Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Nine Lives of Sherlock Holmes


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first mystery story featuring detective Sherlock Holmes in 1887. The success and popularity of the character were immediate. A master of disguise and a mean boxer, Holmes’ real appeal lay in his stupendous power of deduction. Cunning and brainy, Holmes has a remarkable ability of observation—he can deduce (never guess) intimate facts of a person’s history, employment, and personality just by looking at them. Holmes is an egomaniac who takes arrogant pleasure in leaving the police out of the loop and deliberately misleading his partner Dr. Watson (and the reader). Holmes is also a drug addict, indulging in cocaine to relieve his restlessness when life is dull between cases. In short, Sherlock Holmes had a richly detailed and complex persona from the very beginning. Conan Doyle wrote four novels and fifty-six short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes; other characters included Holmes’ faithful colleague Dr. Watson, who shares his rooms at 221B Baker Street and usually narrates the duo’s adventures; Holmes’ even craftier brother Mycroft, who has vague and powerful connections to the government; Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty; and Irene Adler, the only woman to ever impress or outwit Holmes. With such a wealth of appealing characters, mysterious cases, forensic science (which Holmes was an early practitioner of), and sheer personality, it’s little wonder that modern writers have mined the Sherlock Holmes canon over and over to resurrect literature’s best-known detective. His creator eventually got tired him and tried to kill him off (in “The Final Problem,” when Holmes and his enemy Professor Moriarty tumble off Reichenbach Falls), but to no avail—popularity demanded his return and stories appeared with regularity until 1927 when Conan Doyle retired his detective to beekeeping in the Sussex countryside. Conan Doyle may have finally been able to keep Holmes in place, but few others have been unable to resist the temptation to get the game afoot again and again.

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories and The Four Novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, 2004, W.W. Norton, stories originally published 1887-1927 (Mystery/ Short Stories)


This three-volume set is everything a life-long dedicated fan of Sherlock Holmes could ever want, and the perfect introduction for a Baker Street newbie. Here are two volumes of all fifty-six short stories here in the order of their publication and a third volume containing the four novels. Here also is a Sherlock Holmes treasure chest that is chock-full of bonuses and extras: Illuminating bits and pieces from Conan Doyle’s early drafts; essays about all manner of subjects mentioned in the Holmes’ stories, from details about the Victorian age to the rules of the obscure form of Japanese martial arts that Holmes practiced to the origins of rugby. There are over eight hundred illustrations, many by Sidney Paget who created the image of Holmes with deerstalker hat, smoking pipe, and magnifying glass that have become his trademarks today. The stories are annotated with detailed and interesting notes about things that, while common enough in the late 19th century, are quite foreign to us today, things like “spirit cases” (small tables that keeps decanters for drinks locked into place) and “consumption” (the old-fashioned named for any debilitating, wasting disease. Editor and Sherlockian extraordinaire Leslie S. King also expounds on little mysteries within the stories (like how Sherlock could possibly know which way a bicycle was traveling based on its tracks) and speculates on many of the big mysteries from the canon (like exactly what brother Mycroft’s position is within the British government). Some of these notes relate to issues that Holmesian scholars have been debating for decades; some are simple fun facts. The illustrations are lovely and the book design is superb, making this collection of stories is practically a work of art unto itself. There are dozens of editions and collections of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but for sheer wealth of information, education, and entertainment, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes beats them all.

Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography by Nick Rennison, 2006, Atlantic Monthly Press (Biography/ Fictional Biography/ Victorian England) 

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes so successfully that thousands of people have written to the offices at 221B Baker Street, asking for help from what they thought was a real, live consulting detective. When Conan Doyle was serving in World War I, he was astonished when a high-ranking officer asked him in what regiment Holmes was serving. Bewildered, Conan Doyle replied that Holmes was too old for active duty, an answer which fortunately satisfied without being an outright lie. Sherlock Holmes is very real to millions of readers, thousands who belong to societies and clubs devoted to the detective, and so in his Unauthorized Biography, author Nick Rennison gives us what we want and pretends a life history of the infamous Holmes, using the canon of original stories and novels and historical events from the times to make it all the more realistic and engaging. Using Conan Doyle’s stories as a guide, Rennison picks out the names, places, and events that Watson drops and lays them side by side with real historical names, places, events to create a timeline for the great detective, complete with a lonely childhood, his much-debated “missing years” in Tibet and Persia, and friendships with Sigmund Freud, Oscar Wilde, and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle. We see Sherlock Holmes as a bit player on the London stage. We are with Sherlock when he first meets Watson and when he first tastes cocaine. We see deeper into his relationships with brother Mycroft and rival Moriarty. Firmly based in historical research yet with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek tone, Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography is the rousing history of the greatest detective who never lived.

