March 31, 2005


Watching the Detective: Sherlock Holmes lives on—in fan societies, annotated versions, and new adventures (Lawrence Block, March 28th, 2005, Village Voice)

He was born on January 6, 1854, and died for the first time in May of 1891. Died, that is to say, in print, in "The Final Problem," locked in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, with the two of them plunging to their death at the Reichenbach Falls.

A few years later, it became evident that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. In 1894, he returned to active practice, and handled hundreds of cases in the next decade. In 1902 he turned down a knighthood, retiring a year or two later to the Sussex coast, where he took up beekeeping—he hoped royal jelly, the food of the queen bee, might lengthen life and minimize the effects of aging—and began his magnum opus, The Whole Art of Detection. He put it aside, probably in 1912, and began undercover work in anticipation of the coming war with Germany.

He seems to have retired at the war's end, but it's hard to say for sure. There's no record of his death, and there are inferences, certainly, of his continuing life over the years. A recent report (of which more later) has him in Japan during the American occupation, strolling in the ashes of Hiroshima. He was 93 at the time, and if he's still alive now he'd be 151. That might strike one as impossible, but is the continuing existence of Sherlock Holmes one whit less conceivable than that he should have somehow ceased to be?

The novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) marked the first appearance in print of Sherlock Holmes, but it wasn't until four years later, when short stories began appearing in The Strand, that the character became popular with the reading public. His audience grew with every new appearance, but almost from the beginning his chronicler, Arthur Conan Doyle, began to tire of him. Before he'd finished the first series of 12 stories, his mother had to talk him out of killing his hero off, a threat which he acted upon in the 24th story, "The Final Problem."

If Doyle was happy to see the end of Holmes, he seems to have been the only person so disposed. City of London stockbrokers donned black armbands, and some 20,000 angry readers canceled their Strand subscriptions.

It's hard to say why Doyle tired of Holmes, but it's not unheard of for authors to grow weary of chronicling the exploits of series characters. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are supposed to have had a conversation in which each expressed a desire to put a violent end to her chief protagonist, but neither Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey received such harsh treatment.

Some 30 years ago, Nicolas Freeling killed his series detective, Inspector Van der Valk, midway through a novel, leaving his widow to solve the case. He subsequently wrote further about the widow—Arlette, her name was—and launched another whole series of books (about one Henri Castang). Readers, by and large, washed their hands of the son of a bitch. It's my understanding that Freeling resuscitated Van der Valk in 1990 in Sand Castles, but it was too late to win back his audience. They were through with him.

But when Sherlock Holmes came back, all was forgiven.

In the past couple years aothers killed off two terrific series protagonists: John Harvey did Charlie Resnick and Colin Dexter whacked Inspector Morse.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 31, 2005 8:08 AM

I am a life-long Sherlock Holmes fan, and a fan of detective mysteries in general. I was a belated fan of Inspector Morse and was reading everything of Dexter's I could get my hands on when the PBS/TV episode aired of Morse's death. I wanted more, much more. I won't wash my hands of Dexter if he "resurrects" Morse...

Posted by: Bartman at March 31, 2005 9:07 AM

Supposedly the BBC is going to bring Lewis back in a series of his own.

Posted by: oj at March 31, 2005 9:14 AM

I've seen the adverts. I don't know how well that will fly...I'll keep an open mind though.

Posted by: Bartman at March 31, 2005 9:24 AM