The Immortal Sherlock Holmes

Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as  Holmes and Watson in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson in the upcoming Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
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More than a century after his demise, the great detective is still solving crimes and forging new myths. Ahead of a new Hollywood film, Stuart Kelly examines his incredible afterlife

IF ANYONE is to blame for the fact that Sherlock Holmes has outlived his creator, it is probably his creator, the Edinburgh-born author, Arthur Conan Doyle. It was, after all, Doyle who first resurrected his famous detective. Doyle killed off Holmes in 1893, in the story The Final Problem, when the sleuth is presumed to have fallen to his death at the Reichenbach Falls confronting his nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

At the time, Doyle wrote to his mother saying that he “must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him”. He had expressed his concerns a few years earlier, writing, again to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things”.

But in 1901, Doyle succumbed to pressure from his readers and brought Holmes back, in perhaps his most famous story, The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Doyle would write a further four Holmes books. The Hound Of The Baskervilles was set before Holmes supposedly died; but later works, beginning with The Adventure Of The Empty House, are set afterwards. Holmes, in the Doyle “canon” lives until at least 1904, when he appears in the story His Last Bow, leaving his retirement and bee-keeping in the Sussex Downs.

Doyle died in 1930, three years after the last Sherlock book. Sherlock, however, lived on.

Even during Doyle’s lifetime, other writers were keen to use his most famous character. In 1907, a series of German books appeared, written by Theo van Blankensee, where Dr Watson was ditched and replaced by one of the Baker Street Irregulars – the gang of scamps Holmes intermittently employed – called Harry Taxon. It is the beginning of the Holmes apocrypha, and it is significant that, already, other writers were poring over Doyle stories to find the hints and throwaway comments, gaps and absences that could be exploited.

Doyle was not a conscientious writer. Since he rather resented his most famous creation, he never re-read the books before penning a new one. Dr Watson, in the first book, A Study In Scarlet, is wounded in the shoulder at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan. In The Sign Of The Four, the bullet has miraculously moved to his leg. His full name is John H Watson – but in The Man With The Twisted Lip, his own wife refers to him as James. Crime writer Dorothy L Sayers managed to square this conundrum by deciding his middle name was Hamish, and his wife was translating the Gaelic Hamish into English. His wife presents a problem as well. Watson marries Mary Morstan, whom we first meet in The Sign Of The Four. When Holmes “returns” from the dead, in The Adventure Of The Empty House, Watson says that he “had while away learned of my own sad bereavement”, and Watson moves back into the bachelor pad at 221B Baker Street. But then Watson weds again in The Adventure Of The Illustrious Client and The Adventure Of The Blanched Soldier.

What is remarkable is that the continuity errors and confusion about key plot elements do not act as a brake on continuations and derivative works. Instead, they almost act as a spur, with a deal of ingenuity going into making the mythology of Holmes consistent.

There are three main areas that other writers exploited in the ramshackle Doyle oeuvre. Firstly, there is the so-called “Great Hiatus”. The Reichenbach Falls episode was set in 1891 and The Adventure Of The Empty House took place in 1894 – and the years in-between are referred to as the “Great Hiatus”. (Confusingly, there is one Holmes story, The Adventure Of Wisteria Lodge set in 1892). What was Holmes doing over those three years?

Nicholas Meyer, who directed the movies Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is also a Holmes aficionado. His 1973 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution – itself made into a film in 1976 – has Holmes receiving treatment for his cocaine addiction under the auspices of Dr Sigmund Freud in this period. More fancifully, the story The Case Of The Smiling Detective, by Mark Bourne, in the anthology Sherlock Holmes In Orbit, has him spending those years in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

Next to the Great Hiatus is the Big Lack. Although Holmes is a genius at detection, a passable violin player and a keen observer of social niceties and sartorial etiquette, he isn’t much of a ladies’ man. Luckily, Doyle provided a female counterpart for Holmes in A Scandal In Bohemia, the opera singer Irene Adler. In the story, the Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and future King of Bohemia hires Holmes to track down a photograph Adler has of the two of them when they were lovers, for fear she might blackmail him. She eludes Holmes and lets him know she would not have taken such a dishonourable path.

Adler is mentioned in A Case Of Identity as the only person to have beaten Holmes. Watson says, “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind”. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Carole Nelson Douglas has written eight novels featuring Adler, beginning with Good Night, Mr Holmes, retelling the story of A Scandal In Bohemia from Adler’s perspective. She turns up in Nicholas Meyer’s third Holmes story, The Canary Trainer, where Holmes becomes a violinist at the Paris Opera, and ends up solving the mystery of the Phantom. In one of the most unusual versions, Holmes scholar William Baring-Gould, who wrote the Annotated Sherlock Holmes and first “biography”, put forward a theory that Adler and Holmes had a child, who took the name “Nero Wolfe” – the hero of Rex Stout’s 33 crime novels. John Lescroart and Meyer both hint at Wolfe being Holmes’s child.

