The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

In anticipation of the new Sherlock Holmes movie (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) being released on December 16, 2011, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes has been reprinted with a new cover that bears the stamp “Inspiration for the Major Motion Picture.”

I decided it would be a good excuse to re-read some of the Holmes Canon. I’ve read them all, some more than once, but not for quite a while. I looked over the new printing to see that it contained the same stories that have usually been included in the Memoirs, and then, I chose a different approach this time.

We have a copy of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, and, well, I’ve never indulged. So for this foray, I read the Annotated version.

First, I’d forgotten what a treat it is to read the original stories. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes contains a dozen short stories. They were all written at the height of Conan Doyle’s, or perhaps I should say Dr. Watson’s, literary powers. Each is a gem.

One story in this collection, The Greek Interpreter, is notable for being the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft — that mysterious accountant somewhere in Whitehall who occasionally was the British Government. The entire government. Mycroft’s tentacles still linger. It is speculated that the mysterious “M” who runs the agency that James Bond works for is a direct bureaucratic descendant, hence the name, “M”.

But it’s the last story in the book that caused it to be republished for the movie. The last story in Memoirs is the most famous,  The Final Problem. In that story, Holmes meets his nemesis Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. At the end of the story, both Holmes and Moriarty are presumed dead.

When the story of Holmes’ death reached the public in 1893, very real people wore mourning for this supposedly fictional character. Subscription cancellations to the Strand Magazine, which published the Holmes stories, were reported to have reached 20,000. The campaign to resurrect Sherlock Holmes may have been the first successful fan campaign in entertainment history because, as we all know, Sherlock Holmes eventually returned from Reichenbach. Conan Doyle published The Hound of the Baskervilles (set before Holmes’ supposed death) in 1901, and the first stories from  The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1903.

Escape rating A: The stories are just as good as I remember. It was a joy to read them again. Reading the annotations was interesting and strange. The ones that define terms we no longer use are fascinating. The minutiae of horse-drawn carriages, for example, or the difference between what we think of as a bus and what the Victorian era called an ‘omnibus’. The various printing histories of particular stories is less interesting. On the other hand, the illustrations are fabulous, since the Annotated version includes the original Paget drawings, the Harper’s Weekly drawings from the US, plus illustrations from advertisements of the time to explain things like what was an ‘antimacassar’ anyway?

If you think you remember these stories–indulge yourself–read them again. If you’ve never had the pleasure, then you are in for a treat. Holmes is timeless.

And they say no one reads the classics anymore

They say no one reads the classics anymore. But they’d be wrong. At least as it applies to ebooks. Or so say the checkout statistics for the Project Gutenberg titles available from OverDrive.

In a recent blog post, OverDrive listed their top 25 circulating titles from Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg digitizes books and other media that are out of copyright in the United States and makes them available for free download.

It’s the list of the “biggest hits” that fascinates.

Obviously, sex still sells. Always and forever. Even when no one actually has to buy anything. The number one book on the list is the Kama Sutra. An ereader or a tablet computer is even better than a brown paper wrapper for hiding what a person is reading. The Kama Sutra is referred to so often, in literature and elsewhere, as the original sex manual, that curiousity alone would prompt many people to idly search for it. And if they could borrow it without anyone else being the wiser, many would be tempted to delve into a copy.

Love still makes the world go ’round. Two classic love stories made the list: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And just to show that all is fair in love and war, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is also part of the top 25.

The titles that make up this list represent every genre of fiction. Inspector Poirot’s first case, otherwise known as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, barely makes the list at number 23. But The Secret Adversary, Dame Agatha Christie’s first work starring Tommy and Tuppence, weighed in at number 10. And, one of my personal favorites, the world’s first consulting detective Sherlock Holmes is the second most popular book on the list. Considering that The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes includes the case of A Scandal in Bohemia, where Holmes was bested by “The Woman”, otherwise known as Irene Adler, perhaps we are still on the topics of love and war after all.

