Watching the Detective

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

And some of that scholarship leads to remarkable conclusions. The great Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, was an ardent Irregular; his paper, arguing persuasively that Watson was in fact a woman, is a landmark effort.

Some years ago, I published a book with the usual disclaimer ("All characters in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental") followed by another one-sentence paragraph: "The earth is flat." In response, I was shortly invited to join the Flat Earth Society of Canada, and was in due course designated plenipotentiary for the eastern United States. (Since I was never relieved of this title, and surely never resigned it, I suppose I hold it still.)

The original Flat Earth Society, headquartered in England, may or may not have been formed by genuine believers. The Canadian bunch, centered in the philosophy department of a university in New Brunswick, were spiritual kinsmen of the Baker Street Irregulars, deriving great pleasure from opposing and exposing the globularist heresy while stoutly advocating the virtues of common sense and the trusting of one's other five senses in the bargain.

Devout Sherlockians read their way through the entire canon annually. But that's not all they read. They also consume great quantities of fiction starring Holmes or Holmes clones, ranging from alternatives like August Derleth's Solar Pons stories—a substantial body of work in their own right—through pastiches (in which other writers assume Watson's mantle and add to the canon, occasionally reporting on cases like that of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, to which Watson had alluded previously) to outright parodies, like Bob Fish's outrageous stories of Schlock Homes. Much of this work is privately published, for the delectation of other Sherlockians, but some of it is the work of professional writers, including such luminaries as Nicholas Meyer, John Lescroart, and Loren Estleman, and it's not unknown for a new Holmesian adventure to hit the bestseller list.

I don't know what sort of sales are likely for A Slight Trick of the Mind, the work I referred to earlier. It's a new book by Mitch Cullin (out this month from Doubleday) and it's quite extraordinary. A Sherlockian might call it revisionist, in that we learn among other things that Holmes always called his friend John, never Watson, that he smoked cigars almost exclusively and didn't much care for a pipe. More to the point, Cullin shows us this master of observation, this supreme rationalist, at a time when age has made great inroads upon his memory and mental acuity. The narrative moves through time, and our hero—our eternal hero—has never been more heroic, or more human. Is it the last word in Sherlockiana? Surely not—Michael Chabon's recent The Final Solution and Caleb Carr's forthcoming The Italian Secretary both revive the sleuth for yet another adventure. I don't know why this one character has proved so durable. I don't think I'll try keeping bees. I'm pretty sure the condo bylaws would have something to say about that. But maybe I'll give that royal jelly a try. What could it hurt?

Lawrence Block's most recent novel is All the Flowers Are Dying (William Morrow).

« Previous Page