The Final Solution: A Novel of Detection by Michael Chabon, 2004, Fourth Estate Books (Literary Fiction/ Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

What do an eighty-nine-year-old detective-turned-beekeeper and a nine-year old Jewish boy from Nazi Germany have in common? A mystery, of course. The boy is young Linus Steinman, a refugee whose sole beloved possession is a gray African parrot named Bruno who speaks, sings, and quotes strings of numbers—all in German. When Bruno is stolen and a man is murdered, the beekeeping old man is moved to assist the local constabulary—but only because he wants to restore the bird to the boy. If he happens to solve the murder along the way, so be it. A cast of quirky characters and suspects dot the English countryside, and author Michael Chabon—Pulitzer Prize winner for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—is spot-on in terms of style and tone in this slim but smart volume that pays homage to the literary tradition of detection that began so long ago with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. The legendary investigator is never mentioned, but the hints that surround the long-legged, gaunt-faced “old man” range from tweed to pipes to magnifying glasses. There’s little doubt that this is no less than the great and dignified Holmes—worn and stretched by the years but no less sharp—who’s on the case. The murder becomes a matter of national security, with spies and secret codes abounding in the wake of World War II. Sophisticated and fun, The Final Solution is genuine Holmes. 

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, or, The Segregation of the Queen: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes by Laurie R. King, 2007, Picador Press, originally 1994 (Mystery/ Historical Fiction)

Sherlock Holmes--wickedly intelligent, almost supernaturally observant, full of contempt for anyone else’s thought processes, a cocaine addict, and a beekeeper to boot-- is drama enough without adding a gawky fifteen-year-old orphan girl who’s every bit as sharp as the great detective himself. But that’s out heroine, Mary Russell, who runs full tilt into Holmes one sunny day in 1915 as she strolls through the fields with her nose in a book. They take an immediate liking to each other, finding in the other a kindred spirit with whom to match wits and intelligence. Russell becomes Holmes’ apprentice in the art of sleuthing and is a superb student; as the years pass and they solve minor crimes together, a deep friendship and close understanding grows between them. Their unique partnership is threatened, however, by a strange case during Russell’s college years at Oxford after World War I. A master criminal, as devious as the infamous Professor Moriarty, is playing a deadly game with Holmes and Russell’s very lives. How the unlikely duo crack the case is only slightly less intriguing than the evolving relationship between the master and his young partner. This is all accompanied by author Laurie R. King’s fine literary style, with Mary Russell as an intimately honest narrator, and a detailed sense of historical time and place. The other eight books in this series continue to develop both the Holmes mythology and the Mary Russell casebook with insightful adventures that draw on literature and history. The after-effects of World War I are investigated, The Hound of the Baskervilles is revisited, real-life crime writer Dashiel Hammet is a character in book eight, political intrigue and British espionage in the Middle East and India are explored, and the most recent entry in the series resurrects the ghost of Holmes’ original brainy love interest, Irene Adler, to artfully combine past stories with the lively new life that Holmes and Russell lead in King’s intelligent, literary, and masterful mysteries.

Novels of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes by Laurie R. King:
1. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice
2. A Monstrous Regiment of Women
3. A Letter of Mary
4. The Moor
5. O Jerusalem
6. Justice Hall
7. The Game
8. Locked Rooms
9. The Language of Bees
10. The God of the Hive (due 2010) 

The Hound of the Baskervilles: A Sherlock Holmes Graphic Novel by Ian Edginton and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard, 2009, Sterling Press (Mystery/ Graphic Novel) 


