EVERYONE'S FAVORITE SLEUTH; the Enduring Passion for the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 24, 2005 | Go to article overview
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EVERYONE'S FAVORITE SLEUTH; the Enduring Passion for the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes


Byline: Bruce Allen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

"Mr. Holmes, they are the footprints of a horde of imitators," one might say of traces left by the many dozens (probably hundreds) of acts of homage, pastiche, and parody that have emerged in the century since Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) finally bid farewell to his immortal creations Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Cases in point: This spring and summer alone will bring us Caleb Carr's "The Italian Secretary" (in which Holmes solves a mystery rooted in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots); the eighth volume ("Locked Rooms") in Laurie R. King's delicious series featuring Holmes and his wife (!) and sleuthing partner Mary Russell; and - a real surprise - maverick Texas author Mitch Cullin's moving portrayal of the Great Detective in old age, "A Slight Trick of the Mind."

Mr. Cullin introduces us to Holmes aged 93, retired to his Sussex farm, where he reflects upon his long-ago adventures, tended by his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and assisted by her adolescent son Roger in his scrupulous cultivation of the science of beekeeping. All too conscious of his waning intellectual powers, Holmes finds a "measure of peace . . . in the harmony of the insects' murmuring, soothing the mind and providing assurance against the confusion of a changing planet." (The year is 1947.)

But this peace is disturbed by Holmes's memories of his recent trip to Japan, during which he witnessed the ruin of Hiroshima and by a case recorded in a manuscript discovered by Roger, which brings even more unwelcome memories of a young wife depressed by multiple miscarriages, who took recourse in spiritualism, moving tragically beyond Holmes's power to save her.

Further losses ensue, and Mr. Cullin ends this perfectly conceived and executed narrative with a compelling picture of the ultimate rationalist a stranger and afraid, alone in a fragmenting world he is powerless to remake. It's a haunting variation on the image of Holmes approaching retirement that lends an autumnal glow to the later Conan Doyle stories, and it makes for an exquisite, immensely satisfying novel. Mr. Cullin's specific inspiration may have been the late Holmes story "His Last Bow" (1917), in which the detective's Sussex retirement is interrupted by World War I, requiring him to infiltrate a German spy ring, among other entertainingly detailed exploits.

Dedicated Sherlockians will have already realized this, of course. But even they will surely be informed as much as diverted by longtime Holmes scholar Leslie Klinger's lavishly annotated and illustrated edition of the 56 short stories chronicling the adventures of the world of detection's Boswell and Johnson. These romances of ratiocination and derring-do caused a sensation when they began appearing in London's Strand Magazine n 1891. And the beat goes on.

The many reasons why are cited in John le Carr's appreciative "Introduction" (which singles out Watson's mastery of plainspoken narration) and in Mr. Klinger's substantial essay on "The World of Sherlock Holmes," which describes the prolific and varied career of Holmes's indefatigable creator: "Conan Doyle was a successful playwright and poet, political journalist, war correspondent, historian, detective, scientist, visionary, prophet - a giant of the Victorian age."

Mr. Klinger's "gaming" extends to providing speculative biographies of Holmes and Watson as well, and maintaining the somewhat tweedy fiction that Watson was a friend and protege of Conan Doyle, who aided the younger writer's literary efforts. Fair enough - though the conceit is likelier to appeal to Baker Street Irregulars (members of the most venerable of the dozens of "Active Holmes Societies" enumerated in an appendix) than to the casual reader.

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