Sherlock Holmes is the best-known literary creation ever, perching on a pinnacle that allows him to look down on Hamlet, Oedipus, Quixote, and even James Bond. Everyone, in short. Since the Great Detective’s first appearance in 1887, he’s inspired a tidal wave of imitations. Writers have attempted to psychoanalyze him: what was it with Holmes and women? Tried to figure out which university he attended and explored what he did on an undercover operation during World War I. They’ve had him battle Dracula and hunt down Jack the Ripper. Movies, television, and now cyberspace have offered versions of this colossal bloodhound, but his purest incarnation is on paper. Everyone knows what Holmes looks like, but there are some who haven’t actually read the stories. To give younger readers, especially, a little background, we offer this guide to the Holmes oeuvre.
WHO IS THE MAN IN THE DEERSTALKER?
Sherlock Holmes is a Victorian incarnation of the Byronic hero, Lord Byron’s dramatization of himself in 1818’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The elements in Holmes’ makeup—indeed, of those in many, many popular-lit heroes since, including Bond—are all present in Byron’s archetypal character: he’s a solitary man, existing apart from society, with a melancholy streak and a chilly veneer we just know is put on. And he possesses special skills that, as a narcissist, he’ll gladly tell you about.
Arthur Conan Doyle, the underemployed doctor who gave Holmes life, was historically lucky. The Victorian era was the last in the pre-technology world; shortly there would be no more gaslight or horse-drawn cabs, no more billowing fogs. As the centuries go by, those 56 Holmes short stories and four novels date beautifully. The farther away their time, the better they look.
Most novels feature people trying to understand what’s happening around them and maybe getting things to go their way, and nobody was better at this than Holmes. Perhaps because Doyle was an eye specialist, the clues to understanding he picks up on are mostly visual, from cigar ash to knife marks in boot soles. We can still feel his power when, in “The Sign of the Four,” he studies Dr. Watson’s watch and deduces that Watson’s brother was an alcoholic. No wonder Stephen King said he’d love to travel with Holmes. They’d walk along, and Holmes would explain whatever they were looking at.
No, the world didn’t exactly crack in two when Holmes made his first appearance in Doyle’s 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet. People began paying attention in a big way, however, when the first Holmes short story appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1891. It was . . .
A Scandal in Bohemia.
The King of Bohemia, no less, turns up at 221B Baker Street seeking Holmes’ help in recovering a compromising photograph, evidence of an affair with the notorious adventuress Irene Adler. The story is a formal masterpiece, creating character and atmosphere with seemingly effortless ease while the plot spins along full tilt. Fans put this forward as the one time Holmes was outsmarted by a woman. But was he, really?
The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton
Holmes’ lack of interest in the laws of England is on display in this dark story from 1904. Milverton is a society blackmailer whose current victim seeks Holmes’ help. This lets loose a chain of events that include Holmes’ breaking and entering, destroying evidence, and looking the other way when Milverton is murdered. Watson is appalled, but Holmes isn’t bothered one bit.
The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire
This 1924 story sees Holmes in one of his rare encounters with what could be the supernatural. A child with wounds in his neck. A woman with blood on her mouth. A vampire? Holmes doesn’t believe it for a moment. His conclusion is dramatic and touching: “a maniacal exaggerated love.”
LOOKING FOR CLUES
Reading the Holmes stories is best, but reading about them has its place, too. The best and most readable of the Holmes scholars and critics can offer insights that take us deeper into the man and his world. These two volumes are the places to go first.
The Real World of Sherlock Holmes, by B. J. Rahn
Rahn singles out elements of Holmes’ studies in handwriting, blood tests and other areas of criminology and compares them with real-life discoveries in science labs then and now. Conclusion? Holmes was right. Rahn also goes a layer or two deeper in her handling of familiar matters like the models for Holmes and Doyle’s own attempts to use Holmes’ methods in solving real-life crimes.
This is written in the style of the old New Journalism—the revelations are significant because they’ve made an impression on the author. That approach works beautifully here, leading to insights that ought to become common. Dundas understands that the stories aren’t about Holmes. They’re about Watson observing Holmes.
READ THE CANON AND STILL CRAVE MORE?
Most pastiches or imitations of Holmes stories are godawful, so readily sinking into parody that readers become psychoanalysts and suspect pathological envy on the part of the would-be Doyles. But there are some fine ones. Here are a few:
The House of Silk, by Anthony Horowitz
Sherlockians, a mighty-hard-to-please bunch, rate this the finest Holmes pastiche ever. It’s a story of theft, murder, and child prostitution that Holmes and Watson concluded the world was not ready for at the time. But now, in Horowitz’s telling, with Holmes deceased, Watson can tell the story. It’s our win. This is Holmes of the razzle-dazzle deductions, moving through the pea-soupers, delivering his own version of justice.
Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz
Yes, another by Horowitz, who also gave us TV’s Foyle’s War. Holmes doesn’t appear here, but never mind; it’s still thoroughly Holmesian. Narrator Frederick Chase introduces himself as a Pinkerton sent to sort out the remains of Moriarty’s gang after their leader perished at Reichenbach Falls. Most of the narrative is a set-up for the jaw-dropping finale, and that’s enough said.
The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes, by Adrian Conan Doyle and John Dickson Carr
Many Sherlockians hold their noses around this uneasy collaboration between Sir Arthur’s son and old-time mystery master Carr. Most unfair. These 12 stories, picking up on Watson’s tantalizing mentions of unpublished manuscripts, do a nice job capturing the Victorian atmosphere and the distinctive voices of both Holmes and Watson.
Schlock Homes: The Complete Bagel Street Saga, by Robert L. Fish
Odd that these 32 parodies, which take deadly aim at the Master’s occasional drift into smugness and pretension, do a better job than most pastiches at conjuring the textures of the old stories. But then comes the zinger. The reference must be to “the giant organ of Albert Hall,” Homes says, “since it is the only organ I am familiar with!”
Locked Rooms, by Laurie R. King
This long-running series, starring Holmes and Mary Russell, the much-younger woman whom King has the detective marry late in his life, is easily the most popular of the Holmes pastiches, but it causes problems for many of the detective’s devotees, who tend to react violently to the dismissive stance King’s version of Holmes takes to Watson. They are good mysteries, though, and the character of Russell is a winner, especially in this installment, set in her hometown of San Francisco shortly after the 1906 earthquake.