Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died 89 years ago this month, but not before ensuring his legacy by creating one of the most iconic literary characters ever: Sherlock Holmes. Part of the reason for Holmes’ enduring legacy is, of course, his adaptability: despite first appearing in 1887 as a thoroughly Victorian character, the Holmes formula is sturdy enough that it can be adorned with the trappings of any era—or genre. The fundamentals of the premise—brilliant but abrasive detective, stalwart companion to record his adventures and keep him human, incredible deductions based on nothing but observation—can be remixed in nearly infinite combinations. Here are
10 11 of our favorite science fiction and fantasy variations on the world’s greatest detective.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, by Alexis Hall
Alexis Hall describes himself as a “genrequeer” writer, and his debut is a delightful Holmesian romp that takes a “dive right in” approach to worldbuilding. Holmes is reinvented as the Sorceress Shaharazad Haas, who has all of great detective’s brain power and off-putting social disinterest, plus devastating powers of necromancy and sorcery. The Watson here is Captain John Wyndham, a trans male and morally rigid veteran of the Company of Strangers, soldiers in an eternal inter-dimensional war. Together they investigate a case of blackmail that takes them on a tour of one of the most wide-open and vividly imagined universes in recent genre history, a place as close to a sandbox video game as you can get on the page, where the Yellow King is terrifyingly real and you can get a bank loan using your soul as collateral. Haas is a gorgeous reinvention of the enduring hero, cramming Holmes’ brilliance into a brash, queer, decidedly irregular, and totally enjoyable character, making familiar traits into things to be discovered anew.
The Janet Watson Chronicles, by Claire O’Dell
If we were to imagine Sherlock Holmes and John Watson dropped into a universe that parallels The Handmaid’s Tale in terms of theme and muted terror, you would have the Janet Watson books by Claire O’Dell. This series’ Watson is a black, queer woman—a trained surgeon in an alternate United States torn asunder by an ongoing second Civil War that took her arm and left her suffering from PTSD. Watson finds herself teamed with FBI agent Sara Holmes, similarly black, female, and queer—and still recognizably Holmes, possessed of an almost magical ability to deduce and extrapolate, and an inverse ability to relate to her fellow human beings. This is grim but triumphant series puts a whole new spin on the Holmes-Watson relationship while telling stories that are strikingly relevant to our times.
The Cthulu Casebooks, by James Lovegrove
At the rate genre is going, everything will be mashed up with Lovecraft’s Cthlulu Mythos at some point. Lovegrove combines Holmes and Lovecraft in a spiffy way, with an older Watson revealing that his original memoirs were fiction designed to hide the horrifying real investigations he and Holmes were conducting—cases that begin with a mysterious and lethal fog, led the duo to the organized crime of London, and finally to the mind-breaking horrors of the Great Old Ones. What’s great about these books is that Holmes and Watson aren’t so much reimagined as their context is reinvented; Lovegrove has a lot of fun peering at the classic mysteries through this terrifying new lens, completely distorting the canon and leaving you to decide which universe was “real” and which was just “fiction.”
Baker Street Irregulars, edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Jonathan Maberry
Not every story in this anthology is speculative, but they all reimagine Holmes in a wildly different context. And many of them are: Holmes appears here as a hologram, a vampire, a robot, and, in one incredible instance, a parrot. Maberry and Ventrella’s challenge to the contributing authors (including Mike Strauss, David Gerrold, Heidi McLaughlin, and Beth W. Patterson) was to tell any story they wished, in any setting, with Holmes reinvented in any form—as long as he was recognizably Holmes. The results are fascinating; the classic Holmes and Watson dynamic is applied to a wide range of settings, including a terrifying reality show, Beethoven’s orchestra, and a grim future dystopia.
The Warlock Holmes series, by G.S. Denning
Denning isn’t the first writer to invert the Holmes/Watson dynamic so that Watson is the steady hand and Holmes the dangerous idiot—but he’s the first to do so while imagining Holmes as a consulting magician. Warlock Holmes isn’t the brightest, but he is an extremely powerful mage, and Denning peppers his hilarious stories with plenty of Holmesian callbacks and Douglas Adams-worthy puns, crafting a ludicrous universe where Inspector Lestrade is a vampire and Holmes is a terrible detective whose success relies entirely on his ability to cast spells and make deals with demons. It’s charming and well-imagined and rewards longtime fans with plenty of great details. Case in point: the first book, A Study in Brimstone, is a hilarious reinvention of A Study in Scarlet that any fan of the original will doubly appreciate.
