The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes

by Zach Dundas

For longtime Conan Doyle fans as well as readers just discovering Sherlock Holmes, a wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular culture’s most beloved sleuth.

  • Format: Hardcover
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780544214040
  • ISBN-10: 0544214048
  • Pages: 336
  • Publication Date: 06/02/2015
  • Carton Quantity: 12

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About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book

    A wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular culture's most beloved sleuth 

     

    Today he is the inspiration for fiction adaptations, blockbuster movies, hit television shows, raucous Twitter banter, and thriving subcultures. More than a century after Sherlock Holmes first capered into our world, what is it about Arthur Conan Doyle’s peculiar creation that continues to fascinate us? Journalist and lifelong Sherlock fan Zach Dundas set out to find the answer. 

     

    The result is The Great Detective: a history of an idea, a biography of someone who never lived, a tour of the borderland between reality and fiction, and a joyful romp through the world Conan Doyle bequeathed us. 

     

    Through sparkling new readings of the original stories, Dundas unearths the inspirations behind Holmes and his indispensable companion, Dr. John Watson, and reveals how Conan Doyle's tales laid the groundwork for an infinitely remixable myth, kept alive over the decades by writers, actors, and readers. This investigation leads Dundas on travels into the heart of the Holmesian universe. The Great Detective transports us from New York City's Fifth Avenue and the boozy annual gathering of one of the world's oldest and most exclusive Sherlock Holmes fan societies; to a freezing Devon heath out of The Hound of the Baskervilles; to sunny Pasadena, where Dundas chats with the creators of the smash BBC series Sherlock and even finagles a cameo appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch himself. Along the way, Dundas discovers and celebrates the ingredients that have made Holmes go viral — then, now, and as long as the game’s afoot.

  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

      

    Bohemia 

      

    A dark, cold night in March, circa 1890. Dr. John H. Watson rides through London in a hansom cab. Watson is a married man, a working medico weary from a busy day on the rounds. Truth be told, he’s bored out of his skull. He peeks out of the cab’s porthole, up at the second-floor window of a familiar house. In the window above he sees a skinny, hawk-nosed shadow pace behind a brilliantly illuminated blind. He orders his cab to stop, and he steps onto the gaslit pavement outside 221B Baker Street. 

          Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories and four novels set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective, and John H. Watson, his best friend and indefatigable chronicler. As Dr. Watson climbs the stairs to 221B, he sets in motion the first of the short stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which appeared in the Strand Magazine’s issue for July 1891. In the months that followed, one Sherlock Holmes adventure after another hit the bookstalls of Victorian Britain. The stories’ young author, just barely in his thirties and working a desultory day job as an eye specialist, had used these two intriguing characters — a beaky superdetective and his pal, an ex–army doctor with underappreciated storytelling gifts — in a couple of earlier novels, with mixed commercial results. With “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle truly (but accidentally) launched Sherlock Holmes and Watson into the literary cosmos. 

          Watson opens the door to the Baker Street sitting room. The chamber is bright but shadowed in the corners, where the gaslight and coal fire’s glare dies away amid the startling array of detritus Sherlock Holmes accumulates in his adventures. Every corner overflows with crumpled newspapers, obscure and frightening books, strange chemical implements, and stray weapons. Sherlock is no mere cop grinding away in an office, but rather an exquisite self-creation who operates against the criminals that plague the world’s most powerful city. Well, let’s say he defends his own version of Victorian London — one besieged not by run-of-the-mill grifters and garden-variety psychopaths but by demented math professors, conspiracies of redheaded men, and cunning blackmailers who skulk about wearing astrakhan, whatever that is. Holmes doesn’t live in our reality. He lives in a more interesting (if sinister) dimension. 

          Watson finds Holmes rampaging around the room, exuding his own personal, lurid atmosphere of tobacco funk and global intrigue. The good Watson has already warned his readers, in the second paragraph of “Scandal,” about Holmes, his “Bohemian soul” and irregular habits. Sherlock has been off in Odessa dealing with a murderous (or maybe murdered) Trepoff. He’s pondered a “singular tragedy” in Trincomalee (that’s in Sri Lanka), and sorted out some nasty business involving the Dutch royal family. The detective gives his old pal a cigar. Drinks in hand (at Baker Street, a glass is never far away), Holmes produces a letter, lately delivered, written in broken English on thick pink stationery. The letter informs the detective that a man will call at a quarter to eight. The visitor will wear a mask. Holmes and Watson deduce, based on the writing paper’s watermark and quick reference to a handy “European gazetteer,” that this missive comes from “Bohemia.” (That’s in the Czech Republic these days. Victorian readers would have known it as one swatch in the crazy quilt of the Dual Monarchy, Austria-Hungary.) The mystery guest then sashays across the threshold. 

          The masked man is six feet six inches tall. As for the rest, we must defer to Watson: 

          "Heavy bands of astrakhan were slashed across the sleeves and fronts of his double-breasted coat, while the deep blue cloak which was thrown over his shoulders was lined with a flame-coloured silk and secured at the neck with a brooch which consisted of a single flaming beryl. Boots which extended halfway up his calves, and which were trimmed at the tops with rich brown fur, completed the impression of barbaric opulence . . . he wore across the upper part of his face, extending down past the cheekbones, a black vizard mask . . ." 

          Good Lord, is it the Marquis de Sade? 