For any folks wondering about science fiction, fantasy and/or horror, the answer is yes, they are well represented, not just in numbers, but also by some of the greats. H.G. Wells’ journey in The Time Machine, Bram Stoker’s discovery of the nosferatu in Dracula, and Edgar Rice Burroughs sword and planet fantasy of The Princess of Mars.

Yes, the usual suspects are also on the list. The titles that we all know are assigned for classes like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and the Count of Monte Cristo. But people are also taking advantage of the ability to have the entire works of Shakespeare or the Bible (Old and New Testaments) or War and Peace available on their ereader of choice, without having to lug the totality around.

The point is that these aren’t classics because of some esoteric quality they have. They are classics because they are still read.  There is one book on the list I personally wouldn’t touch with someone else’s barge-pole, because it’s not my taste–someone take James Joyce’s Ulysses, please! But most of the books on the list wear their years well.

I’ve never read any of the Tommy and Tuppence books by Agatha Christie. Maybe it’s time to start.


The Beekeeper and his Apprentice

In 1914, Sherlock Holmes participated in his last official case as published by Dr. John Watson. The case, His Last Bow, took place at the eve of the First World War, and detailed the wrapping up of two years of Holmes’ infiltration into German espionage on British soil just before the Great War. At the end of the story, Holmes and Watson say goodbye, and Holmes returns to Sussex to keep bees. Mrs. Hudson even takes part in the case, going undercover as the German official’s housekeeper in order to assist Holmes.

But after the case is over, Holmes is left with nothing to do. And His Majesty’s government comes to the realization that Holmes might have been killed, or even worse, kidnapped, during the course of his work. Ransoming a national treasure like Sherlock Holmes would have been even more embarrassing than a state funeral!

So Holmes is forced into a retirement with no hope of any cases to enliven his days. In the official Canon, this was never good. He descended into black moods, played the violin at all hours of the day and night, and resorted to cocaine. Mental inactivity was always a worse enemy than any criminal mastermind.

In 1994, mystery writer Laurie R. King published the first of the memoirs that she received from Miss Mary Russell. The memoirs were delivered by UPS in an old fashioned steamer trunk wrapped in cardboard. The stories they told were incredible.

According to Miss Russell’s memoirs, in 1915, when she was 15, she quite literally tripped over Sherlock Holmes as she was walking over the Sussex Downs with her nose buried in a copy of Virgil. She was uncertain at first whether he was a tramp or just an Eccentric. During their subsequent conversation, his upper-class accent firmly placed him in the Eccentric category. But it wasn’t until she correctly deduced that he was attempting to find a group of feral bees to re-stock his hive that he realized that she might possibly have a brain. The story of their continued association, and Mary Russell’s training as Sherlock Holmes’ apprentice is told in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

Until now, the entire Mary Russell “Kanon” has been told from Russell’s perspective, and an absorbing one it has been. But in preparation for this fall’s release of the next book in the saga, titled The Pirate King, the story of Holmes’ and Russell’s initial meeting is finally being told from Holmes’ point of view.

Beekeeping for Beginners is Holmes’ story of that fateful meeting. It has always been clear that Holmes rescued Russell, but until now, he has never been willing to admit that she saved him. Her training gave him purpose. Her sharpness of mind sharpened his own back to its laser-like brilliance. We all need to be needed. Even the Great Detective.

I discovered The Beekeeper’s Apprentice on audio when it first came out. The premise intrigued me. I had read a chunk of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but the idea of Holmes taking on an apprentice was, well, implausible, to say the least. But Mary Russell is more than a match for Holmes, and the period is perfect. She arrives in his life after the Conan Doyle Canon is over. I was captivated and enthralled, and each new book is a delight. But with Beekeeping for Beginners, I went back and reread not just the first part of Beekeeper’s Apprentice, but also His Last Bow. to see the whole story fabric knit together. It works. From the high of his last case, to the slough of despond of total ennui that Holmes so often experienced, to the bright, sharp girl who needs training, and becomes…if you haven’t read them yet, I envy your upcoming discovery.

