A Brief But Complete History of Sherlock Holmes

The below essay doubles as the introduction to The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, the largest collection of Holmes tales ever assembled, one that includes an array of surprising writers, from P.G. Wodehouse and August Derleth to Neil Gaiman and Anne Perry. In the essay, Edgar Award-winning editor Otto Penzler, who also put the book together, illuminates the life and times of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “universally beloved” creation (except he was not so beloved, as you’ll see, by Conan Doyle himself) with humor and thoroughness. Even diehard Holmes fans are likely to find something here they never knew about the great detective. Sherlock completists, too, are destined to find, in the book itself, stories they’ve never read.

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The Introduction to The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories by Otto Penzler

About a hundred years ago, Sherlock Holmes was described as one of the three most famous people who ever lived, the other two being Jesus Christ and Houdini. There are some who claim that he is a fictional character, but this notion is, of course, absurd. Every schoolchild knows what he looks like, what he does for a living, and most know many of his peculiar characteristics.

The tall, slender, hawk-nosed figure, with his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, is instantly recognizable in every corner of the world. In addition to the superb stories describing his adventures written by his friend, roommate, and chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson (with the assistance of his literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Holmes has been impersonated on the stage, television, radio, and in countless motion pictures. More than twenty-five thousand books, stories, and articles have been written about him by famous authors, amateur writers, and scholars.

The tall, slender, hawk-nosed figure, with his deerstalker hat and Inverness cape, is instantly recognizable in every corner of the world. In addition to the superb stories describing his adventures written by his friend, roommate, and chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson (with the assistance of his literary agent, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), Holmes has been impersonated on the stage, television, radio, and in countless motion pictures. More than twenty-five thousand books, stories, and articles have been written about him by famous authors, amateur writers, and scholars.

This collection of Sherlock Holmes parodies and pastiches is the largest ever assembled. It contains serious pastiches by distinguished literary figures, equally good stories by less exalted Sherlockians, and some truly dreadful parodies included here for historical interest more than reading pleasure. They are, mercifully, brief.

Inevitably, I have drawn on the work of others. The first and greatest anthology of its kind is The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes (1944), edited by Ellery Queen, a brilliant, pioneering anthologist whose best collections — 101 Years’ Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories 1841 – 1941 (1941); its sequel, To the Queen’s Taste (1946); The Female of the Species (1943); and others — are true cornerstones of detective fiction.

Other scholars and aficionados who have unearthed material and whose books have provided access to rare and obscure material are Robert Adey, Richard Lancelyn Green, Charles Press, Marvin Kaye, and Mike Ashley.

My deep affection for Holmes, now exceeding fifty years of reading, has resulted in the addition of stories to this massive tome that never before have been collected in a book devoted to the great detective. While I may not fully concur with Watson’s assessment that Holmes is “the best and wisest man whom I have ever known,” an accolade reserved for a very few dear friends, he has been a trusted and worthy companion for the greatest percentage of my life.

Sherlock (he was nearly named Sherrinford) was born on January 6, 1854, on the farmstead of Mycroft (the name of his older brother) in the North Riding of Yorkshire. He solved his first case (eventually titled “The Gloria Scott”) while a twenty-year-old student at Oxford. Following graduation, he became the world’s first consulting detective — a vocation he followed for twenty-three years.

In January 1881 he was looking for someone to share his new quarters at 221B Baker Street when a friend introduced him to Dr. John H. Watson. Before agreeing to share the apartment, the two men aired their respective shortcomings. Holmes confesses, “I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end.” He also smokes a vile shag tobacco and conducts experiments with loathsome-smelling chemicals. He fails, however, to mention an affection for cocaine. Although he ruefully notes his fondness for scratching away at the violin while in contemplation, he proves to be a virtuoso who can calm his roommate’s raw nerves with a melodious air. Watson’s admitted faults include the keeping of a bull pup, a strong objection to arguments because his nerves cannot stand them, a penchant for arising from bed “at all sorts of ungodly hours,” and an immense capacity for laziness. “I have another set of vices when I’m well,” he says, “but those are the principal ones at present.” They become friends, and Watson chronicles the deeds of his illustrious roommate, often to the displeasure of Holmes, who resents the melodramatic and sensational tales. He believes that the affairs, if told at all, should be put to the public as straightforward exercises in cold logic and deductive reasoning.

Holmes possesses not only excellent deductive powers but also a giant intellect. Anatomy, chemistry, mathematics, British law, and sensational literature are but a few areas of his vast sphere of knowledge, although he is admittedly not well versed in such subjects as astronomy, philosophy, and politics. He has published several distinguished works on erudite subjects:

Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos; A Study of the Influence of a Trade upon the Form of the Hand; Upon the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus; A Study of the Chaldean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language; and his magnum opus, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. His four-volume The Whole Art of Detection has not yet been published. When he needs information that his brain does not retain, he refers to a small, carefully selected library of reference works and a series of commonplace books. Since Holmes cares only about facts that aid his work, he ignores whatever he considers superfluous. He explains his theory of education thus:

I consider that a man’s brain originally is like an empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. . . . It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time for every addition of knowledge you forget something you knew before.

