LONG LIVE Sherlock Holmes

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON IT'S 1903, AND SHERLOCK HOLMES, most famous consulting detective, retires at age forty-nine to become a beekeeper on his small farm on the Sussex Downs. Except for an adventure infiltrating a German spy ring and an investigation into the mysterious death of a teacher, nothing is known about the remainder of Holmes's life.

That's one version of the story, anyway. Try another: leaves London, raises bees, and at age sixty-seven marries twenty-one-year-old scholar Mary Russell, his intellectual and partner in solving new and quite dangerous mysteries.

Or how about this: An aging Holmes discovers the rejuvenating properties of bee-produced Royal Jelly, finally expiring on his one hundred third birthday, with the name "Irene" on his lips.

So many Holmeses, so many musings on a legend whose vast popularity often aroused resentment in his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

That first scenario was written by Doyle, the author of fiftysix short stories and four novels that make up the complete and official Sherlock Holmes canon. The second is the basis of a highly engaging, ongoing series of books by writer Laurie R. King, and the third comes from the deeply moving Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, a 1962 "biography" by noted Sherlockian scholar William Baring-Gould.

Despite Doyle's lifelong ambivalence about his greatest literary success - which he felt detracted from his other writing - he imbued his late-Victorian hero with irresistible qualities that subsequently inspired hundreds if not thousands of other storytellers. Holmes lives in many dreams beyond Doyle's, a startlingry malleable icon invented and reinvented in the hands of post-Doyle authors, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, television and radio producers, and more.

Some of these dreams can be found in innumerable pastiche fictions (new adventures for Holmes and his chronicler, Dr. John Watson); some are radical reworkings of the canon (the BBC's popular, modern-day Sherlock); some offer a revisionist take on the old narrative (Michael Dibdin's shocking The Last Sherlock Holmes Story); and some simply borrow, reverently, from Holmes's legacy (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, essentially another version of Doyle's The Final Problem).

Doyle himself knew of alternative interpretations of Holmes, even telling stage actor William Gillette, who played Holmes for years, that Gillette could "murder [the character] or do anything you like to him. …