Watching the Detective

Sherlock Holmes lives on—in fan societies, annotated versions, and new adventures

He was born on January 6, 1854, and died for the first time in May of 1891. Died, that is to say, in print, in "The Final Problem," locked in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, with the two of them plunging to their death at the Reichenbach Falls.

A few years later, it became evident that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. In 1894, he returned to active practice, and handled hundreds of cases in the next decade. In 1902 he turned down a knighthood, retiring a year or two later to the Sussex coast, where he took up beekeeping—he hoped royal jelly, the food of the queen bee, might lengthen life and minimize the effects of aging—and began his magnum opus, The Whole Art of Detection. He put it aside, probably in 1912, and began undercover work in anticipation of the coming war with Germany.

He seems to have retired at the war's end, but it's hard to say for sure. There's no record of his death, and there are inferences, certainly, of his continuing life over the years. A recent report (of which more later) has him in Japan during the American occupation, strolling in the ashes of Hiroshima. He was 93 at the time, and if he's still alive now he'd be 151. That might strike one as impossible, but is the continuing existence of Sherlock Holmes one whit less conceivable than that he should have somehow ceased to be?

The novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) marked the first appearance in print of Sherlock Holmes, but it wasn't until four years later, when short stories began appearing in The Strand, that the character became popular with the reading public. His audience grew with every new appearance, but almost from the beginning his chronicler, Arthur Conan Doyle, began to tire of him. Before he'd finished the first series of 12 stories, his mother had to talk him out of killing his hero off, a threat which he acted upon in the 24th story, "The Final Problem."

If Doyle was happy to see the end of Holmes, he seems to have been the only person so disposed. City of London stockbrokers donned black armbands, and some 20,000 angry readers canceled their Strand subscriptions.

It's hard to say why Doyle tired of Holmes, but it's not unheard of for authors to grow weary of chronicling the exploits of series characters. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are supposed to have had a conversation in which each expressed a desire to put a violent end to her chief protagonist, but neither Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey received such harsh treatment.

Some 30 years ago, Nicolas Freeling killed his series detective, Inspector Van der Valk, midway through a novel, leaving his widow to solve the case. He subsequently wrote further about the widow—Arlette, her name was—and launched another whole series of books (about one Henri Castang). Readers, by and large, washed their hands of the son of a bitch. It's my understanding that Freeling resuscitated Van der Valk in 1990 in Sand Castles, but it was too late to win back his audience. They were through with him.

But when Sherlock Holmes came back, all was forgiven. Holmes had faked his death? For good and sufficient reasons, he'd deceived the faithful Watson, living out of sight and in disguise until he could return? Well, sure, why not? If that meant more stories about the fellow, that was fine with the public.

And indeed, it was to mean another 32 stories and a pair of novels. The last of the stories appeared in 1927, and in 1930 Conan Doyle died. You think that was the end of it? Not a chance.

The Sherlock Holmes stories—what Sherlockians call the canon—have never been out of print. They constitute a sizable body of work, but the entire canon is dwarfed by the enormous number of pastiches and parodies that have flowed without interruption over the years, and the vast sea of Sherlockian scholarship and textual analysis.

Almost 40 years ago, William S. Baring-Gould published an annotated edition of the Holmes canon. Now Leslie S. Klinger has brought out a hugely improved and enlarged version in two handsome volumes, with a third (containing the four novels) to follow.

In 1933, Christopher Morley started the Baker Street Irregulars, the first society devoted to the scholarly study of the canon. You may well be aware of it, but did you know that it's one of over 400 active Sherlockian associations? (Scion societies, they're called, and some of them seem to be narrow offshoots indeed. The Companions of Jefferson Hope, headquartered in Columbia, South Carolina, is composed of Sherlockians who have had aortic aneurysms. Both the Blanched Soldiers of NOAH and the Sir James Saunders Society are made up of Sherlockian dermatologists. His Last Miaow brings together Sherlockians "who have lived with cats.")

One needn't search for a reason why enthusiasts of any stripe would band together to share their enthusiasm. That noted, it may be said of the Irregulars and its scion societies that their être is possessed of a singular raison. Members prioritize the voluntary suspension of disbelief upon which the enjoyment of fiction is predicated. As far as they're concerned, Holmes and Watson were real people, and the sacred canon consists of Watson's actual reports. Yes, Sir Arthur's name appears as a byline, but he was at once a trusted friend and literary agent, and may indeed have done some editorial tinkering. And either he or Watson has done some fictionalizing, changing names and addresses and disguising circumstances, but surely much of the truth can be ferreted out by painstaking scholarship.

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