An athletic body complements Holmes’s outstanding intelligence. He seems even taller than his six feet because he is extremely thin. His narrow, hooked nose and sharp, piercing eyes give him a hawklike appearance. He often astonishes Watson with displays of strength and agility; he is a superb boxer, fencer, and singlestick player. He needs all his strength when he meets his nemesis, the ultimate archcriminal Professor James Moriarty, in a struggle at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The evenly matched adversaries, locked in battle, fall over the cliff; both were reported to be dead. All England mourned the passing of its great keeper of the law, but in 1894, after being missing for three years, Holmes returned. He had not been killed in the fall, after all, but had seen a good opportunity to fool his many enemies in the underworld. He had taken over the identity of a Danish explorer, Sigerson, and traveled to many parts of the world, including New Jersey, where he is believed to have had an affair with Irene Adler (who will always be the woman to Holmes), and to Tibet, where he learned the secret of long life from the Dalai Lama.

When Miss Adler (the famous and beautiful opera singer Holmes first meets in “A Scandal in Bohemia”) died in 1903, Holmes retired to keep bees on the southern slopes of the Sussex Downs with his old housekeeper, Mrs. Martha Hudson. He came out of retirement briefly before World War I, but his life since then has been quiet.

Holmes has outlived the people who have participated at various times in his adventures. In addition to Mycroft, Watson, Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Mrs. Hudson, the best-known auxiliary personalities in the stories include Billy the Page Boy, who occasionally announces visitors to 221B; Mary Morstan, who becomes Mrs. Watson; The Baker Street Irregulars, street urchins led by Wiggins, who scramble after information for Holmes’s coins; Lestrade, an inept Scotland Yard inspector; Stanley Hopkins, a Scotland Yard man of greater ability; Gregson, the “smartest of the Scotland Yarders,” according to Holmes; and Colonel Sebastian Moran, “the second most dangerous man in London.”

The first story written about Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet, originally appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887 and subsequently was published in book form in London by Ward, Lock & Company in 1888; the first American edition was published by J. B. Lippincott & Company in 1890. Holmes is called to assist Scotland Yard on what Inspector Tobias Gregson calls “a bad business at 3, Lauriston Gardens.” An American, Enoch J. Drebber, has been murdered, and Yard men can point to only a single clue, the word “Rache” scrawled upon the wall in blood. They believe it to be the first letters of a woman’s name, Rachel, but Holmes suggests that it is the German word for “revenge.” Soon, the dead man’s private secretary, Stangerson, is also found murdered; the same word is written in blood nearby. A long middle section of this novel, dealing with Mormons, is an unusual flashback.

The Sign of Four first appeared simultaneously in the English and American editions of Lippincott’s Magazine for February 1890. Spencer Blackett published the first English book edition in the same year; P. F. Collier published the first American book edition in 1891. Calling at 221B Baker Street for help is Mary Morstan, a fetching young lady by whom Watson is totally charmed; ultimately, he marries her. She is the daughter of a captain in the Indian Army who had mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier and had never been heard from again. Four years after the disappearance, Miss Morstan received an anonymous gift, a huge, lustrous pearl, and has received another like it each year thereafter. Holmes and Watson accompany her to a tryst with the eccentric Thaddeus Sholto, twin brother of Bartholomew Sholto and the son of a major who had been Captain Morstan’s only friend in London. Holmes sets out to find a fabulous treasure and is soon involved with the strange Jonathan Small and Tonga.

“A Scandal in Bohemia” first appeared in The Strand Magazine in July 1891; its first book appearance was in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892). The first published short story in which Holmes appears features the detective in an uncharacteristic battle of wits with a lady and with no real crime to be solved. The king of Bohemia has had a rather indiscreet affair with the beautiful Irene Adler, who threatens to create an international scandal when he attempts to discard her and marry a noblewoman. Holmes is hired to obtain possession of a certain unfortunate photograph before it can be sent to the would-be bride’s royal family. Holmes is outwitted, and he never stops loving Irene for fooling him.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Sir Charles Baskerville, of Baskerville Hall, Dartmoor, Devon, has been found dead. There are no signs of violence at the scene, but his face is incredibly distorted with terror. Dr. James Mortimer enlists the aid of Holmes to protect the young heir to the estate, Sir Henry Baskerville. Watson goes to the grim moor to keep an eye on Sir Henry but is warned to return to London by a neighbor, Beryl Stapleton, the beautiful sister of a local naturalist, who hears a blood-chilling moan at the edge of the great Grimpen Mire and identifies it as the legendary Hound of the Baskervilles, calling for its prey.

The original stories about Holmes total sixty; more than a hundred times that number have been written by other authors. Even Conan Doyle wrote a parody of the characters, contained in this collection.

Today, of course, Holmes continues to be a multimedia superstar, appearing in two internationally successful movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes; the Sherlock BBC television series starring Benedict Cumberbatch; and Elementary, the wildly popular CBS series starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Dr. Watson.

Although universally beloved, there were a few who were not enamored of the great detective, and his detractors were led by none other than Conan Doyle himself. Having had enough of Holmes and believing that he had far superior works to write, Conan Doyle famously threw him off the cliff at the edge of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, along with the insidious Professor Moriarty.

Here is Conan Doyle’s own account of the death of Holmes, with an introductory note by the editor of the magazine in which it first appeared. It was originally published as “Conan Doyle Tells the True Story of Sherlock Holmes” in the December 15, 1900, issue of Tit-Bits; it has been reprinted as “A Gaudy Death” and as “Conan Doyle Tells the True Story of Sherlock Holmes’s End.” Fortunately, as is well known, Conan Doyle eventually bowed to public pressure and resurrected Holmes to write two more novels and thirty-six additional short stories.

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From The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, edited and introduced by Otto Penzler. Compilation copyright © 2015 by Otto Penzler. Reprinted by permission of Pantheon and Vintage Books, division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.