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 “You see but you do not observe.” Holmes to Watson, “A Scandal in Bohemia”

I have had a long-standing love affair-du-Coeur with Sherlock Holmes. I read a bunch of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the Great Detective when I was younger, and a few of them really stuck with me. I’m sure everyone has their favorites.

Well, for some reason or other, maybe it was the recent and latest iteration of Holmes and Watson by Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, I felt inspired to go back into Victorian England and delve into the World of Sherlock Holmes once more.

Four novels and fifty-six short stories later, I feel as impressed as ever with Holmes and Watson, and all the crime-solving, mystery-unraveling, clue gathering, disguises, adventures, and explanations. Great stuff!

There is a reason or six why Sherlock Holmes has gripped the imagination of readers, writers and fans since his first appearance on the scene in 1887.

1. The Great Detective Himself

Let’s face it, Holmes is pretty darn fabulous. He’s gifted with intelligence, heightened powers of observation and inference, a scientific and logical mind, the ability to see connections that others don’t see. He’s a master of disguise, chemistry, martial arts and boxing, he’s daring, and he keeps true to his own sense of justice. He does not always win, he does not always find the answer, but if it’s possible, you can be sure he’ll figure out the truth.

Though brilliant, Holmes was not perfect. People have speculated he was manic-depressive, or perhaps had Asperger’s Syndrome. He was high on intellect, and low on emotion—although you could argue it. He was passionate about his crime-solving art—and he had a dry, sarcastic wit which could seriously cut a lesser opponent to shreds. And (nearly) everyone was lesser. He did spend a bit of time addicted to cocaine (when he was bored), which Watson weaned him off of. His chemical experiments, as well as a propensity for shooting off firearms indoors, did not endear him to his landlady Mrs. Hudson. Though she never kicked him out. Hmm, maybe there was something there…? Well, that’s the romance writer in me. Probably been done already, ey?

2. The Crimes—

Watching Holmes unravel the crimes and mysteries is so much fun. The stories cover a wide spectrum. Murder, theft, kidnapping, betrayal, revenge, stolen plans, secrets, espionage, mistaken identity, secret identity, blackmail, fraud—and a few cases which were more mysteries than crime-solving. It’s all about the method! Observation, clues, deductions, inferences, and lots of footwork. He put forensics into action in detective work, sometimes running circles around Scotland Yard, other times working with them at their request, sometimes holding back evidence or explanations if Holmes felt justice was better served that way. The wealth and variety of mystery plots is fantastic.

 3. The Friendship—

Dr. John H. Watson, narrator for most of the stories, chronicler of the tales, is our window into the world of Sherlock Holmes. He is adventurous, brave, loyal, moral, maybe a little stodgy, but a reliable friend—not up to Holmes’ speed, but few would be. Yet they form a strong bond that lasts decades. I don’t know when Watson actually got to practice medicine since he was so ready to drop what he was doing in order to solve crimes, though he did doctor from time to time. He was injured in the Afghan War (odd from today’s standpoint, right? The Watson in the BBC modernization of Sherlock is wounded in the current Afghan war.) Watson does fall in love—something Holmes professes has never happened to him—and marries Mary Morstan from The Sign of the Four. Watson (maybe) even got married again after she (maybe) died—though this woman is never named. No kids—that we know of. Anyway, it’s Watson’s friendship with Holmes, his admiration for his friend’s powers, and his participation in the adventures that invite us into that same bond with the Great Detective. It’s one of the great friendships of literature. Plus Watson is the quintessential sidekick—a prototype for many that came after him.

4. The Nemesis—

Nothing puts the good guys through their paces like a really awesome bad guy. The evil and brilliant Professor Moriarty only figures in a few Holmes’ stories (2 directly), and we hear Holmes mention his struggles against the ‘Napoleon of crime’ in bits and pieces. Quite frankly, Conan Doyle invented Moriarty as a way to send Holmes out in a blaze of Glory. Now Moriarty might have gone over that cliff at Reichenbach Falls, while Holmes (readers find out a decade later, three years in the story world) actually didn’t. Despite his spectacular demise, and like Holmes himself, Moriarty has taken on a life of his own, looming large in the human imagination. Holmes has had many opponents, some worthy of his greatness, others less so, but there is nothing more satisfying than seeing these villains get their comeuppance.

