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#SherlockLives: An Investigation into the Enduring Appeal and Many Sides of Sherlock Holmes

by Jennifer Brannen

*This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of RA News.*

Sherlock Holmes is back from the dead (again), but there are those that would say that he never left. Statistics would seem to bear this belief out: According to The Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes is the second most portrayed character in TV and film ever. That's a formidable cultural presence. Now consider the great detective's extensive life in print outside the original stories.

Good stories draw readers in and form connections which may last a lifetime. Sometimes they inspire the sincerest form of flattery -- imitation. These works often take off into their own creative wilds with results that add to and build onto the original story. The Sherlock Holmes canon has ever been thus, inspiring readers and fans. There are pastiches, re-imaginings, and fan fiction in abundance, which have existed almost since Doyle's stories were first being published. With the resurgence of Holmes' popularity -- not that he ever truly went away, he was tooling around under the name Sigerson -- has come a commensurate boom in Sherlock retellings.

Sherlock Holmes has been a personal favorite since childhood, and unlike some of my other literary affections, I've never minded other people playing with the character. From Basil of Baker Street (a mouse detective for the juvenile set) to Nicholas Meyer's Seven Per Cent Solution (a distinctly adult take on Holmes with careful attention paid to Holmes' titlular drug habit), I read them all and loved many of them. So it's hardly a surprise that I welcome this current Sherlock boom. From fanfic to Laurie R. King's intricate world-building and character development, there's some excellent writing out there with fascinating takes on the canon and some which depart from it completely and don't look back.

Meet the Canon

Each generation seems to discover Sherlock anew and reinvent him a little bit. New stories reflect current cultural concerns and mores but the essential irascible genius and his supportive companion in crime solving remain (mostly) recognizable. So it never hurts to go back to the beginning and revisit the canon of the original 56 short stories and four novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are very much a product of the late Victorian times they depict, but they are also intriguing for some of the things they anticipate -- the importance of crime scene preservation and collection of evidence, the early science of forensics, and physical evidence vs. eyewitness testimony. It's all there in nascent, if fictional, form. Start with:

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, annotated by Les Klinger: A more recent edition of the complete stories and novels which are richly annotated with historical information and illustrations.

Sherlock Re-imagined, Extended, and Generally Messed About With

Many people have tried their hands at playing with and exploring Doyle's famous characters with varying degrees of success. (Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, and Michael Chabon to name a few.) There's no way to cover them all, so I'm going to highlight a couple areas: pastiches and the role of women in some modern stories. Whether you're wondering what the fuss is about or are a longstanding fan, here are some titles worth investigating.

Pastiches: Classic and Modern

Pastiches are loving homages, literary explorations, character studies, and often a lot of fun. They include lost or vaguely referenced cases (finally The Giant Rat of Sumatra explained!), known stories from different character points of view, and Sherlock incorporated into historical events. They use the canon as a jumping off point but may take some significant liberties in their stories. For some readers, these twists can be fun games of "what if."

Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson by Lyndsay Faye
Many wonder what would have happened if Holmes got involved with the infamous Whitechapel murders. Complexly plotted and rendered in rich historical detail, this gracefully written debut novel provides a thrilling and thoughtful answer. Highly recommended.
The Return of Moriarty by John Gardener
The Return of Moriarty retells the story of "The Final Problem" and its aftermath from the villains point of view. It's a testament to Gardner's facility as a writer that the book and its antihero are as compelling as they are. First and best in the series. (Professor Moriarty series, 1)
A Study in Sherlock edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger
A series of mostly marvelous short stories edited by two of the definitive writers working in Sherlock's world today. It's well worth investigating as is its companion volume In the Company of Sherlock Holmes.
The Seven Percent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
The stand-out in Meyer's series of pastiches, it tells the tale of a collaboration between Holmes and Sigmund Freud, what Holmes really did during his presumed death after his encounter with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls, and focuses, as what one might expect from the title, on Holmes' cocaine addiction.
The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson
For brothers, Reggie and Nigel Heath, the lease for their law office at 221-B Baker St. comes with an interesting stipulation -- they have to answer any letters addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Normally filed and answered with a form, one letter from an eight-year-old girl in Los Angeles catches Nigel's attention and trouble follows. (Baker Street Brothers, 1)
The Secret Files of Sherlock Holmes by June Thomson
For 100 years, the files of the most potentially inflammatory cases of Sherlock Holmes have been hidden away in a dispatch box in a Charing Cross bank. Now these stories are finally being published by one of Watson's heirs.

Sherlock and Women

Sherlock Holmes, justifiably, doesn't have the best reputation with women. In the original stories, he tends to run the gamut from disinterest to scorn where the fairer sex is concerned. In these modern renderings however, the relationships are more complex and rewarding for all involved.

Irene Adler Adventures by Carole Nelson Douglas
Irene Adler, an adventuress with a murky background, will always and forever be known as "The Woman." She is the only woman to have ever out-thought and out-maneuvered Holmes. But what if The Woman had been a full-fledged character? What if she was the one entrapped in "A Scandal in Bohemia"? With this starting point, Douglas turns canon on its head with verve and wit and follows Adler and loyal companion Nell through a series of increasingly complex adventures. Start with: Good Night, Mr. Holmes.
Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Mysteries by Laurie R. King
These richly imagined books pick up with Holmes' life after he retires to keep bees in the Sussex Downs. There he finds the detecting mentee he'd waited his whole life for, a most unexpected companionship, and rich mysteries that remain true to important aspects of canon and the historical time period these stories are set in (the lead up to and fall-out from World War I). The twist? His companion is a young woman named Mary Russell who has a formidable brain and ideas of her own. Start with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

A Note on More Radical Re-imaginings

The stories so far have been more or less rooted in recognizable stories or aspects of the original canon. But what happens when a writer's imagination takes Holmes and Watson completely off the beaten path? Sometimes, it really works and can be surprisingly wonderful, while other times it feels like it was done on a dare. For a good example, try Shadows Over Baker, an anthology of stories in which Sherlock Holmes is dropped into the nightmarish world of H. P. Lovecraft. Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald" is a particular stand-out.

What Comes Around...

The tremendous popularity of the BBC series Sherlock, which has successfully re-imagined the eponymous detective, Watson, and many of their famous cases in modern-day London made this article possible. The intelligent writing, the chemistry between the talented leads, and sly acknowledgements of previous iterations of Holmes have rocketed the series and its fictional protagonists into the cultural spotlight, reintroducing many readers to not only the original stories but other portrayals in print and on-screen. Whether you're a recent convert or a long-time fan, there's always something new in the world of Sherlock Holmes.

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Jennifer Brannen  is a Teen and Adult Services Librarian for Durham (NC) County Library. She presents and writes about readers' advisory for adults, teens, and tweens, and contributed a chapter to Integrated Advisory Service: Breaking Through the Book Boundary to Better Library Users.