A Sher­lock Holmes devo­tee sleuths out other ob­ses­sives.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY DANIEL STASHOWER book­world@wash­post.com Daniel Stashower, a mem­ber of the Baker Street Ir­reg­u­lars, is the au­thor of “Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Co­nan Doyle.”

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

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