Then there’s the three Ms: Moriarty, Moran and Mycroft. Moriarty only appears in two Holmes works and is referred to in another five of the 60 stories, but has become his archetypal nemesis. Sebastian Moran is referred to as Moriarty’s “chief of staff”. Mycroft is Sherlock’s older brother, who has an unspecified job in government. He is even more brilliant than his younger brother, who says of him that “all other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience”. From such slight references, a whole mythology evolved. It was helped by Watson and Holmes’s casual remarks. In The Adventure Of The Sussex Vampire, Holmes says “It was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. No fewer than eight novels and three short stories have attempted to provide this missing adventure.

The first official continuation was a collaboration between Doyle’s son Adrian and the crime novelist most famous for his “locked room mysteries” John Dickson Carr. Carr was already a successful novelist and had won a special Edgar Award for his biography of Doyle. Adrian has been described by another Doyle biographer, Andrew Lycett, as a “spendthrift playboy”, who assiduously milked the Doyle estate. Adrian had announced in 1942 he had found a hitherto unpublished Holmes story, which eventually transpired to be a story sent in on spec by an unpublished author. Legal battles were threatened, and, since there was already a great deal of interest from film studios (Basil Rathbone’s first outing as Sherlock was in 1939), the idea of generating new stories must have been tempting. The result was The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes in 1954. They occasionally glance at previous stories – The Adventure Of The Deptford Horror is inspired by the mention of a “notorious canary-trainer” in The Adventure Of Black Peter; but they steer clear of the most famous aspects of the Holmes canon. Mycroft, Moran and Adler are mentioned in passing; Moriarty is not.

SINCE then, hundreds of authors have tried their hands at writing Holmes, including Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Isaac Asimov, Colin Dexter, Stephen Fry and Ellery Queen. Queen’s The Misadventures Of Sherlock Holmes, with 33 often comic or parodic stories, was almost immediately suppressed by the Doyle estate, under Adrian’s instructions.

The “new” Holmes stories range from the superb to the silly. Rafael Marín’s Elemental, Querido Chaplin has the young Charlie Chaplin teaming up with Holmes to foil a plot by Fu Manchu. The Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu filled in the Great Hiatus with The Mandala Of Sherlock Holmes, where Holmes works alongside the Dalai Lama. Loren Estleman’s two Holmes books pitted him against Dracula and Dr Jekyll. Holmes has been called upon to solve the Marie Céleste, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and to help Mahatma Gandhi.

Two books in particular rise above the level of fan-fiction and have genuine literary merit: Michael Dibdin’s The Last Sherlock Holmes Mystery and Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. Dibdin’s novel is not unique in having Holmes brought in to solve the Whitechapel Murders committed by Jack the Ripper – there are at least three other novels with this conceit – but his presentation of a more unbalanced Holmes is compelling. As Holmes becomes convinced that the murders are being committed by Moriarty – who is carving his initial in blood across the East End – Watson becomes convinced that years of cocaine abuse have unsettled Holmes, and Moriarty is a figment of his imagination.

Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Adventures Of Kavalier & Klay and was a scriptwriter on the second Spider-man film, never definitively states that the elderly hero of The Final Solution is Holmes, but the 89-year-old, retired detective and bee-keeper is an obvious nod to His Last Bow and the title slyly refers to The Final Problem. The “old man” meets a young mute German-Jewish refugee in 1944, and agrees to help find his missing parrot (and along the way solve the murder of a British Foreign Office official). The parrot recites meaningless strings of numbers in German. No-one quite solves what these numbers mean, but it is strongly implied that the boy and the parrot are aware of the impending Nazi genocide. There are some atrocities even Holmes cannot solve.

There are very few characters that can survive the author’s death. However piqued Doyle was at his most famous creation, he would no doubt be delighted by his longevity.


• THE Ian Fleming estate has commissioned two “authorised” James Bond novels – Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks and Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver. In addition there are numerous Bond novels from the 1980s and 1990s by Raymond Benson and John Gardner, and one novel, Colonel Sun, by Kingsley Amis. The Fleming estate took action against the graphic novelist Alan Moore over his character of “Jimmy”, a womanising bully and spy, in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. Other spin-offs include Young Bond novels and the Miss Moneypenny Diaries.

• FOR many years the royalties from Peter Pan went to the Sick Children’s Hospital in London’s Great Ormond Street. When Barrie left copyright, Geraldine McCaughrean was commissioned to write a sequel, Peter Pan In Scarlet. Alan Moore was in trouble with the Barrie estate as well, after his Lost Girls book imagined the sex life of Wendy (as well as Alice and Dorothy). Peter Pan was going to be the villain in Bill Willingham’s Fables, but was still under copyright: he made the villain Gepetto instead.

• THERE were numerous, unauthorised Harry Potter spin-offs. Chinese pirates created a series of Hale Bote novels, including Harry Potter and the Waterproof Pearl, Harry Potter and the Golden Turtle and Harry Potter and the Chinese Overseas Students at Hogwarts, below. A Belarus version, Porri Gatter and the Stone Philosopher re-imagined him as a grenade-launcher wielding partisan of the White Russians. Harry Potter is a trademark, so even after it leaves copyright, no-one can write “new” versions.

• Guy Ritchie’s film, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows is out next month.