The Magazine

Elementary Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle's imitators have always faced a difficult task.

May 12, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 34 • By JON L. BREEN
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My Sherlock Holmes

Untold Stories of the Great Detective

by Michael Kurland

St. Martin's Minotaur, 370 pp., $24.95

G.K. Chesterton's

Sherlock Holmes

edited by Steven Doyle

Baker Street Irregulars, 81 pp., $35

SHERLOCK HOLMES may not be the greatest character in English fiction, but he has surely attracted the most enthusiastic and industrious admirers. These acolytes often express their devotion in two kinds of writing: mock scholarship, eventually wearying to all but the most fully-immersed specialist, and pastiche, appealing to a wider readership.

Sherlockian scholarship assumes that the Baker Street detective and his companion Dr. Watson were real people, not products of Arthur Conan Doyle's imagination, and that any inconsistencies in the four novels and fifty-six stories published between 1887 and 1927 were not merely the product of Doyle's haste and fallible memory.

Oxford undergraduate Ronald A. Knox started it all in 1912 with his satirical "Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes," following the trend in criticism "by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental."

Others approached the game in the same playful spirit: Anthony Boucher contended that the Holmes who returned after his supposed death at Reichenbach Falls was an impostor; Christopher Morley thought Holmes might have been an American; and in the most notorious and broadly comic example, Rex Stout asserted that "Watson Was a Woman."

Great fun, but as these efforts became more esoteric, and it became less certain their authors were kidding, casual readers dropped away. In his 1935 essay "Sherlock the God," G.K. Chesterton observed, "It is getting beyond a joke. The hobby is hardening into a delusion." (That essay plus several others by and about Father Brown's creator are included in the small but substantial "G.K. Chesterton's Sherlock Holmes," centered on his unfinished illustrations for a never-realized 1930s edition of the Holmes stories.)

Pastiches--new adventures written in serious imitation of the originals--have much broader appeal. The best early example was Vincent Starrett's "The Adventure of the Unique Hamlet" (1920). Later, "The Case of the Man Who Was Wanted," published under the Doyle name in a 1948 issue of Cosmopolitan as a newly discovered Holmes story, was subsequently proven to be a pastiche written by architect Arthur Whitaker.

For many years, the protective Doyle estate discouraged pastiche writing, finding a way to suppress Ellery Queen's 1944 anthology "The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes" and authorizing only "The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes" (1954), a collaboration of Conan Doyle's son Adrian and John Dickson Carr. The earliest novel-length pastiches, H.F. Heard's "A Taste for Honey" (1941) and its sequels, hid a retired Sherlock behind an alias, Mr. Mycroft, borrowed from the smarter but lazier Holmes brother.

Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven Percent Solution" (1974) began the still-surging flood of novel-length pastiches. Meyer pioneered the now common practice of inserting real-life contemporaries, including Sigmund Freud and (in the 1976 "The West End Horror") Bernard Shaw, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Oscar Wilde.

Others would involve Holmes in true crime cases, most frequently Jack the Ripper but also the Dreyfus case, in Michael Hardwick's excellent "Prisoner of the Devil" (1980), and even the Kennedy assassination in Edmund Aubrey's fanciful "Sherlock Holmes in Dallas" (1980). Holmes also entered other fictional worlds, as in Loren Estleman's "Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula; or The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count" (1978) and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Holmes" (1979).

Those writing an extended series of pastiches frequently adopt a trademark slant. In a couple of admirably executed if unlikely variants, Larry Millett brings Holmes and Watson to Minnesota for several cases, while Laurie R. King gives the older Holmes a new Watson in the unexpected person of a wife. Some of the best pastiches, such as those of L.B. Greenwood, shun all of these gimmicks in favor of wholly fictional cases in Watson's familiar voice and milieu.

While some writers ill-advisedly put Holmes and Watson in the overstuffed novels favored in the current market, others have continued in the shorter length Doyle favored, notably June Thomson and Donald Thomas. Others have appeared in five original anthologies from book-packager Martin H. Greenberg, including pastiches from authors as varied as Anne Perry, Bill Crider, Carolyn Wheat, Edward D. Hoch, Peter Lovesey, Dorothy B. Hughes, Stephen King (and my own contributions to the genre). The most recent is "Murder, My Dear Watson" (2002), edited by Greenberg, Jon Lellenberg, and Daniel Stashower.