The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes

The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes

by Zach Dundas


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544705210
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 456,810
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

ZACH DUNDAS is co-executive editor of Portland Monthly magazine, a longtime journalist, and the author of The Renegade Sportsman.He is a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Diogenes Club.

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A dark, cold night in March, circa 1888. Dr. John H. Watson rides through London in a hansom cab. Watson is a married man, a working medico weary from a busy day on the rounds. Truth be told, he's bored out of his skull. He peeks out of the cab at an upper-story window of a familiar house. Above, he sees a skinny, hawk-nosed shadow pace behind a brilliantly illuminated blind. He orders his cab to stop, and he steps onto the gaslit pavement outside 221B Baker Street. (Or so I have always imagined. Watson doesn't actually specify his means of transport, but it seems so boring to picture him on foot. As we will see, with Sherlock Holmes, the reader is well advised to fill in the blank spots with her or his own invention.)

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, and John H. Watson, his best friend and indefatigable chronicler. As Dr. Watson climbs the stairs to 221B, he sets in motion the first of the short stories, "A Scandal in Bohemia," which appeared in the Strand Magazine's issue for July 1891. In the months that followed, one Sherlock Holmes adventure after another hit the bookstalls of Victorian Britain. The stories' young author, just barely in his thirties and working a desultory day job as an eye specialist, had used these two intriguing characters — a beaky superdetective and his pal, an ex–army doctor with underappreciated storytelling gifts — in a couple of earlier novels, with mixed commercial results. With "A Scandal in Bohemia," Conan Doyle truly (but accidentally) launched Sherlock Holmes and Watson into the literary cosmos.

Watson opens the door to the Baker Street sitting room. The chamber is bright but shadowed in the corners, where the gaslight and coal fire's glare dies away amid the startling array of detritus Sherlock Holmes accumulates in his adventures. Every corner overflows with crumpled newspapers, obscure and frightening books, strange chemical implements, and stray weapons. Sherlock is no mere cop grinding away in an office, but an exquisite self-creation who operates against the criminals that plague the world's most powerful city. Well, let's say he defends his own version of Victorian London — one besieged not by run-of-the-mill grifters and garden-variety psychopaths but by demented math professors, conspiracies of redheaded men, and cunning blackmailers who skulk about wearing astrakhan, whatever that is. Holmes doesn't live in our reality. He lives in a more interesting (if sinister) dimension.

Watson finds Holmes rampaging around the room, exuding his own personal, lurid atmosphere of tobacco funk and global intrigue. The good Watson has already warned his readers, in the second paragraph of "Scandal," about Holmes, his "Bohemian soul" and irregular habits. Sherlock has been off in Odessa dealing with a murderous (or maybe murdered) Trepoff. He's pondered a "singular tragedy" in Trincomalee (that's in Sri Lanka), and sorted out some nasty business involving the Dutch royal family. The detective gives his old pal a cigar. Drinks in hand (at Baker Street, a glass is never far away), Holmes produces a letter, lately delivered, written in broken English on thick pink stationery. The letter informs the detective that a man will call at a quarter to eight. The visitor will wear a mask. Holmes and Watson deduce, based on the writing paper's watermark and quick reference to a handy "European gazetteer," that this missive comes from "Bohemia." (That's in the Czech Republic these days. Victorian readers would have known it as one swatch in the crazy quilt of the Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary.) The mystery guest then sashays across the threshold.

The masked man is six feet six inches tall. As for the rest, we must defer to Watson:

Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with a flame-coloured silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence ... He wore across the upper part of his face, extending down past the cheekbones, a black vizard mask ...

Good Lord, is it the Marquis de Sade?

I discovered a thick, brick-red-covered, dog-eared book in my school library in Montana one suitably frigid winter's day when I was about eleven years old. The volume bore some pre-gender-equity title like The Boys' Sherlock Holmes. It smelled faintly of mold and many small hands. I opened to the first story, spied the exotic, very adult title "A Scandal in Bohemia," and tumbled in. In some sense, I suppose, I was never seen again.

I had heard of Holmes, of course, though the character was better known among my mid-'80s peers for the phrase "no shit, Sherlock" than as "the most energetic criminal agent in Europe." But I proved more susceptible to old Arthur Conan Doyle than most boys and girls. Raised by a pair of avid readers, grandson of a librarian, offshoot of a clan full of writers and English teachers (I have often wondered why my lineage didn't tend toward stock brokerage, electrical engineering, medicine, cobbling, or, really, anything more lucrative than literature), I read rather boldly for my age, as doting relatives and mildly alarmed teachers never ceased to remind me. I read the encyclopedia for fun. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the foreign — which in Missoula, at that time, meant just about anything with an accent — and the old-fashioned, which in the '80s meant anything not dyed hot pink. "A Scandal in Bohemia" met all requirements.

