Magazine article The Spectator

The Character Who Refused to Die

Magazine article The Spectator

The Character Who Refused to Die

Article excerpt

THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES , VOLUME III: THE NOVELS by Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Leslie Klinger Norton, £30, pp. 907, ISBN 039305800X . £25 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

SHERLOCK HOLMES : THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by Nick Rennison Atlantic Books, £14.99, pp. 280, ISBN 1843542749 . £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.' It could be a fanciful tryst between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, but it is something far more auspicious: the first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler, John Watson, MD, in 1881.

Their friendship spawned many things: worldwide societies, sightseeing tours, commemorative deerstalkers (though Holmes never wore one), theme pubs and comedy sketches are just a few. Amid all that, it's easy to overlook the four novels and 56 short stories which constitute one of the great contributions to English story-telling.

The 'Canon' (as Sherlockians call it) was for a long time denied serious appraisal, possibly due to our snobbish disdain for genre fiction. Fortunately, things have improved.

Novels such as Michael Chabon's The Final Solution and Julian Barnes's brilliant Arthur & George confirmed Doyle as this year's deceased author of choice, much as Henry James was in 2004, and so the final volume of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes comes at a good time. It contains the novels -- A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and The Valley of Fear (1914) -- and completes a series which began with last year's two-volume edition of the short stories.

It is a handsome book, slip-cased and mediaevally large. In it you will find essays (including one by Joseph Bell, Doyle's model for Holmes) and many annotations. This is an American edition, and some notes explain things that English readers will be familiar with; certain others concern 'theories' propounded by enthusiasts (that Holmes was a woman, say), and tend towards silliness. But the majority are informative, offering biographies, background information and crossreferences. There are original illustrations and actor photographs, too, which show how our perception of the duo's appearance has been fashioned by what we've seen more than by what we've read. The illustrators aged Holmes (who completed most of his famous cases in his late twenties and thirties), while film-makers unfairly turned Watson into a genial, corpulent duffer, far away from Doyle's resolute man of action.

Most of all, though, the book contains Doyle's work. His plots are famously colourful (where else does one find a league of redheaded men, a murderous lepidopterist, or a vampiric child? ), but he had the prose, too.

His language is clear, unostentatious and always sensitive to the setting. …

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