Few figures have loomed across the cultural landscape more largely – more constantly – than Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant consulting detective of 221B Baker Street. From his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet (1887) until today, his cultural currency has been remarkable.
The profile, deerstalker cap (not really part of the original canon), the curved pipe (ditto), and ever-present “elementary, my dear Watson” (ditto-ditto-ditto), are recognizable the world over. “Sherlock Holmes” has become shorthand for many things, from “detective” to “intellectual” to “smart ass.” He is the first fictional character to inspire a slavish fandom, predating such masscult figures as Dracula, Superman and Harry Potter. Now, 129 years after his initial appearance, Sherlock Holmes is the lead character in one American television series, one (infinitely superior) UK series, and a string of (negligible) international blockbuster adventure flicks. And I have the sneaking suspicion that he’s only just starting…
Novelist-physician-adventurer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote the first Holmes novel in just three weeks at the tender age of 27. The initial book was well-received in the UK and did fair business; American audiences, however, ate it up, and made the novel a great success. Doyle followed it with an even better book three years later, The Sign of Four, and literary detective fiction has never been the same since.
Many of us (Your Correspondent included) first find Holmes in our adolescence. For the vast majority, Holmes is a milestone passed on the way to greater, broader reading. But for many, Sherlock Holmes becomes a defining figure in the cultivation of the self, a guidepost to a life of the mind, intellectual acquisition, and moral conundrums. One of my dearest friends, the New York-based Sherlockian Susan Rice – a woman of remarkable intellectual attainments, generous instincts, expansive humanity and great good humor – credits all the many good things that have come to her in life thanks to her association with Mr. Holmes. I could think of no higher accolade for a work of art.
In The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, Portland-based writer Zach Dundas tries to capture the immensity of the impact Conan Doyle’s creation has had upon the culture, and upon the many individuals who actively take part in the Sherlockian experience. And while he does not quite succeed in his expansive brief, he provides a journey that is engaging, amusing and informed.
For Dundas, the beginning and end of all essential knowledge about Holmes can be found in the four novels and fifty-six short stories by Doyle. But, he also believes that Holmes is a never-ending work-in-progress, a cultural and imaginative construct that is revised and refitted to meet the needs of succeeding generations. There has been no shortage of Sherlock Holmes pastiche since nearly the beginning (Doyle actually read some knock-off stories written by both fans and celebrated professionals, like J. M. Barrie), and all of this material has built the decades-long conversation we have had with Holmes.
Dundas first got the bug while a young man, starting his own Sherlock Holmes society and exchanging letters with other young fans around the world. He later returned to Holmes, attending the Baker Street Irregulars annual dinner in New York, chatting with people in the Holmes societies around the country, and even tracing the great man’s footsteps throughout London and the English countryside.
Through it all, Dundas returns to what it all means to him – the individual stories and novels, the fandom, the experience of immersion in the Sherlockian world. There are few efforts to put the Sherlockian phenomena in a larger context, but within the realm of personal experience, his anecdotes sparkle.
He is also laugh-out-loud funny. Here is a footnote about Jude Law (the recent big screen Watson): Law makes a terrific Watson, whatever one thinks of the movies. (I enjoy them in the same I enjoy cotton candy, roller derby, and dubious pop music.) Or, better still, the end of a longish footnote on following Sherlockian leads on YouTube: This can lead, algorithmically, to the hour-long English language cartoon version of Hound from 1983 (with an incredibly fat Watson), not to mention a funky fan-made remix of clips from the splendid 1981 Soviet film adaptation. Be careful. You can do this all day.
Writing about his early infatuation with the tales, and the worlds they opened up for him, Dundas says, I had arrived too late, doomed to be part of a generation clad in oversized Quicksilver T-shirts and sweatpants, fated to live behind a chain-link fence. A gasogene? A tantalus? New Coke had just come out.
Dundas is perhaps at his best detailing the explosion of Sherlockian fandom in the wake of the BBC’s popular Sherlock series. Historically, Sherlock Holmes devotees have been remarkably different from, say, science fiction buffs or Tolkien geeks or those sad people who obsess over Dark Shadows. Once a high-camp joke shared largely by New York’s literary elite, Sherlock Holmes fandom has become remarkable inclusive. It has gone from upmarket game to masscult fandom. This once all-male preserve has successfully been mined by women (starting with the organization The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes, begun by Evelyn Herzog with a cadre of brilliant college-age women in the 1960s who may be ultimately responsible for keeping the movement alive at all), and now includes people who know only the films, or the various television shows … or the contemporary novels featuring an elderly, married (?) Sherlock Holmes. This seismic shift has shaken some longtime Sherlockians to the core, and Dundas makes hay with various ‘scandals’ in the Sherlockian world.
Dundas has written a book that is alternately discursive and solipsistic, as well as endlessly funny and often insightful. However, it is also ultimately a little … thin. He presents us with all the materials necessary to create a fascinating mosaic, but ultimately fails to be them into a beguiling sequence. I kept waiting for the defining moment, the passage that put it all – Holmes the man, the friendship with Watson, Doyle, the devoted fandom, the nearly unending fascination with this character – into some kind of final context, and was left wanting. Dundas has no cohesive argument; he just has stuff.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that twelve decades of Sherlock Holmes is enough Sherlock Holmes, but that the saga is really only just beginning. That it is too early in the creation of the Sherlock Holmes myth to put it into any type of perspective. There are many literary creations that were as large a presence as Holmes that have fallen by the wayside (think Tarzan or Buck Rogers or Fu Manchu and, to an extent, James Bond); but Holmes has outlasted all of them with a vengeance.
I recall thinking that, while reading the recent novel about an elderly Holmes facing dementia, A Slight Trick of the Mind, that Holmes will continue to resonate. Not only resonate, but actually be the lynchpin for champion literary novels in the future.
Perhaps the story of Sherlock cannot yet be told because it’s only just begun. Maybe … the game is afoot.