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson only feature as supporting characters in the first book of Goss’ wonderful Athena Club series, which focuses on the women associated with famous literary characters—but that is part of the point, and why their inclusion is so significant. So many female characters in classic stories are used as set-dressing, as love interests, or as victims for the (male) hero to save—or, worst of all, as the reason for a bad person to reform. It’s high time someone wondered what kind of adventures they were having while their male counterparts were getting all the attention. Featuring Holmes as a supporting character in a larger story focused on characters like Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, and Justine Frankenstein is refreshing, necessary—and a lot of fun.
Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Was Not, edited by Christopher Sequeira
This anthology is based on one simple—and kind of amazing—idea: what if Sherlock Holmes remained Sherlock Holmes, but was paired with a different doctor? After all, Watson is as much a part of the Holmesian formula as the great detective himself. Pairing Holmes with someone else—a doctor torn from history (Doc Holliday in one instance, Arthur Conan Doyle himself in another) or literature (Dr. Jekyll, a gender-swapped Dr. Van Helsing)—results in stories that range from the straightforward to the speculative as Holmes solves crimes, battles vampires, and encounters a chance to live forever, always with a different doctor at his side or in his sights.
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard
This slender novella, released in print in a limited edition but widely available as an ebook, is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche unlike any you’ve ever read before—the Watson stand-in being a sentient starship left psychologically scarred by a recent tragedy that killed its entire human crew. The Shadow’s Child now keeps to herself, making ends (barely) meet by brewing bespoke tea blends that allow humans to travel into the dangerous hyperspace realm known as “Deep Space.” She’s forced to confront her past—and ferry a living being into Deep Spaces for the first time since the tragedy—when her financial circumstances make it impossible to refuse her latest client, a drug-addicted detective named Long Chau who is investigating the mysterious death of a woman whose body was found floating unprotected in the gaps between dimensions. De Bodard packs a remarkable amount of worldbuilding into a compact package—aided by the fact that it is part of her ongoing Xuya series, which stretches across a heap of earlier short stories and novellas, though it stands alone quite well—but it’s the characters who will really stick with you. Hopefully we’ll be following Long Chau and The Shadow’s Child on another case soon.
Trouble in Bugland, by William Kotzwinkle, illustrated by Joe Servello
If you ever looked at an illustration of Sherlock Holmes and thought, “that man looks just like a praying mantis turned into a human being,” well, you’re in luck: the Inspector Mantis you’ll meet in this wonderful collection of stories is a praying mantis, and he solves crimes with the assistance of his grasshopper friend Doctor Hopper. While you need a strong stomach for puns and insect-based wordplay to enjoy these stories, Kotzwinkle imbues his mysteries with a savage undercurrent of realistic bug violence (more than one character gets eaten before the end of each tale) and a depth of detail that brings his microcosmos-mirrorverse to wriggling life.
The Holmes-Dracula File, by Fred Saberhagen
Fred Saberhagen wrote a few books featuring Holmes and his cousin (!), the vampire Dracula (a favorite of the author’s; his The Dracula Tapes retells the classic Dracula story from the vampire’s point of view). In this one, a plague spread by an army of rats and a serial killer’s depredations force Dracula and Holmes to team up to save the world; Watson and Dracula trade off sharing their own accounts of the events. Saberhagen has a lot of fun linking this story to the classic Holmes story The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, in which reference is made to the mysterious “giant rat of Sumatra” and Holmes claims the story was withheld for the sanity of the reader.
A Study in Emerald, by Neil Gaiman, Rafeal Albuquerque, Rafael Scavone, and Dave Stewart
Neil Gaiman won the 2004 Hugo for Best Short Story with this Holmes/Cthulu mashup, later adapted as a graphic novel. It begins with a note-perfect Holmes setup and then slowly spirals into darkness and insanity, culminating in a twist equal parts masterful and mind-screwy (Gaiman plays fair, but also plays on the readers’ assumptions). Set in an alternate universe where the Old Ones reclaimed the world centuries ago and humanity lives under their sometimes benevolent, sometimes horrifying rule, the mystery involves the murder of an inhuman creature in London. The Queen, one of the Great Old Ones, hires the detective and his former soldier companion to solve the crime—and things take a more decidedly Lovecraftian turn from there. The reinvention is amazingly seamless—and certainly delightful.
What’s your favorite SFF-nal Holmesian story?