There are few character in modern fiction as prolific as Sherlock Holmes. Spanning 130 years of books, plays, radio shows, silent films, movies, and television shows, the story of Sherlock Holmes has become the template for nearly every detective that has followed.
In his new book The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, Zach Dundas carries out his own investigation, from the nearly forgotten first manuscript to the award-winning series on BBC. In this comprehensive guide to the history and cultural influence of Holmes and Watson that weaves investigative journalism with text from the stories, Dundas provides detailed accounts of his travels across London, New York, and Los Angeles, where he explores every facet of the Sherlock story, from societies dedicated to scholarly study of the works of Doyle to a self-trained “mentalist” who credits Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes for his uncanny on-stage deductive powers, including interviews with Steven Moffat, create of the BBC series, bestselling author Laurie R. King, and others.
GeekDad: Just as there is no Lord of the Rings without Sam, there is no Sherlock Holmes without Watson. What was your favorite Watson story you uncovered in your research?
Zach Dundas: You’re absolutely right, and in some ways Watson could be the model for Sam: an incarnation of English normality on the surface, deep fires within. He’s a rock, a chum, a bit of a ladies’ man, occasionally depressed, often just a little too deep into the wine or, we can infer, the gamblers’ lounge. (Did you know that Sherlock keeps Watson’s checkbook locked in a drawer? That tells you something.) It turns out that he’s the real main character of the Sherlockian saga – the factor that humanizes the whole thing. Handsome devil, too.
The most famous Watson adventure is probably when Holmes sends him solo to Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the good doctor has the whole narrative to himself for several chapters. (In which he bumbles around, brave but incompetent, no surprise.) But to pick my favorite: in The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, Holmes decides that he needs a Chinese pottery expert to infiltrate the lair of an insidious Austrian villain. Watson, no questions asked, bundles off to the library and crams as much Chinese pottery knowledge into his mind as he can, then bluffs his way through a hilarious scene with the baddie. He looks frankly ridiculous, but it solves the case, so he doesn’t care. In any case, he does it all for love.
GD: For better or worse, Benedict Cumberbatch is now the face of Sherlock Holmes. How accurate do you feel his portrayal of Holmes is in the BBC series? Do you think “high functioning sociopath” is an appropriate description of Sherlock Holmes?
Dundas: I would put Cumberbatch in my all-time Top Five of screen Sherlocks. (Along with: Eille Norwood, the definitive silent-film Holmes; Basil Rathbone, of course; early-period Jeremy Brett; and Vasily Livanov, from a terrific early ’80s Soviet TV series.) He captures the character’s spiky, artsy edge, which is often lost in portrayals that emphasize the Victorian kitsch and retro-fuddy-duddiness that can sometimes accrue around the Holmesian world. It’s a sensitive and brilliant performance – watch him rattle off one of his rapid-fire deductive monologues, sweat shining on those admirable cheekbones from sheer synaptic effort.
As for the “high-functioning sociopath” bit, I think that’s more our era than Cumberbatch. Every age remakes Holmes in its own image – the detective is a suave Nazi hunter in the 1940s, a nervy cokehead in the ’80s. In the 2010s, he seems to be “on the spectrum” somewhere and have something in common with the remorseless geniuses we worship, Steve Jobs and the like. Take it as you will. The element Cumberbatch neglects – that everyone, just about, neglects in their portrayals of Sherlock Holmes – is that the character Conan Doyle creates is actually a pretty nice person, when you get right down to it.
GD: What is it about the Sherlock Holmes formula that has engendered so many spinoffs and homages? I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes and have to admit it took me way too long to discover the homage in the Hugh Laurie television show House, MD (House/Holmes, James Wilson/John Watson, drug addiction, brilliant detective). Are there any other books, television shows, or movies that are basically reimagined Sherlock Holmes stories that I can feel ridiculous for not recognizing?
Dundas: I don’t know that you need to feel ridiculous, but it’s elementary: just about every detective show on American TV is a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Think about it. There’s almost always the quirky, oddball, outsider detective with the special gift for observation or science or whatever. And there’s almost always the bemused companion/accomplice/apprentice in a supporting role. The Holmesian scheme is basically one of two archetypal crime-fiction set-ups, the other being its reversal: the lone-wolf hardboiled model of Raymond Chandler, et al.
GD: Were there any true crimes that inspired some of the most popular Sherlock Holmes stories?
Dundas: Conan Doyle was interesting in that he did not make use of a lot of real-life material that seems obvious to us now. Famously, he didn’t do anything with Jack the Ripper. He didn’t write about the real East End gangs of the time, or make much use of the period’s most notorious domestic murders. That’s because, I think, he never thought of the Holmes stories as real in any sense – he thought of them as romantic faerie tales.
But he did use real crime and criminals as one color on his palette. The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, a thief’s tunneling operation into a bank vault recalls several famous capers from early in the Victorian era. He based the vile blackmailer of “Charles Augustus Milverton” on a real blackmailer, Charles Augustus Howell. I believe that several real-life super criminals helped Conan Doyle create Professor Moriarty, his arch-villain: notably Adam Worth, who really was called “the Napoleon of Crime,” and a famous scam artist known as “Jem the Penman,” a bent lawyer who orchestrated major robberies and frauds for many years early in the Victorian era. Conan Doyle’s original readers would have gotten all those references.
GD: Speaking of original readers, I don’t remember Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes wearing a deerstalker cap, smoking a giant pipe, or saying “Elementary!” Where did that all come from?
Dundas: The deerstalker came from early illustrators, especially the great Sidney Paget, who provided the brilliant illustrations for The Strand Magazine. He showed Holmes in a deerstalker during a trip to the country, which was stylistically appropriate. Somehow it became a thing. Conan Doyle’s Holmes does smoke pipes incessantly (as well as cigars and cigarettes), but not the enormous curved meerschaum of legend. I’m pretty sure that started with William Gillette, the American actor who was the first great Sherlock on the stage. And Holmes does say “Elementary!” – just never “elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette has a version of that phrase in his play, and Basil Rathbone really locked it in as the character’s signature.
So, one fascinating thing about Sherlock Holmes – and, really, the subject of my book – is how so many different people, in different eras, unwittingly collaborated to create this legend.
GD: You can recommend one Sherlock Holmes story from the 60 penned by Arthur Conan Doyle. Which one do you choose, and why?
Dundas: That’s brutal! In the book, I assemble a list of the 20 essentials (in my opinion) – and that was hard. But if I could pick just one, I guess I would say The Sign of the Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel. I argue in the book that it marks the highest level of Art (capital-A) Conan Doyle achieved in the saga – it’s surreal, hallucinatory, dark, and gripping, with a brilliant chase scene at the end and tons of that moody Sherlockian London atmosphere everyone loves.
The story’s trappings consist of lavish Victorian intrigue, with lots of politically incorrect imperialism and problematic treatment of any character who isn’t white. But at the same time, you can read its tale of treasure stolen from India as a parable of colonialism gone wrong – Conan Doyle very clearly says that greed and thievery lies at the heart of the imperial project, and this story shows those sins coming home to roost. And we get Holmes on drugs and generally acting like a high-strung artist and a classic moronic Scotland Yard detective and an unforgettable villain (the One-Legged Man!) and Watson in love. It’s the one that’s got it all.
Thanks to Zach Dundas for providing me with a copy of his book, The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, and for taking the time to talk with me.