In 1893, the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes made what his creator, Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, was determined would be his final appearance. Holmes confronted his archnemesis, Professor Moriarty, in a battle to the death that sent both characters over Reichenbach Falls. “The Adventure of the Final Problem” was meant to be exactly what the title said, so that Doyle could spend his time on his historical novels, which he considered more important.
“The crowds will not take this lightheartedly,” Doyle’s mother warned, and they did not. More than 20,000 readers cancelled their subscriptions to The Strand magazine, where “The Final Problem” had appeared. Doyle could not have anticipated the sorrow and anger of his public, who had little interest in his historical novels (now largely forgotten).
Doyle thought his readers would eventually forget about his fictional detective. They did not. Eight years later, his creator brought Holmes back in the 1901 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, which seemed to be set before the encounter at Reichenbach Falls. The Strand’s circulation surged by 30,000 readers, but they wanted more. In 1903, Doyle — now Sir Arthur — published “The Adventure of the Empty House,” in which Sherlock Holmes miraculously reappeared, with an explanation of how he had staged his own death. “I realized more clearly than I had ever done the loss which the community had sustained by the death of Sherlock Holmes,” says the story’s narrator, Dr. John H. Watson, and the statement might well be Doyle’s own.
Holmes has been with us ever since, despite his theoretical retirement in the 1917 story “His Last Bow.” Literally thousands of websites are dedicated to the study and discussion of Sherlock Holmes; the best for those new to Holmes are probably Sherlockian.net, Sherlock-Holmes.org (an international site), and 221BakerStreet.org.
The official Holmes canon is relatively small — four novels and 56 short stories — and even the most dedicated fans and scholars could only do so much rereading. Thus, Sherlock Holmes was probably the earliest subject of what we now call “fan fiction.” Sherlock Holmes entered the public domain in the United Kingdom in 1980, and while the character remains under copyright protection in the United States (until 2016 or 2023, depending on whom you ask), he’s been a character in dozens, if not hundreds, of crime novels since.
“Any writer of crime fiction has to deal with the presence of Sherlock Holmes in the background,” writes author Laurie R. King on her website. “This is why so many writers, even those who don’t generally get classified as mystery writers, touch down on the genre of the Sherlockian pastiche.” King, who was the American guest of honor at this year’s Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), has written ten books about Mary Russell, an Englishwoman who meets, marries, and investigates crimes with Sherlock Holmes. Since the series’ beginning, King has been adamant that these are not Sherlock Holmes novels, but Mary Russell novels; nevertheless, Holmes is a major presence and influence. King’s first novel, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, begins, “I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes.” By the end of the second book, A Monstrous Regiment of Women (1995), they are married.
Other bestselling authors who have created new stories for Holmes include Nicholas Meyer, whose 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution launched a major Holmes revival and became a major motion picture, and Michael Chabon, whose The Final Solution (2004) never identifies its protagonist by name but is unmistakably about Holmes. Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005) features a 90-something Holmes, frail but sharp, and Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary (2005) places Holmes in the Gothic tradition, as he investigates a conspiracy that may be linked to a 300-year-old crime. Dust and Shadow by Lyndsey Faye, published in 2009, is only the latest of several novels that put Sherlock Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper.
Arthur Conan Doyle himself has been almost as attractive to authors. Mark Frost made Doyle his detective in the 1994 adventure thriller The List of Seven and its sequel, The Six Messiahs (1996). Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel Arthur and George is based on the real-life intervention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the case of George Edalji, a half-Indian solicitor unjustly accused of maliciously wounding a pony.
November 2010 brought The Sherlockian by Graham Moore, a first novel that moves back and forth in time to solve the real-life disappearance of a volume of Doyle’s diary, from October to December 2000. Moore intersperses a present-day hunt for the diary with a historical narrative that follows Arthur Conan Doyle during this period of time, when he was presumably making the decision to bring Holmes back from the dead.
It also brought the latest re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes on screen: the BBC series “Sherlock,” which brings the characters into the present day. Dr. Watson is now a veteran of the current war in Afghanistan; Sherlock Holmes, deprived of his tobacco, uses three nicotine patches for what was once a “three-pipe problem.” Meanwhile, work continues on a sequel to last year’s hugely popular Sherlock Holmes movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as action-hero versions of Doyle’s characters. One hundred seventeen years after his death in an Alpine ravine, Sherlock Holmes remains one of the hardest-working characters in crime fiction.
Readers who want to go back to the original source material will be best served by Leslie S. Klinger’s two-volume set, THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES: The Short Stories (2004), and his THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES: The Novels (2005). This extraordinary work of scholarship not only presents the stories as originally published, but offers historical background information, explanations of cultural references, and thorough explorations of the many theories dear to Sherlockian hearts (where was Dr. Watson’s wound, anyway?).
– Written by Clair Lamb, writer for BookReporter.com
For more on mystery fiction, try the mystery fiction browse genre page at Books & Authors!
Want to know more about us? Check out “What is Books & Authors and Why Should You Care?”