     

      

    I discovered a thick, brick-red-covered, dog-eared book in my school library in Montana one suitably frigid winter’s day when I was about eleven years old. The volume bore some pre-gender-equity title like The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes. It smelled faintly of mold and many small hands. I opened to the first story, spied the exotic, very adult title “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and tumbled in. In some sense, I suppose, I was never seen again. 

          I had heard of Holmes, of course, though the character was better known among my mid-’80s peers for the phrase “no shit, Sherlock” than as “the most energetic criminal agent in Europe.” But I proved more susceptible to old Arthur Conan Doyle than most boys and girls. Raised by a pair of avid readers, grandson of a librarian, offshoot of a clan full of writers and English teachers (I have often wondered why my lineage didn’t tend toward stock brokerage, electrical engineering, medicine, cobbling, or, really, anything more lucrative than literature), I read rather boldly for my age, as doting relatives and mildly alarmed teachers never ceased to remind me. I read the encyclopedia for fun. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the foreign — which in Missoula, at that time, meant just about anything with an accent — and the old-fashioned, which in the ’80s meant anything not dyed hot pink. “A Scandal in Bohemia” met all requirements. 

          I sat, rapt, on the fraying shag carpet of the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, my spine riveted to the edge of our bunk beds, the Rocky Mountain winter in full howl outside a window insulated with a thick plastic sheet. I devoured one story after another: the Bohemian adventure, The Sign of the Four, “Silver Blaze.” In retrospect, I can’t say that I quite caught everything — and, in fact, I would soon discover that some 1950s bowdlerizer had weeded The Boys’ Sherlock Holmes (or whatever it was) of Holmes’s edgier moments. This caring editor had expunged the cocaine, toned down some bludgeonings. But that black mask! The astrakhan! The “flame-coloured” silk! The weird Victorian regalia, the secret worlds suggested by Baker Street’s riotous mess of newspapers and urgent letters on pink stationery — all inflamed my boyhood mind. People often describe the Sherlock Holmes stories as “cozy,” and I can see what they mean. It does feel snug there by the Baker Street coal fire. But I primarily think of these stories as exuberantly, beautifully strange artifacts — startling jewels set in gnarled brass, lit with the glow of a lost time. From the beginning, the Sherlockian saga has served me as an escape hatch into an intricately constructed alternate dimension.

  • Reviews
    A LOS ANGELES TIMES summer reading selection 

     

    "For even the casual fan, the history of this deathless character is fascinating. Dundas does a fine job of tracing the roots of Holmes … [and] writes in a jovial, casual way that invites the reader to take part." — BOSTON GLOBE 

     

    "Find[s] fresh ground . . . [Dundas's] scholarship is impressive . . . He's an amiable guide, placing more than a century of Sherlockiana into an appealing, modern frame." — Daniel Stashower, WASHINGTON POST 

     

    "[An] entertaining new cultural biography of Holmesiana." — GLOBE AND MAIL 

     

    "Charmingly eccentric . . . Skillful . . . For all who enjoy the company of Sherlock Holmes, in any of his many forms, reading Dundas's account will be hours well spent." — Leslie Klinger, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS 

     

    "Dundas weaves fascinating parallel histories of Holmes as literary creation, Holmes as broader cultural phenomenon, and the character's larger-than-life creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ... Incisive, well-informed, and slyly witty (like Holmes himself), Dundas's book provides entertaining and irrefutable evidence that the game is still — and is likely to remain — afoot." — SHELF AWARENESS  (starred review) 

     

    "The author of this wonderful book has crammed it with enough research — Holmesean, Watsonian, Doylean — to bulge the seams ... [But] Dundas's matey writing style makes the details easy to absorb ... A delight for Baker Streeters." — BOOKLIST (starred review) 

     

    "A lively look at the enduring detective ... A cheerful romp ... A bright read for Sherlock's fans." — KIRKUS REVIEWS 

     

    "Sherlock Holmes means different things to different people: to die-hard readers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original (who cracked his first case in 1887); to older filmgoers, Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing; to children of the 1970s and pretty much no one else, Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens; and to younger fans, Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. All of them turn up in The Great Detective, in which Zach Dundas traces Sherlock's evergreen celebrity. Such is Dundas's enthusiasm that one almost forgets Doyle's wary role in the legend. The author's resigned response to an extraordinarily rich $45,000 offer from Collier's Weekly to resurrect Holmes in 1903: 'Very well.'" — VANITY FAIR 

     

    "The game is afoot! Like Sherlock Holmes himself, Dundas's pursuit of his quarry spans centuries, genres, and continents — and it's a delightful journey into the mythology and meaning of an icon that everyone knows, many are obsessed by, and nobody has ever quite topped." — PAUL COLLINS, author of The Murder of the Century and NPR's Weekend Edition "literary detective" 

     

    "The Great Detective is a moving study, capturing as I've never before seen our interest in the quintessential sleuth and his stalwart biographer. Sherlock Holmes will never fade, and this book proves it." — LYNDSAY FAYE, author of Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson 

     

    "Sherlock Holmes is both immortal and immaterial — and the inspired deductions and ratiocinations of Zach Dundas bring us closer to understanding why we've spent over a hundred years trying to claim Doyle's detective from the fictional world and give him a home in our own. The best and wisest Holmes book that I have ever known." — MATTHEW SWEET, author of Inventing the Victorians 

     

     

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