The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the best known Sherlock Holmes case. The novel marked Holmes’ return after Conan Doyle sent him over the cliffs at Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem.” When Holmes returned in 1901, fans were more than thrilled and Conan Doyle was convinced that the mysteries had to keep coming. The simple reason is that The Hound of Baskervilles has everything that makes a thriller great—a gloomy setting, a gothic tone, a spectral hound that prowls the dark moor, the patriarchal head of an ancient family literally frightened to death, his young brash heir haunted by an eons-old family curse, an escaped lunatic, and a missing boot. Dr. Watson performs his duties as sidekick and narrator to a tee, and Holmes displays some of his very best flashes of deductive brilliance. This graphic novel version presents the mystery is an exciting new light. The creative team of Ian Edginton and I.N.J. Culbard has a history of making over the classics; their colorful reworking of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was a rousing success that sent the duo back to the drawing board with Sherlock Holmes on board this time. The Hound of the Baskervilles: The Graphic Novel is told in the words of Conan Doyle, lovingly tweaked by Edginton to pick the pace up and get the action going. Illustrator Culbard inks a comic-style story that is as atmospheric as the moors where it takes place. The layouts are energetic, the colors dramatic, and you can see the ideas flicking across Holmes’ wily features. Creative and true, The Hound of the Baskervilles: The Graphic Novel is both an original way to re-read a beloved classic and an innovative introduction to the masterful world of Sherlock Holmes.

The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Homes Mystery by Nancy Springer, 2006, Philomel Books (Teen Fiction/ Mystery/ Historical Fiction)


When fourteen-year-old Enola Holmes discovers that her free-spirited mother has disappeared, she enlists the help of her much-older brothers Sherlock and Mycroft. To Enola’s dismay, the gentlemen theorize that their mother has run off with the family money. The brothers have a low opinion of women; Enola (they haven’t seen her since she was four) is little more than a pest whom they dismiss as unimportant. Enola’s concern for her mother changes to envy and she determines to hunt her mother down and join her. Making an escape is easy—Enola is a Holmes after all, with all the powers of observation, deduction, and disguise that the family name implies—but the little sister is as attracted to crime as the older brothers. Before she knows it, Enola becomes involved in the case of a missing young nobleman, and her desire to solve the mystery makes it that much harder to evade her tenacious big brother Sherlock. The reader immediately takes Enola’s side in the family feud—she’s an engaging, winsome narrator who steady gains in confidence and charm. It’s also enjoyable to see the Holmes brothers, usually so wise and correct, reduced to oppressive villains—which is exactly how Enola, a perfectly rational and more than capable young woman, sees them when they sweep in and impose all the strict Victorian modes of conduct and propriety on her up-till-now independent way of life. Enola shows her pluck as she follows the clues her mother left, runs away in disguise, and makes her own way in the big bad city of London. With Enola Holmes, author Nancy Springer has created a gutsy girl sleuth who is more than capable of outwitting and outsmarting her infamous brothers and equally able to rally readers to her cause. There are four other Enola Holmes puzzles to solve: The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, and The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline.

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith, 2006, St. Martin’s Minotaur Press (Mystery/ Western/ Historical Fiction)


Forget “The game’s afoot.” This time, it’s “Hee-haw, get along little doggies.” Gustav “Old Red” Amlingmeyer is an American cowboy in 1893. Herding cattle is his job, but solving crime, using the deductive methods of his idol Sherlock Holmes, is his true calling. His brother Otto, aka “Big Red,” narrates with earthy aplomb and is willing to play Watson to his big brother’s Sherlock (it’s his fault Old Red’s so obsessed, after all, since it was Big Red who read Conan Doyle’s stories around the campfire). But there’s not a lot of need for “deducifyin’ ” amongst the cattle herds—until, that is, the brothers are hired on at the Bar VR ranch alongside a quirky collection of cowboys with nicknames like Swivel-Eye and Anytime. The Bar VR is run by an unsavory group of ready-to-rumble fellers and Old Red immediately senses a mystery afoot. Then an outlaw escapes from jail and a crotchety ranch hand disappears; only Old Red suspects that the culprit is not the outlaw, and only little brother Big stands by him. A few murders later, and the cowpokes are nervous, the villains are desperate, and the buzzards are circling. Action-packed scenes of stampedes and six-gun shootouts are mixed with charming humor, rousing suspense, and plenty of Sherlockian flashes of insight on the part of Old Red, who really is as quick as they come and a true practitioner at the art of deduction. The transfer of Sherlock Holmes’ tactics, mornally applied in the stately drawing rooms of Victorian England, to the big sky country of the American Wild West, plus the natty charm of our ornery cowpokes, makes Holmes on the Range a mystery-western that is utterly irresistible. The winning twist on the Holmes canon continues in three more trail-side cases, On the Wrong Track, The Black Dove, and The Crack in the Lens.

