Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: Sherlock Holmes
Why it’s daunting: Everyone knows who Sherlock Holmes is, and it seems like everyone has written about him, too. It’s amazing just how much Holmes material is out there. The London sleuth, invented by Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1887 novel A Study In Scarlet, has come to personify the very idea of the private detective who relies on logic and deductive reasoning to solve the most baffling crimes. Conan Doyle wrote relatively few Holmes tales—four novels and 56 short stories that fans collectively call “the canon”—but that’s just the tip of it. Holmes wasn’t the first fictional detective, but he was far and away the most influential, and it’s impossible to overstate his importance to the mystery genre. His continuing adventures in the hands of subsequent authors and filmmakers have been estimated to number at least 25,000 novels, movies, TV shows, radio plays, cartoons, games, and other media over the last century.
Possible gateway: A Study In Scarlet or The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes
Why: Elementary? Sure. You have to begin with the original 60 Conan Doyle tales. That’s the easy part; the difficulty comes later, in trying to find the gold amid what can seem like a swamp of post-Doyle mediocrity and detail-obsessed minutiae. Familiarity with the entire canon should ideally come before any further exploration, in part because half the fun of Sherlockiana is seeing how later authors fill in the gaps Conan Doyle left.
Two entry points suggest themselves: The first Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet, and The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, which collects the earliest Holmes short stories. Both have their advantages. Scarlet’s chief deficiency is that it abandons Holmes for nearly its entire second half, flashing back instead to Utah two decades earlier, to show the motivation for the novel’s central crime. But that first half is a tour de force, with Holmes himself serving as an irresistible mystery to his new roommate and future biographer Dr. Watson, who can’t decide whether this perplexing man is a genius or a complete loon. How can someone look at a smudge of dirt and instantly tell you where in London it came from, but not know that the Earth revolves around the sun?
Adventures, on the other hand, offers the great detective in bite-size chunks, and includes a healthy sampling of Conan Doyle’s best work, particularly “The Speckled Band,” “The Red-Headed League,” and “A Scandal In Bohemia,” which introduces Irene Adler, essentially Catwoman to Holmes’ Batman.
Where not to start: Holmes fandom becomes really daunting when beginning readers encounter “Sherlockians,” the hardcore fans who for more than a century have applied Holmes’ methods of deduction to fill in plot holes and tantalizing hints of untold story Conan Doyle left behind. That’s hardly uncommon with any pop-culture fandom, of course—fans of Lost or The X-Files similarly work together to create a deeper engagement with their favorite narratives—but Sherlockians have taken it a step further than most fans. Not satisfied with simply achieving internal consistency, true Sherlockians play what they call “the Great Game”—treating the stories as biography instead of fiction. It works like this: Watson and Holmes were real; Watson was not merely the narrator of the stories, but their literal author; and Arthur Conan Doyle was just Watson’s literary agent. The concept has worked its way into more mainstream Sherlockiana in a milder way. Authors like Nicholas Meyer often pretend that their books are actually previously unpublished writings of Watson’s.
There are two major annotated editions of the Conan Doyle stories, William S. Baring-Gould’s 1967 The Annotated Sherlock Holmes and the 2004 three-volume The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S. Klinger. A 21st-century newcomer might well want footnotes to clarify some of the now-obscure Victorianisms peppering the stories—just what is a gaslight, for instance?—but the book is far too full of minutiae and proto-geeky speculation for any neophyte. Case in point: Baring-Gould argues, via meteorological data from 1891 showing how much sunlight there was during the first week of April, that “The Speckled Band” took place on a Friday, and not, as previous scholars had suggested, on a Wednesday. This suggests a new mystery even Holmes may not be able to solve: Who cares? However, as a first step into the Great Game, either of these sets, as well as Baring-Gould’s speculative biography Sherlock Holmes Of Baker Street, are essential.
Next steps: That isn’t to say that the Great Game should be completely avoided; some of the most rewarding post-Conan Doyle works are the ones that wrestle with the canon’s inconsistencies and spin fresh tales out of them. For example, in his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Nicholas Meyer tackled the question of just how Holmes rid himself of his cocaine addiction—a major element of early canon stories that goes unmentioned later—and came up with the idea that Holmes might have gotten therapy from none other than Sigmund Freud.
Holmes has had a vibrant career off the printed page as well, of course. For decades, Basil Rathbone was considered the quintessential film Holmes, and it’s still worth checking out his appearances in the deerstalker hat, particularly 1939’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles. But Jeremy Brett’s starring role in the Holmes stories made for Britain’s Granada Television in the 1980s and ’90s is masterfully definitive, thanks to Brett’s obsessive insistence on staying as true as possible to Conan Doyle’s original vision; that series begins with 1984’s The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes.
Other authors have tied Holmes to infamous real-life Victorian-era crimes, particularly Jack The Ripper, whose 1888 killing spree took place when Holmes’ fictional career had just begun. The two have been pitted against each other at least a dozen times in films and novels; none, though, are particularly memorable. Much more interesting is Michael Chabon’s World War II-set The Final Solution, which confronts an aging unnamed narrator (clearly Holmes) with the greatest murder of the 20th century, the Holocaust. Laurie King has a more upbeat take on retirement-era Holmes in her series beginning with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, which teams Sherlock with a much younger female protégé, Mary Russell, who eventually becomes his wife. Larry Millett’s five novels, beginning with Sherlock Holmes And The Red Demon, bring Holmes repeatedly back to, improbably enough, the Twin Cities; Millett was an architectural historian and St. Paul journalist before turning to fiction, and his depth of knowledge makes his series a treat.
Going further afield, Umberto Eco clearly had Conan Doyle in mind when he wrote his celebrated literary thriller The Name Of The Rose, which puts Holmes-pastiche hero Brother William Of Baskerville in the middle of a deadly theological puzzle. And the 2003 horror anthology Shadows Over Baker Street pits Holmes against the H.P. Lovecraft mythos; the highlight is Neil Gaiman’s Hugo-winning short story “A Study In Emerald,” recasting the events of Study In Scarlet in a Victorian London ruled by demonic Old Ones, and filled with sly, in-jokey references to the Conan Doyle stories.