A Sherlock Holmes devotee sleuths out other obsessives.
Is there anything left to say about Sherlock Holmes? The fame of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective has now stretched across three centuries, with no expiration date in sight. Today, some 130 years after the first story was written, we find ourselves in the midst of a vigorous Baker Street renaissance fueled by a new movie franchise and modern-day television adaptations on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent books and graphic novels find the detective trading bon mots with Henry James, escaping the island of Doctor Moreau and squaring off against a zombie horde. One can also pick up Sherlock-themed tarot decks, rubber duckies, crew socks and — for undercover work— a “sexy detective” outfit featuring a deerstalker and pipe. And, needless to say, the digital landscape is ablaze with blogs, fanfic, Twitter feeds, podcasts and innumerable tributes to the cheekbones of Benedict Cumberbatch. What’s left? As Professor Moriarty once remarked, “All that I have to say has already crossed your mind.”
Zach Dundas makes a good fist of it in “The Great Detective.” A lifelong fan, Dundas attempts a comprehensive survey of the Baker Street phenomenon, focusing not only on Holmes and his creator, but also on their enduring afterlife in popular culture. “What is going on?” Dundas asks. “In a world of action heroes and cat video memes, how does a 130-year-old detective in a velvet dressing gown hold his own? How, and why, has Sherlock Holmes — of all things — endured?”
This field has been plowed many times before, most recently in Michael Dirda’s superb “On Conan Doyle: Or, the Whole Art of Storytelling,” but Dundas manages to find fresh ground. For a time, he pretends that he’s creating “a working simulacrum of the Sherlockian method” as he conducts research, interviews various authorities and makes pilgrimages to London, Dartmoor and other Holmesian hot spots. It’s an appealing conceit, but in truth the author’s method recalls that of Toby, the long-haired, lop-eared bloodhound from “The Sign of the Four”: He simply goes where his nose takes him. Dundas gamely admits that it’s physically impossible to go everywhere and see everything — “There’s just too much stuff,” he says — but his scholarship is impressive, ranging from ancient issues of the Baker Street Journal to the work of present-day academics and cultural historians such as Michael Saler and Matthew Sweet. (Full disclosure: My own biography of Conan Doyle is generously acknowledged. “My blushes,” as Holmes would have said.)
For my money, Dundas does his best work with a glass in his hand — a cocktail glass, rather than Holmes’s famous magnifying lens. Sherlockians have always been a bibulous sort; one early gathering, as Dundas reports, sawthe consumption of “96 cocktails, 243 scotches, 98 ryes, and 2 beers.” I can attest that the intake levels have dropped somewhat in the modern age, but the mood is no less bouyant. Dundas captures this collegial glow nicely as he travels to New York, in answer to “a Sherlockian homing signal of sorts,” to attend “the Weekend,” an ever-expanding slate of events surrounding the annual gathering of the Baker Street Irregulars, “the eight-decade-old mother ship of a small, dedicated subculture of Holmes enthusiasts.” Ashe delves into the history of the Irregulars, dating back to the first official meeting at a New York speakeasy in 1934, Dundas convincingly places the Holmes movement at the center of what we recognize today as fan culture, from Harry Potter bedsheets to “Mad Men”-themed viewing parties. “While it’s along way from a cocktail hour in 1934 to a Frodo cosplayer at Comic Con,” Dundas writes, “the Irregulars form a thread that ties together decades of pop-cultural celebration and obsession.”
Dundas’s own experience mirrors that of many of the enthusiasts he encounters. He gives an engaging account of his first contact with Sherlock Holmes while growing up in Montana, puzzing over the unfamiliar Victorian objects and regalia: “A gasogene? A tantalus? New Coke had just come out.” Soon, he recalls, he reached out through the pages of the Baker Street Journal and began to correspond with other young readers all over the world, seeking “companionship amid the equinoctial gales of early adolescence.” In time, he would find himself clinking glasses with one of these correspondents at the BSI gathering in New York and reveling in the “geeky but pure thrill of finding other people who share your thing.”
Along with the merry good fellowship, the Irregulars also have a long tradition of “disputation, confrontation, and dialectical hullabaloo.” In that spirit, one is obliged to offer a quibble or two. In his eagerness to make all of this sound fresh and new, the otherwise exemplary Dundas peppers his text with colloquialisms that many readers will find grating. In his telling, “A Study in Scarlet” features a “vanished daddy”; author Wilkie Collins is the “prime pal” of Charles Dickens; and Bartholomew Sholto of “The Sign of the Four” becomes “Bartie.” It goes on and on in this vein. And while other writers have stumbled while recapping the original Sherlock Holmes stories, Dundas is undoubtedly the first to fall back on the argot of “The Simpsons.” Yoinks, indeed.
But perhaps he’s on to something. Holmes once berated Watson for “pandering to popular taste instead of confining himself to facts and figures,” but few of us would wish it otherwise. Dundas knows his material, and he’s an amiable guide, placing more than a century of Sherlockiana into an appealing modern frame. Most surprising of all, he finds something new to say.
As always, Holmes put it best: “Education never ends, Watson.”
THE GREAT DETECTIVE The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes By Zach Dundas Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 320 pp. $26