Watching the Detective


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.

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).