Shadows Over Baker Street, edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan, 2003, Del Ray Books (Fiction/ Short Stories/ Mystery/ Horror)


“ ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ ” “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulu waits dreaming.” A collection of short stories written by some of the top names in speculative fiction, Shadows Over Baker Street takes the intractable Sherlock Holmes and gives him the macabre world of equally unconquerable writer H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft is an early twentieth century author whose stories about the Cthulu mythos (a human-destroying monster from the deep) and the Necronomicon (an ancient book of forbidden rites and spells) seem expressly written to combine the words weird and horror. Lovecraft’s mythos have been firmly believed in, written about, and expanded upon as often and as devotedly as any of the Sherlock Holmes reinventions. Given Arthur Conan Doyle’s own preoccupations with the supernatural, these giants of literature meet and meld perfectly. Who better than Sherlock, tenacious and unwavering, to solve the mysteries of Lovecraft’s small-town mutants, ancient aliens, and dream monsters? The writers of this new batch of short stories are clearly having an absolute ball bringing these two mythologies together. One mystical story features Sherlock’s female rival, tenacious Irene Adler, as an African hunter who confronts a horrifying something in the jungle. Another allows Holmes to match wits with an almost equal intellect when he encounters extraterrestrial life. Several writers make use of Lovecraft’s tribe of freakishly aquatic villagers in the haunted town of Innsmouth; another has Holmes stumble across a rare copy of the Necronomicon in an Afghanistan cave. This clever blending of classics, spooky and hilarious, makes for a unique read that will thrill both horror and mystery fans alike, and will really give die-hard Sherlockians some new and unusual crimes to take a bite out of.

The Science of Sherlock Holmes: From Baskerville Hall to the Valley of Fear, The Real Forensics Behind the Great Detective’s Greatest Cases by E.J. Wagner, 2006, Wiley Books (Nonfiction/ Forensics/ Victorian England)


How accurate were Sherlock Holmes’ methods, really? He’s a fictional character, after all, working in the dark ages of the Victorian era before the invention of electricity, antibiotics, or automobiles. But by solving cases on the basis of tire marks, tobacco ash, and—yes—thumbprints and bullet trajectories, Holmes proves himself an important forerunner in the ever-important field of forensic science. Author, crime historian, and Holmes fanatic E.J. Wagner makes a magical match when she uses the works of Arthur Conan Doyle to explore early crime scene investigation methods. From the “real” hound of the Baskervilles to Holmes’ use of fingerprinting to Conan Doyle’s real-life contemporaries like detective Henry Goddard of the Bow Street Runners and brilliant-but-bigheaded pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, The Science of Sherlock Holmes guides us through the science’s early experiments and into the accepted practices. There’s also old-fashioned legends and bizarre myths, vampires, Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and lots of blood and guts. By combining the popularity of two forever-trendy subjects—Sherlock Holmes and forensic science—Wagner succeeds in shedding light on both, pleasing fans of both, and educating and entertaining absolutely everyone.

Note: There are dozens of other stories starring that insurmountable detective Sherlock Holmes. He is the Victorian era’s most famous detective; author Lyndsey Faye could not resist pairing him with the era’s most famous criminal, Jack the Ripper, in her novel Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson. Author David Pirie imagines Sherlock Holmes’ origins with his eerie novel The Dark Water: The Strange Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes about Arthur Conan Doyle and the real man who inspired the character of Holmes, Dr. Joseph Bell, a pioneer of criminal investigation. Sherlock Holmes, The Missing Years: The Adventures of the Great Detective in India and Tibet by Tibetan author Jamyang Norbu is one of the best renderings of what happened to Sherlock after he fell off the cliffs at Reichenbach and supposedly “died.” Eye of the Crow: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His 1st Case, is the first in an award-winning series by author Shane Peacock; in it, thirteen-year-old Sherlock is both investigator and suspect in his first murder case. And there is any number of collections of new Sherlock Holmes stories: The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures edited by Mike Ashley; Sherlock Holmes in America edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower; New Adventures of the Great Detective by Donald Serrell Thomas. You can even practice the art of deduction yourself with Random Riggs’ Sherlock Holmes Handbook: The Methods and Mysteries of the World’s Greatest Detective. Whether you guess, speculate, or deduce, one thing’s for sure—if you love the sleuth Sherlock, any nearby bookshelf is sure to hold a case to crack.

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