Holmes is everywhere

Every generation reinvents Sherlock Holmes to suit itself.  The current revision, Sherlock, was created by the same team that is also at the helm of Doctor Who. This is totally appropriate, as Sherlock beat Doctor Who for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Drama Series. The announcement was made yesterday, on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday. Watson would have been pleased, especially since the actor who plays Watson also won for Best Supporting Actor.

Sherlock is either a reboot or an update of the Holmes canon. The premise updates Holmes into the 21st century, complete with cellphones, GPS, non-smoking restaurants, competition from modern forensics, and modern psychiatric diagnosis of Holmes’ quirks. Sherlock knows he is a high-functioning sociopath. This doesn’t stop him from solving crimes that the police can’t. Watson is still a police surgeon invalided out from the Afghan war.  It’s the same unwinnable war. Some things do not change.

I was astonished at how well this premise worked. It’s not the canonical Holmes, and yet it is. We forget that when Conan Doyle wrote Holmes originally, they were contemporaneous. Holmes was a creature of his times. It’s only to us that they are historical because the Victorian period is one that turned out to be a memorable epoch. And, ironically, part of the reason that the Victorian period is memorable is probably due to Holmes.

I also watched the Robert Downey Jr. /Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes not too long ago.  Once the main plot finally got going, I enjoyed the movie, and it was great steampunk, but…Downey just isn’t my Sherlock Holmes. The late Jeremy Brett still matches the portrait I see in my head when I think of Holmes, more or less.  But the “great detective” has lent himself to a multitude of portrayals over the years since Conan Doyle first published Watson’s stories, and every character in the canon has been given his, or her, due.

The original versions of the Sherlock Holmes canon remain cracking good stories, which is one reason why they have continued to be read and re-interpreted to this day.  But the fun is in the re-imaginings.  TV’s updated Sherlock is just the latest in a very distinguished line.

The resemblances between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Gregory House on House M.D. have been commented on too many times to be repeated. The creator of House has admitted that the show is an homage to Holmes in a number of ways.  Holmes=Homes=House just for starters.  There were even two episodes of Star Trek, the Next Generation where Data portrayed Sherlock Holmes on the holodeck.

Authors have continued to push the “world’s first consulting detective” into cases that his original biographer did not pursue.  One case in point, Holmes and Jack the Ripper, were, or would have been, contemporaries.  Had Holmes existed, Scotland Yard would surely have called him in to investigate such a notorious and inflammatory series of murders.  In Dust and Shadow, by Lyndsay Faye, Holmes is both a suspect and an investigator into the Ripper killings, as Watson follows his friend into horror.

On the other hand, if you prefer villains as heroes, Michael Kurland has written a series where Holmes is a bumbling, drug-addled idiot, and Professor Moriarty is the actual hero of the piece.  The Great Game concerns the “Great Game” of European politics in end of the century—the 19th century, that is—Europe, as the great powers tried to stave off, or speed up, the advent of the “Great War” that we know as World War I.

Holmes has featured in other worlds, particularly in the recent collection The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which includes the award winning story by Neil Gaiman, “A Study in Emerald”, where Holmes and Moriarty join forces in a parallel universe in which the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraftian invention has taken over Victorian England.  Very improbable indeed!

Last, but absolutely not least, the series which contains the answer to the question, “What did Holmes do after he retired to keep bees in Sussex?”  His last recorded case (His Last Bow) takes place in August, 1914.  And then?  According to Laurie R. King, in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, he kept bees, took way too much of his 7% solution of cocaine, and was slowly killing himself in boredom.  One afternoon in 1915 a fifteen-year-old girl tripped over him on the Sussex Downs with her nose buried in a copy of Virgil.  And the second act of his life began.