It’s been said that Sherlock Holmes is the most famous man who never lived and who, consequently, can never die. Just in the past decade, Holmes has repeatedly dazzled us with his deductions in blockbuster movies, two popular television series and dozens of new stories and novels. More than ever, enthusiastic devotees crowd exhibitions about the great detective, attend conventions in his honor and join “scion societies” of the revered Baker Street Irregulars, including the Red Circle of Washington .
However, given that “Elementary” is now on its final season, might Holmes’s caseload finally be growing lighter? Perhaps a little, though fans don’t need to worry about losing their Baker Street fix. This fall, for instance, Nicholas Meyer — whose 1974 novel, “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” set the bar for later writers of Sherlockian pastiche — will bring out “The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols.” Aficionados can also consult any issue of the Baker Street Journal, which always allots several pages to recent books about Holmes and his world. Such as, you ask?
Edited by the eminent English Sherlockian Nicholas Utechin, “The Complete Paget Portfolio” (Gasogene) showcases — in the words of its subtitle — “Every Sherlock Holmes Illustration by Sidney Paget Reproduced Directly from ‘The Strand’ Magazine, Including the Surviving Original Artwork.”
These early depictions of Holmes are nearly as iconic as Dr. Watson’s accounts of his investigations. The lean face, aquiline nose, piercing eyes — all are here from the beginning. Sidney Paget reportedly modeled the detective after his brother Walter and a photograph of the latter, reproduced here, makes that a near certainty. As it happens, both Pagets were artists — I own an edition of “Robinson Crusoe” beautifully illustrated by Walter Paget — and Sidney apparently got the Holmes commission through a mix-up: The Strand initially wanted Walter to do the art.
If you were to ask members of any Sherlockian sodality — perhaps the Six Napoleons of Baltimore or Ellicott City, Md.’s Watson’s Tin Box — odds are the second-most popular choice would be the double-portrait, from “Silver Blaze,” in which Holmes, sporting a deerstalker and Inverness cape, talks with a bowler-hatted Watson in a roomy railway car. The winner, though, would be Paget’s depiction of the climactic moment, in “The Final Problem,” when Holmes grapples with Professor James Moriarty on a mountain path high above the swirling waters of the Reichenbach Falls.
Even while Watson was still mourning the (temporary) loss of his friend, other sleuths began to stalk the pages of late Victorian and Edwardian magazines. “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” edited by Graeme Davis (Pegasus), features exploits of both the great detective’s predecessors — such as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin — and his numerous literary progeny, including R. Austin Freeman’s scientific Dr. Thorndyke and Ernest Bramah’s blind Max Carrados. Holmes authority Leslie S. Klinger opens the anthology with a generous background essay, after which Davis reprints a variety of excellent stories not already available in “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” edited by Hugh Greene (followed by three companion volumes), and “Rivals of Sherlock Holmes,” edited by Alan K. Russell (followed by “More Rivals” of you know whom). My recommendation: Buy any and every collection you see titled “The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes.”
Last year, publishing’s debonair crime lord Otto Penzler inaugurated a uniform line of attractive hardbacks called the American Mystery Classics. Among the highlights of this season’s batch is H.F. Heard’s “A Taste for Honey,” in which a shrewd elderly gentleman named Mr. Mycroft, now retired to the country to keep bees, confronts an ingenious murderer. It’s a quick, briskly told tale, narrated by the self-centered and fussy Sidney Silchester, though without much mystery to it. Raymond Chandler, more accurately, called the book “a very clever thriller.”
As it is, any would-be Baker Street Irregular will enjoy detecting the bits of Holmesiana strewn throughout the narrative, starting with its opening sentence: “Someone has said that the countryside is really as grim as any big city.” (Compare “The Copper Beeches”: “It is my belief, Watson . . . that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”) What’s more, the book ends with a shocking irony almost certainly borrowed from the conclusion of Anatole France’s little masterpiece, “The Procurator of Judea.” Heard eventually brought out two more Mr. Mycroft mysteries: “Reply Paid” and “The Notched Hairpin.”
Sherlock Holmes has long invited affectionate parody. For instance, in one of Robert L. Fish’s hilarious accounts of Schlock Homes of Bagel Street, Watney notices that a disguised Homes is much shorter than his normal height, to which the detective replies, “Special shoes.” Terence Faherty’s “The True Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Annotated Edition” (Gasogene) can be just as ingeniously wacky. In its pages, we are privileged to read Watson’s initial drafts of several celebrated cases, further enhanced with the doctor’s marginal notes to himself.
Thus, in the original opening of “The Red-Headed League,” Watson drops in at Baker Street and discovers Holmes with a client. “Not being in the mood to listen to yet another improbable tale of woe (soften?), I attempted to slip away but Holmes dragged me back in.
“ ‘Not so fast, Watson,’ he said in a whisper. ‘If I have to sit through this, so do you.’ ”
Throughout, Faherty neatly evokes a much put-upon Watson, henpecked and terrified of his (rightly) jealous wife, the former Mary Morstan of “The Sign of Four.” We also learn that the world’s foremost detective dearly loves a pint, that his pub is the Needle and Thread, (giving new meaning to the expression, “Quick, Watson, the Needle!’), and that stories we thought we knew are actually quite sedate compared with the surreal madness of these head-spinning “true adventures.”
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.