Enduring Characters

I’ve always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, but you can only reread the original tales penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle so many times until you thirst for something new.  So lately, I’ve been dipping my toe into the broader Holmes universe, in which other authors have written tales of the great consulting detective of Baker Street and his solid, ever-dependable ally and biographer, Dr. Watson.

I recently finished a terrific set of short stories by Lyndsay Faye called The Whole Art of Detection: Lost Mysteries of Sherlock Holmes, in which I thought the author totally captured the voice of Dr. Watson and shed interesting new light on the relationship between Holmes and Watson.  And get this:  Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a devoted Sherlockian and is writing novels that focus on Holmes’ curious and brilliant older brother, Mycroft Holmes.  That’s right — one of the greatest players in basketball history is said to be helping to reinvent the story of Sherlock Holmes.  I’ve got one of Abdul-Jabbar’s novels, Mycroft and Sherlock, which he co-wrote with Anna Waterhouse, next up on my reading list.

It’s fascinating that fictional characters like Holmes and Watson have had such profound staying power, to the point that multiple authors are writing about them more than 100 years after they were first created and became popular.  In fact, those two residents of Baker Street may well be the most enduring characters in the history of literature.  What other fictional creations have been written about for so long by such a diverse group of writers?  I can’t think of any — can you?

You can argue about the greatest writers in literature, and few people would probably put the florid prose of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle up there with Shakespeare.  But you’ve got to give Sir Arthur his due:  when it comes to creating memorable characters, he’s arguably the greatest of all time.



I’ve loved the Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories ever since I first read them.  I loved the old London settings, Holmes’ brilliant deductions from observable phenomena, and the relationship of Holmes and the ever-loyal Dr. Watson.  The movie adaptations, however, have been a bit uneven — and I’ve particularly detested the kind of superhero Holmes depicted in the Robert Downey, Jr. movies.

So it was with some trepidation that Kish and I began binge-watching the BBC TV series Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the iconic consulting detective and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson, set in modern day London.  I’m relieved to report that the show not only is faithful to the characters and concept of the original Holmes tales, it also very cleverly updates the stories and adds in little references that only true Sherlockians would get.  So rather than serializing Holmes’ exploits for The Strand magazine, Watson writes a blog about their adventures.  Watson’s new journalistic efforts frequently are variations of the titles of the old stories, such as A Study in Pink rather than A Study in Scarlet and The Speckled Blonde rather than The Speckled Band.  And Holmes now craves cigarettes rather than the strongest shag for his pipe, but when he needs that tobacco fix he still looks in the persian slipper by the mantelpiece.  And now Holmes uses some of that uncanny deductive ability to figure out passwords to computers and smart phones.

mast-sherlock-benedict-martin-cove-hiresCumberbatch and Freeman have wonderful chemistry, and the cast of regular supporting characters is great, with Una Stubbs as the plucky Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ landlady at 221B Baker Street, Rupert Graves as the dogged Detective Inspector Lestrade, and Mark Gatiss as the umbrella-toting, British-to-the-core Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s equally brilliant older brother who is a kind of one-man British government.  But one of the greatest updates is Andrew Scott as Holmes’ arch-nemesis “Jim” Moriarty, a “consulting criminal” who is every bit Holmes’ match in the intellect department but gleefully, psychotically twisted as well.  (I’m not quite as keen about Irene Adler as a dominatrix, but we’ll let that pass.)

We’re in the midst of season two, with the episode entitled “The Reichenbach Fall” dead ahead.  It’s another great allusion to the old stories, because one of the most famous of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts, The Final Problem, had the great detective falling to his death in a final struggle with Professor James Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls.  Doyle wanted to kill off Sherlock Holmes, because he had tired of writing the mysteries and wanted to try something else, but the character was so immensely popular that Doyle ultimately relented to popular demand and brought him back to life.

Holmes fans the world over were glad he did — and I’m glad I’ve found this latest version of the great detective to enjoy as well.  New episodes of Sherlock are currently being filmed and are supposed to be released around Christmas.

A New Sherlock Story

Imagine uncovering a previously unknown play by Shakespeare, or finding the sheet music to a long lost composition by Mozart.  That might give you an idea of the reaction of ardent Sherlock Holmes fans, like me, to the discovery of a forgotten story about the great consulting detective of Baker Street by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest and most enduring literary characters ever created — the fact that he continues to be featured in films, television shows, and books written by authors who find him irresistible tells you all you need to know — and the novels and short stories penned by Doyle are a magical read.  The depiction of foggy, class-conscious Victorian England, the warm, humorous friendship between the stiff-necked but loyal Dr. Watson and the brilliant Holmes, and the insights into the art of deduction make the stories a delight, worth reading again and again.  If you haven’t read them you really should.

The new piece, which can be read in its entirety through the link above, was written by Doyle in 1904 as part of an effort to fund a bridge in a Scottish town.  It’s something of a lampoon of the Holmes stories, with references to tantalizing unknown adventures and Holmes’ explanation of his absurd deductions about Watson’s trip to Scotland.

Doyle’s relationship with his most famous creation was complicated.  He felt the insistent demand for more Holmes stories was interfering with his other writings, and he notoriously killed off the detective in a story published in 1893.  The demand for more stories never ended, however, and Doyle resurrected the character in 1903 — shortly before the new piece was written.  He went on to write many more Holmes stories.

By 1904, Doyle was reconciled to the fact that he would always be known primarily as the man who created Sherlock Holmes, and I think his recognition of that reality comes through in the introduction and humor of the newly found tale.  There are worse things, he realized, than inventing an immortal detective and his equally immortal sidekick.