The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Zach Dundas
5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads
“If you love Sherlock Holmes, the rabbit hole beckons, always.” – p238
This book is close to pulling me back into that rabbit hole. I was an avid Sherlockian when I entered college, thanks to a friend I made my senior year of high school. I loved to play “the Great Game” (Holmes and Watson were real, Conan Doyle was just a literary agent, and all these stories really happened). I’d hole up on the third floor of the University library with a copy of Baker Street Byways or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and read them between classes. I discovered I could get copies of articles from the Baker Street Journal via inter-library loan and amassed quite a collection of them (at one point they had to cut me off because if I’d received any more articles that calendar year, I’d be violating copyright law; we worked around this by requesting the entire bound journal so I could make my own copies). Reading this book brought all that fun back for me – pouring over footnotes in Baring-Gould’s The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, driving off to Indianapolis and a Sherlock Holmes Symposium with that friend from high school, and making my own attempts at pastiche.
The Great Game is only one part of the phenomenon that is Sherlock Holmes, and Dundas tries to explore them all. We begin with the beginning – Arthur Conan Doyle. Dundas traces his early life, at least so far as it might have influenced Holmes’s creation (this isn’t a biography of ACD). We get more details as they coincide with the publication of the various novels and stories in the Canon, and Dundas draws connections between real-world events surrounding Conan Doyle and the stories he wrote. When you play the game, you mostly ignore Conan Doyle. He’s just the literary agent, after all. But Dundas looks at Conan Doyle the story-teller, and he gave me a new appreciation for ACD. Conan Doyle was a master short-story writer. He had the formula down pat. And yet, his writings aren’t entirely formulaic. Holmes and Watson were useful characters who found themselves in a variety of stories. Action-adventure, spy thrillers, Gothic horror, and even something like a Western (as Dundas puts it, “the Sherlock Holmes Canon is a Whole Earth Catalog of storytelling strategies.”). Throughout it all, Conan Doyle creates a portrait of a lasting friendship. There cannot be a Holmes without Watson. Reading about Conan Doyle and the chronology of his writing of the Holmes stories made me realize I have never read them in publication order. My text has always been Baring-Gould’s text, which puts them in “chronological order,” or at least his version of it (if you put 5 Sherlockians together and asked them to put the stories in chronological order, you will get 5 different orders).
The book delves in to the various productions of Holmes, from the parodies published in newspapers contemporary with the stories coming out in The Strand to Gillette’s play and on-ward, lingering with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, skimming over Jeremy Brett (more really could be said about Brett’s performance and Granada’s production), and finally moving to Sherlock and Elementary. He takes a stab at discussing fanfiction (and treats it pretty fairly) and spends a satisfying amount of time giving the history of the Baker Street Irregulars and the writings about the writings.
Dundas’s stated purpose was to answer some questions about Sherlock Holmes and the way he has continued for 130 some years in various forms. I found myself nodding along to his conclusions. There is Holmes himself, this man we know so much and so little about. Devotees can tell you many characteristics of the Great Detective, and yet his past remains a mystery. Who was he before he took on those first investigations (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”)? What was his family life like? Where did he grow up? Where did he go to University? In the stories we learn very little beyond the fact that he has an older, even smarter, brother (Mycroft). Then there is Watson, the heart and soul of the business. Holmes is the genius detective, intriguing to be sure, but it is Watson that the reader identifies with. He is necessary to make the whole thing work (and if you doubt that, just look at the two stories ACD did with Holmes as narrator, and how they don’t work). At times Holmes is a calculating machine, but Watson remains reliably human. The Canon is a lasting portrait of their friendship. And finally, there is the sense that when we read Conan Doyle’s stories, we are getting a glimpse of a fully fleshed out world. I’ve likened it to peeking through a keyhole. You know there’s more to the room, things out of your line of sight – you can’t see them but you know they’re there. This sense of these stories being part of a larger world is intriguing (and gives rise to the Great Game, to pastiche, and opens the door for a multitude of interpretations of the characters). As Dundas puts it, “Conan Doyle didn’t mean to, but he salted his Sherlockian work with storytelling prompts. Watson repeatedly whispers ‘Go’ into the imaginative reader’s ear. And so, from almost the very beginning, other people have felt compelled to make up their own Sherlock Holmes stories.” People have done that in many ways, from finding “problems” in the original stories to analyze to writing pastiche to creating fanfiction to writing plays, radio dramas, movies, and tv shows based on the characters. If you love these characters, you can’t resist. You slip into that rabbit hole and off you go. It’s great fun, even if it would drive Arthur Conan Doyle mad. That fun is beckoning to me once more, but before I go back to the game, I think I’ll read the stories over in publication order.