I sat, rapt, on the fraying shag carpet of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, my spine riveted to the edge of our bunk beds, the Rocky Mountain winter in full howl outside a window insulated with a thick plastic sheet. I devoured one story after another: the Bohemian adventure, The Sign of the Four, "Silver Blaze." In retrospect, I can't say that I quite caught everything — and, in fact, I would soon discover that some 1950s bowdlerizer had weeded The Boys' Sherlock Holmes (or whatever it was) of Holmes's edgier moments. This caring editor had expunged the cocaine, toned down some bludgeonings. But that black mask! The astrakhan! The "flame-coloured" silk! The weird Victorian regalia, the secret worlds suggested by Baker Street's riotous mess of newspapers and urgent letters on pink stationery — all inflamed my boyhood mind. People often describe the Sherlock Holmes stories as "cozy," and I can see what they mean. It does feel snug there by the Baker Street coal fire. But I primarily think of these stories as exuberantly, beautifully strange artifacts — startling jewels set in gnarled brass, lit with the glow of a lost time. From the beginning, the Sherlockian saga has served me as an escape hatch into an intricately constructed alternate dimension.

It also acted as a gateway drug. Before long, I ditched the expurgated anthologies for the real thing: a hulking, ancient edition of the Doubleday Complete Sherlock Holmes — very exciting, owning a book with "complete" right in the title. And as I worked through (and then back through) the sixty tales over the next few years, I also began to wander into more obscure corners of Missoula's libraries and bookstores, chasing more of the ghostly Victoriana the Holmesian adventures evoked. As years passed and my frontal cortex kept right on developing, the Victorians prodded me along. They took me into a lost world where men wore pre-tied cravats and frock coats and top hats, and the prevailing decorum contrasted with arch-ribaldry. I learned about the parliamentary system, the evolution of newspapers, the roots of modern professional sport, and the creation of urban transport. Given my own era's general attitude — viz., anything or anyone predating 1965 was a boring, pretechnological prude — I was startled to realize that the Victorians seemed, by many measures, more modern than I was. The barely functional computers that lurked in the back of my classrooms made a poor substitute for nineteenth-century London's seven or more daily postal deliveries and instantaneous global telegraph connections. The seemingly eternal Cold War face-off paled in interest compared to the imperial Great Game and the cosmopolitan horizons of a mercantile, scientifically progressive age. And the sex! Before too many years passed, I discovered that a Sherlock Holmes obsession made an excellent cover for researching lush oddities like the Cremorne Gardens, Victorian London's open-air swingers' hangout, where young bucks mingled with sporting ladies to notorious effect. Who knew? In one particularly intrepid adolescent archival dive, I discovered that the same culture that created my beloved, celibate Sherlock also produced a startling tract called Lady Pokingham; or, They All Do It — printed, according to the subtitle, for "The Society of Vice."

Over the decades that followed, Sherlock and I would have our ups and our downs. I would sometimes swim out of his ken, as Watson rather curiously put it one time, for a year or two. But I always found my way back to Baker Street. I considered the place a semiprivate domain, and Holmes an almost clandestine amusement, of scant interest to my peers and definitely to be played down when eligible young ladies made the scene. Sherlock might be many things, from expert single-stick fighter to medieval manuscript researcher, but "cool," in any recognized Reagan-era sense, he was not.

These days, however, one of those mysterious shifts in the spirit of the age has taken place. Nearly 130 years after he debuted in a disposable holiday magazine, Sherlock Holmes now seems to be everywhere. At least three different major on-screen reinterpretations of the character have gathered audiences of millions. In director Guy Ritchie's entertainingly bumptious movies for Warner Bros., Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law ricochet around a grimy Victorian-ish London replete with slow-motion fight scenes and massive exploding fireballs. (Watching those movies is like huffing gasified cotton candy, but the world loves them. As of this writing, the first two Sherlock Holmes movies have grossed well over $1 billion globally.) In 2010, the BBC unveiled Sherlock, a modern re-up of the character, tense and moody and hilarious, starring a magnificent creature named Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch as the Great Detective and Martin Freeman as a brilliantly bemused Watson. Set in a semirealistic contemporary London of mobile phones and cheap cafés, the series inspires almost audible gasps of adulation on every medium known to computerized man. (The Twitter hashtag #Sherlock can always yield some goody: just now, for example, I found a fan's fondant cakes made in Cumberbatch's and Freeman's images.)

Indeed, the 2010s have become an improbable golden age down Baker Street way. Sherlock and Watson prowl pop culture in many forms, familiar and strange. The American TV series Elementary embodies the duo in the heterodox pairing of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. The Russians created a bespectacled, gun-toting, all-action Holmes not long ago. When I heard the sequel to the animated Gnomeo and Juliet might be none other than Sherlock Gnomes, I had to take some big yoga breaths.

In Conan Doyle's tales, Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, once remarks to Watson, "I hear of Sherlock everywhere since you became his chronicler." No kidding. Of course, though its popularity waxed and waned, this fictional world never stopped shaping real people's imaginative lives. I was long acquainted with the Sherlockians (or as some, particularly in Britain, prefer, Holmesians), an amiably eccentric global tribe of enthusiasts who gather to drink elaborate toasts to Conan Doyle characters, sometimes while wearing full Victorian costume. As we'll discover later on, this sub-sub-subculture traces its lineage to the 1930s, when some convivial New York bookmen founded the Baker Street Irregulars. By one estimate, about three hundred Sherlockian clubs are active now, from the Sydney Passengers of Australia to the Ural Holmesian Society of Ekaterinburg to the Baker Street Arabs, based at the US embassy in Baghdad.

