What's to be made of a bunch of grown-ups who want to believe that a made-up guy is real? Of all the mysteries that Sherlock Holmes ever...
What’s to be made of a bunch of grown-ups who want to believe that a made-up guy is real? Of all the mysteries that Sherlock Holmes ever investigated, this is the riddle that might have most baffled and amused him.
Today, more than 100 years after the first Sherlock Holmes story was published, a band of scholars and Holmes enthusiasts avidly subscribe to “the game,” the lifelong pursuit of confirming that Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson really lived, worked and sleuthed in London. If you’re rolling your eyes (but still reading) have we got a book for you — the three-volume set of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, edited and annotated by Leslie Klinger. Author and editor Klinger is a so-called Sherlockian scholar. He has spent 37 years tracking down the most arcane events, objects and ephemera of Holmes’ and Watson’s lives and squaring them (or not) with something like historical truth.
Klinger will be in town next week to discuss the third volume of his magnum opus: “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels” (Norton, 992 pp., $49.95). This beautifully illustrated and prodigiously footnoted volume joins Klinger’s “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Short Stories,” a two-volume set that was released last year and has just gone into its third printing.
What was Watson’s middle name?
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“The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” builds on the legend of a brilliant and irreverent man whose deerstalker-hatted profile joins Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse as one of the most recognized characters on the planet.
The books have never been out of print; at least 200 movies feature Sherlock Holmes, Klinger says. There are Sherlockian societies in Japan and Europe, Spain and Seattle. We have Holmes to thank for a lexicon of clichés, including “the game’s afoot,” “the plot thickens,” and “elementary, my dear Watson.”
Klinger, interviewed by phone from his law offices in Los Angeles, says he became a Holmes devotee back in law school, “when I desperately needed some non-law reading.” He started collecting all things Holmes — his library of Sherlock-related material includes 4,000 volumes, including several other books he wrote himself.
The editor of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” will appear at noon Monday at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St. in Seattle. Free. (206-587-5737; www.seattlemystery.com). He will also appear at 7 p.m. Monday at the University Book Store in Seattle, 4326 University Way N.E. Free. (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).
Klinger lays out his method in the introduction to Volume 3: “Here I perpetuate the gentle fiction that Holmes and Watson really lived and that (except as noted) Dr. John H. Watson wrote the stories about Sherlock Holmes, even though he graciously allowed them to be published under the byline of his colleague and literary agent Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.”
Many Sherlockians have taken off from there, treating the stories of Sherlock Holmes as biography, not fiction:
• Doyle (the purported author of the Sherlock Holmes stories) and Watson were both doctors. Maybe their paths crossed “in hospital,” as the Brits would say. Where did Watson get his medical degree? In what hospital did Watson and Holmes first meet? See footnotes No. 5 & 6 in “The New Annotated,” Volume 3.
• What was John H. Watson’s middle name? See footnote No. 1 — nominations include Hamish, Henry, Hampton, Harrington, Hector, Horatio, Hubert, Huffham and … Holmes.
• What kind of gun did Watson carry? See footnote No. 146. What kind or kinds of drugs was Holmes addicted to? Consult the exhaustive, almost-two-page footnote No. 55.
Sherlockians, in a kind of backward way, are like Trekkies. Trekkies use “Star Trek” to contemplate the future. Sherlockians travel into the past through the eyes of Holmes and Watson, two of the Victorian age’s most intrepid and oddball citizens (in a transcendent pop-culture convergence, Spock of the original “Star Trek” acknowledged Sherlock Holmes as an ancestor, and Data of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” liked to play Holmes to Geordy’s Watson).
A man of the times
The trappings of Holmes’ life were lace-curtain Victorian. But Klinger says he possessed other attributes that our age, with its murkier values and distrust of authority, values even more.
“Holmes exemplified the Victorian belief that reason could triumph — that if only we thought about things hard enough we could figure them out — overcome disease, social problems. He embodies that great Victorian belief in progress,” Klinger says.
“What sets him apart is that he went beyond the laws and regulations of Victorian society. He had no interest in sucking up to his betters — he treats royalty no better than the rest of his clients. He was not above taking the law into his own hands.
“It’s that more than anything that makes him transcend the rigid culture of the Victorian age; to us he’s a free, independent person who does the right thing. He will let a criminal go if he sees that it’s the right thing to do.”
It is Holmes’ combination of brains, irreverence and action — brilliantly portrayed by the great English actor Jeremy Brett in the PBS series of the 1980s — that still draws people to Holmes. Every age has had its Holmes, Klinger says — the stage actor William Gillette embodied him in the early 20th century; Basil Rathbone in mid-20th century films. But Brett’s Holmes was a perfect match for our age: “over the top, a little crazy, bohemian,” Klinger says, paired with Edward Hardwicke’s solid but world-wise Dr. Watson.
As for Klinger, he’s achieved the pinnacle of Holmesdom — he belongs to the Baker Street Irregulars, an elite group of about 300 who are admitted by invitation only (the Irregulars have spawned many local versions, called scion societies, where membership is open to all Holmes enthusiasts; see www.soundofthebaskervilles.com for the local chapter).
Named after the band of street urchins who did surveillance for Holmes, the headquarters of the elite group is in New York, but its archives apparently reside in a garage in Indianapolis. Its main event is an annual black-tie dinner — the membership never exceeds about 300, Klinger says — and new nominations are made as old Irregulars pass beyond the veil.
How do you get picked? “It’s a mystery shrouded in fog,” Klinger says. Not much of an answer, and one on which Holmes, ever ready to cut through flummery to get to the truth, would certainly have pounced.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org