5. The Game—

Well, it has been played by some notable folks, including Dorothy L. Sayers and Christopher Morley. The object is to treat the Holmes ‘canon’ – the 56 short stories and 4 novels – as true. As in, Holmes and Watson really lived, Watson had his stories published through his ‘agent’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the events, places and people are based on real events, places and people. Reams of writing and terabytes of internet space have been devoted to this—it’s like a smart person’s fan club, yet somewhat crazy. I mean, people in Conan Doyle’s day used to think Holmes was real—somewhat annoying to his creator, who wanted to write Other Things. (Which he did, such as The Lost World and a lot of non-fiction work.) That said, people have had fun with dating the stories, figuring out who the historical characters Watson referred to with slight changes and different names might be, how many wives Watson had, where in Sussex Holmes’ bee farm might be, etc.

6. The Interpretations

Holmes was too large to stay chained to the page, and has had a wide and varied series of incarnations on stage, screen, and, well, in other people’s books. He has inspired interpretations of his character, psychology, romances-or-lack-there-of, parody, comedy, and plenty of etc. If I say Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, you get the picture. As opposed to ‘cannon’ story, the ‘Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’, an actual penned Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story. In movies alone, Sherlock Holmes has inspired portrayals by over 70 actors in over 200 films. Whoa!

  There is plenty of fodder in the originals to expand on. We know little of Holmes’ background and family, though we do meet smarter (though indolent) brother Mycroft. People have made up all sorts of interesting theories of his upbringing. Watson gives us tantalizing glimpses of cases he never expands into stories (The Giant Rat of Sumatra—come on, Watson, we need to know!) We get our picture of Holmes mostly through Watson’s first person eyes—though there are 2 stories narrated by Holmes, and 2 in third person. So writers and storytellers can find a twist outside Watson’s viewpoint and have fun with it. Thus we have Young Sherlock Holmes a movie about Holmes and Watson as a school boys, Nicholas Meyer’s Seven-Percent Solution (referencing Holmes addiction to cocaine and Freud’s talking cure of same), the TV show House contains many moments of homage to Sherlock Holmes, Basil of Baker Street is a children’s book, and a Disney movie (The Great Mouse Detective) featuring Basil the mouse and his adventures, with nemesis Ratigan (Vincent Price voices, quite fabulous), the Mary Russell books starting with The Beekeepers Apprentice, where in a 15-yr-old American woman meets Holmes in retirement and they have many adventures together. And eventually, a romance.

Just a small sampling of the many, many Holmes-related and re-imagined works out there.

Below are some of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories.

A Scandal In Bohemia, The Red-headed League, The Speckled Band, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Copper Beeches, The Norwood Builder, Silver Blaze, The Musgrave Ritual, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Abbey Grange, The Second Stain, The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton

If you want a list of Sherlock Holmes stories, try a visit to the Diogenes club. http://www.diogenes-club.com/hoysummary.htm , Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sherlock_Holmes . And your local library or bookstore—there’s always a classic edition around. Amazon & BN have everything as well.

A fun article on the real-or-not biz.  http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2088/did-sherlock-holmes-really-exist 

http://www.schoolandholmes.com/index.html a list of Holmes related books, not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

http://pbpl.physics.ucla.edu/~yoder/mystery/doywork.html short, short summaries of the short stories

Enjoy! The Game’s Afoot

So, do you have a favorite Sherlock Holmes tale? Love or loathe the Great Detective? Enjoy any particular re-imagination of Holmes & Watson? Who is your favorite Holmes? Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, or Robert Downey Jr., or…? Do tell!

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