have the brothers working as railroad security menexploring the underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown, searching for a Texan Jack the Ripper,and participating in a competition of sleuths at the 1893 Columbian Expedition. Hockensmith’s latest is a collection of the seven stories that introduced his characters entitled Dear Mr. Holmes.

Try these Sherlock Holmes works for yourself in an upcoming book group meeting, or share some of your Sherlockian favorites in the comments. No matter what your opinion of Sherlock, I’m sure you can find something you like to talk about.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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