One of the most beloved and intriguing characters in all of literature is Sherlock Holmes. As Zach Dundas reminds us in his new book, The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), the world’s most famous “consulting detective” and his assistant, Dr. John Watson, have transcended time, space and varied incarnations to thrill movie, television, and reading audiences the world over.
What is the secret? How did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pull this off? Did he have any idea of the far-reaching impact of his creation? Holmes and Watson were a phenomenon in Doyle’s Victorian world and he was hounded throughout his life for more stories, even after he killed off Holmes in a final battle with his arch-nemesis Moriarty.
Dundas’ book is a biography of the phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes, which makes his book unique. He presents a biographical sketch of Doyle, a literary analysis of the 56 short stories and four novels, and a thorough review of each film, stage and reincarnation of Holmes and Watson down through the ages while also doing an excellent job of tracking Holmes’ popularity around the globe. From humble beginnings in The Strand Magazine in 1891, Holmes remains popular in Europe, the U.S., the Middle East, Russia, and Asia. He has been reincarnated on film many times beginning in the silent era and most recently in the intense work of director Guy Ritchie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. In competition with these recent films is the television series starring the gifted and versatile Benedict Cumberbatch as the master detective and Martin Freeman as his intrepid sidekick. All of this from the mind of a bushy-mustached Scotsman of Irish descent who published his first Holmes story at the age of 31.
Desperate times called for desperate measures when Arthur Conan Doyle was young. The Doyles knew poverty with an alcoholic patriarch and seven children to feed with Arthur being the oldest. He entered medical school for income and stability but he had his eye set on a dual career: doctor and writer. He sold his first story—not Sherlockian—at 19. He wrote everything: adventure tales, essays, plays, and romances before landing on the Great Detective. Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine and morphine. He haunts the laboratory developing sophisticated methods of criminology. He writes monographs and scholarly papers. Holmes is an enigma with his powers of observation and deduction. Some have even speculated that Holmes lands somewhere on the autism spectrum. (see the article in Psychology Today by Karl Albrecht, Ph.D., 13 October 2011) He is, in Doyle’s original creation, a genius.
Facts and legends abound about the character and world of Sherlock, and Dundas gathers them all here for examination. Sherlock Holmes was based on a real person, Joseph Bell, a teacher of Doyle’s in medical school. The “Elementary, my dear Watson” was never uttered in the stories but originated in Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of him on the silver screen. Sherlock never wore the double-billed deerstalker hat in the original text. That was contributed by the primary illustrator of the stories in the magazine, Sidney Paget. His drawings influenced how Sherlock Holmes would be portrayed in countless films and television productions.
Dundas explores the roots of crime fiction. Edgar Allan Poe’s detective Auguste Dupin was an early model that possibly influenced Doyle. The rise of crime fiction, however, came about because of the somewhat-true-but-embellished broadsheet stories popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dundas reports what he has read in his research, which means the adventurous readers with access to a decent library and an internet connection could read the source material for themselves without Dundas’ filter. The value in this book, however, is the exhaustive compilation of facts and history that Dundas provides all in one volume with accompanying notes, sources and index.
He also takes us through the development of Sherlock Holmes by tracing Doyle’s travels and the real life people and events that influenced his writing. Again, nothing new or earth-shattering here, especially for those who know a little about the Sherlockian universe. It is interesting, nonetheless, and new fans of the canonical stories will find the book an enjoyable read.
My main complaint, though, is with Dundas’ flashes of purple prose that at times takes the reader out of the story. For instance, “The hair almost impaled me. Dark brunette ringlets cascaded from an eruption of feathers—bristling strata of quills protruding from a young woman’s head at aggressive angles, swerving at me in the cash-bar line.” And: “When I was a Holmes-besotted kid, the Sherlockian scene sounded like the greatest thing man’s mind could conceive. (It helped that I belonged to the infinitesimally small fraction of preteens to whom a wood-paneled rendezvous with a bunch of tweed-clad beardies sounded like fun.)”
The Great Detective gathers together the legends and facts about the Sherlockian universe. It is a good companion to the canonical stories and film adaptations. Almost 125 years after their first appearance, we still savor the stories even though some are filled with plot holes and ridiculous narrative devices as Dundas points out in his book. Like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Ophelia, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, Quixote and Sancho Panza, Holmes and Watson will continue to appear again and again in a thousand languages in a myriad of interpretations across the cultures of the world, solving crimes with the powers of deductive reasoning and the occasional shot from an old revolver belonging to an Afghan war hero, John Watson. The Great Detective and his Everyman companion live on, never growing old, and except for that plunge off Reichenbach Falls, never dying.