The enduring cult of Sherlock Holmes

DAVID TODD November 16 1987

The enduring cult of Sherlock Holmes

DAVID TODD November 16 1987

The enduring cult of Sherlock Holmes


When Arthur Conan Doyle sold his first novel, A Study in Scarlet, to Beeton ’s Christmas Annual—an undistinguished London journal of fiction—he scarcely intended to create a cultural icon. In 1887 he was simply a young physician with vague literary aspirations trying to occupy his abundant spare time and, perhaps, supplement his meagre income by writing mystery stories. A century later the hero of that story, master detective Sherlock Holmes, is among the world’s best-known fictional characters. His trademark pipe and deerstalker cap remain as readily recognizable as the image of Queen Victoria herself. Indeed, for the legion of devotees around the world who have come to know the great reasoning machine through his exploits—in books, plays, movies and TV adaptations—Holmes has taken on the reality of flesh and blood.

This year devout Sherlockians in North America and Europe are marking the centennial of Holmes’s debut in a suitably dignified fashion, with commemorative dinners, workshops and tours. In April members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London made a pilgrimage to Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls where, in The Final Problem, the

detective apparently perished. And next month the Metro Toronto Public Library, which boasts one of the world’s most extensive collections of Sherlockiana, will mark the centennial with an exhibition tracing the history of crime fiction from Doyle’s detective to the modern private eye.

Meanwhile, at least half a dozen new books on Holmes and Doyle have reached Canadian bookstores this year, ranging from Peter Haining’s The Television Sherlock Holmes (Cancoast Books, $37.50), which explores the detective’s many TV incarnations, to Sherlock Holmes’ London (Rain Coast Books, $25.50), a photographic tour of the city that gave Doyle the backdrop for his stories. Said J. D. Singh, owner of Toronto’s Sleuth of Baker Street bookstore: “Sherlockians are almost rabid in their appetite for Doyle material.”

But Holmes’s appeal clearly extends beyond the printed page. This year North American theatre audiences helped turn plays based on Doyle’s cre-

ation into box-office hits. On Broadway, actor Frank Langella (Dracula) has won critical acclaim for his portrayal of the detective in Charles Marowitz’s play Sherlock’s Last Case\ in Halifax, the Neptune Theatre opened its current season with a production of Dennis Rosa’s Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Sign of Four—a work based on one of Doyle’s stories.

The most dedicated followers of Holmes and his gallant companion and chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson, actively seek each other out to share their enthusiasm. There are an estimated 180 Sherlockian societies around the world. Canada alone has groups in o Saskatoon, Edmonton, Wins' nipeg, Montreal and Halifax. But the nucleus for much of the activity is the 250-member Bootmakers of Toronto Society, which has been congregating since 1972 to exchange news and opinions, perform skits, and test one another on knowledge of Sherlockiana. Said Maureen Green, the group’s treasurer:

“We’ll get a group of people together and it’s always 1895. There are enough hassles and cares in the world; this is just pure fun.” The group’s name refers to the sole reference to Toronto in the Holmes stories—a boot bearing the stamp of its Toronto manufacturer, which provides a vital clue to the mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The group that later became the Bootmakers first got together in 1971 at a Sherlock Holmes weekend sponsored by the Metropolitan Toronto Library to mark the opening of its Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. The Conan Doyle

room contains hundreds of different editions of the 56 short stories and four novels featuring Holmes that Doyle wrote between 1887 and 1927, works known to true Sherlockians as “the Canon.”

The collection also features volumes of Doyle’s other works, Sherlockian criticism and pastiches by later authors, original magazine illustrations, and items that would have been at home in Holmes’s sitting room at his fictional address of 221B Baker Street in London. On one table rests a single Persian slipper, like the one in which Holmes stored his tobacco. A glass syringe recalls Holmes’s cocaine habit. Said librarian Cameron Hollyer, who oversees the collection: “Sherlock Holmes is primarily read for entertainment. In the same way, the Conan Doyle room is devoted to a collection that exists for itself. It’s nonutilitarian.”

The sheer pleasure of tongue-in-cheek scholarship has always been the overriding goal of Sherlockians. Practitioners often call it “the game” or the “higher criticism” and work from the assump-

tion that Holmes and Watson were real people, and Doyle merely the literary agent who arranged for the publication of Watson’s case studies. In 1934 Christopher Morley, co-founder of the New York-based Saturday Review of Literature, started one of America’s earliest Sherlockian societies, The Baker Street Irregulars (BSl), as a polite pastime for literary gentlemen—and as an excuse to share a few drinks with some friends. Members of the BSl approached the stories of the Canon with a mock seriousness meant to parody the solemnity of most literary criticism. They devised

elaborate explanations for the many inconsistencies in the stories, including Watson’s war wound that seemed to migrate from his shoulder to his leg. In fact, such slips were the result of Doyle’s carelessness and well-known indifference toward his famous creation.

Devotees of the higher criticism have bent the deductive process into unlikely shapes in order to address questions left unanswered by the Canon. They have even speculated about the effect that constant adventures with Holmes had on Dr. Watson’s marriage. Philip Shreffler, editor of the BSi’s official publication, the Baker Street Journal, describes Sherlockian scholarship as “intellectuals at play.” Said Shreffler: “There’s a big difference between analysing Shakespeare with sweat on the brow and what we do, which is done with a sense of fun.”

In the past decade, however, some Sherlockians have begun to take a more serious, intellectual approach to the Canon, giving rise to what is often called the “new criticism.” Taking their cue from the growing acceptance of

popular culture as a legitimate subject for academic study, many Holmes fans are transgressing the commandments of the game, treating the stories as the product of an author’s skill.

Christopher Redmond, a Waterloo, Ont., Sherlockian, won acclaim for his 1984 book, In Bed With Sherlock Holmes, which examines the sexual subtext of many stories—an attempt to demonstrate how Victorian mores, as well as aspects of Doyle’s own troubled personal life, came to bear upon the writing of the Canon. Although Doyle had fallen in love with a woman named Jean Leckie, he remained faithful to his wife, Louise, and nursed her through a protracted battle with tuberculosis until her death in 1906. Interestingly, the plots of several Holmes stories from that period revolve around love triangles. Said Redmond: “Very little of a serious nature has been written about Doyle. Yet he was a complex and highly creative man.”

Doyle, who later married Leckie, was an avid sportsman, an impassioned defender of victims of the law and, in later life, a staunch believer in spiritualism. Clearly, the distant, cerebral Holmes and the hearty, romantic Watson were reflections of the different sides of his own character. Still, over the years I Doyle’s dislike for Holmes grew. § The author believed the characz ter’s popularity had robbed him Q of recognition for his more seriHollyer in the Arthur Conan Doyle room: with a glass syringe recalling Holmes ’s cocaine habit ous literary efforts, including

his historical novels and his po-

etry. Indeed, in his 1893 story, The Final Problem, Doyle attempted to kill off Holmes, sending him tumbling over the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a deadly struggle with the man he called the “Napoleon of crime,” Professor Moriarty. But the clamoring of his readers—some of whom donned black armbands after Holmes’s apparent demise—finally overwhelmed Doyle. A decade later he grudgingly resurrected his detective.

Holmes now seems indestructible, destined forever to stalk the foggy, gaslit streets of Victorian London, Dr. Watson at his side. To those generations who have grown up with him, Sherlock Holmes is a moral symbol: he stands for reason, order and the power of the intellect to tame the forces of chaos. Said Bootmakers treasurer Green: “He rides to the rescue of queens and paupers alike and more than once has taken the law into his own hands to do what is right. He is our knight in shining armor.”

— DAVID TODD in Toronto