But these clubby diehards are relatively few, and these days the Sherlock-addicted horde seems legion. A quick dive into the Internet reveals thousands of fans agnostic about whether their fix comes from Conan Doyle or from The Great Mouse Detective. They keep #221B percolating and can muster flash mobs under the slogan I BELIEVE IN SHERLOCK HOLMES. A New York mystery novelist and esteemed Sherlockian named Lyndsay Faye supplies the creed: "It is a widely accepted fact among our ranks that you can turn Sherlock Holmes into almost anything and he will still rock harder than David Bowie circa 1972." Faye, I would discover as I surveyed the sudden Sherlockian Renaissance (Faye's own term, in fact), is a leading light of the Baker Street Babes, an international coterie of young women who podcast, tweet, blog, and indie-publish on all things Holmes. Did I wish I could go back in time and tell the fourteen-year-old me that there would someday be Baker Street Babes? Badly.

What is going on? In a world of action heroes and cat-video memes, how does a 130-year-old detective in a velvet dressing gown hold his own? How, and why, has Sherlock Holmes — of all things — endured?

As I pondered these questions, a deeper mystery took shape. In Sherlock's debut, the novel A Study in Scarlet, Holmes tells incompetent police inspectors Gregson and Lestrade that "there's nothing new under the sun." Conan Doyle created a Baker Street HQ jam-packed with files, newspaper clippings, dossiers, privately printed monographs, obscure criminal histories — all so Holmes can recognize the characteristics of old cases hidden in fresh problems. It soon dawned on my Watson-like brain that this all happened before: Holmes keeps coming back with the relentlessness of Halley's Comet. The character anchored one of the most popular stage melodramas of the early 1900s. In the 1940s, Sherlock Holmes fought the Nazis. In the '70s, he went to therapy. In the '80s, he did way too much coke. Every generation remakes the Great Detective in its own image.

And that, to paraphrase Holmes himself, began to seem the really curious incident. I began to wonder what makes this character — which, as we'll see, Conan Doyle slapped together from previously published fictional detectives and an old professor from his school days, and very nearly named Sherrinford — not just immortal, but endlessly elastic. Why is there a Sherlockian society not just in London, but in Kyrgyzstan? How have Holmes and Watson managed to be memorialized not only in Sidney Paget's iconic ink-wash illustrations, but also in GIFs? How can Lucy Liu be Watson? It was time for a modest investigation of my own.

Holmes once declared that "no branch of detective science ... is so important and so much neglected as the art of tracing footsteps." I decided to follow his and see where they might lead. I started back at Baker Street, once more, face to face with the masked King of Bohemia.

The target is a photograph. Irene Adler has it. The King of Bohemia wants it.

Irene Adler, you see, is a sexy opera star and well-known "adventuress," a prefeminist (or protofeminist?) femme fatale. She and His Majesty enjoyed a certain interlude, a certain tête-à-tête, and certainly some other French words. The photo, a memento of their time together, shows both of them — together. His Majesty now plans to marry some stuck-up Scandinavian princess and needs to sanitize his old social media. He tried bribery. He tried theft. Yet the hot opera singer won't relent. The King needs Sherlock Holmes.

This all transpires over several propulsive pages of classic Conan Doyle dialogue: snip-snap verbal fencing matches that often oil and power his narratives with almost no extraneous exposition. The King slaps down "three hundred pounds in gold and seven hundred in notes." Cut to the next day. We see Holmes rollicking back to Baker Street disguised as a drunken horse groom, regaling Watson with a description of his surveillance of la Adler's abode. First, he cruised the neighborhood and formed an alcohol-based alliance with the grooms who work the carriages and stables, whom he lubricated into spilling many secrets. Second, he tailed Miss Adler to a church, where he was surprised to act as a witness for the lady's impromptu marriage to a lawyer, one Godfrey Norton. This marriage, obviously, complicates the matter. Holmes calls for "some cold beef and a glass of beer" and briefs Watson on the operation's next phase. Then the detective dons a second disguise, transforming into an idiotic-looking clergyman. The duo rattles off in a hansom cab to make some trouble for poor Irene.


Excerpted from "The Great Detective"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Zach Dundas.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prelude: 221B xi

1 Bohemia 1

2 The Science of Deduction 21

3 The Wilderness 48

4 Holmes & Watson 75

5 Moriarty & Friends 109

6 The Curse of the Baskervilles 144

7 Secret Histories 168

8 Black Mask 194

9 The Great Game 215

10 The Return(S) of Sherlock Holmes 242

11 Casebook 276

Acknowledgments 293

Notes & Comments 297

Source Notes 299

Index 307

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