JOPLIN, Mo. —
I was in the first grade when I read my first “Sherlock Holmes” book. It was a young readers edition of “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Each left-hand page had 14- or 16-point text set in New Century Schoolbook; each right-hand page had a line illustration. One of those was a big, scary-looking dog.
But most of the illustrations featured the hawk-like Holmes, with his pinched face, long nose and magnifying glass.
Seriously, it was in every drawing, almost. As a first-grader, I thought it was attached to his hand by magic. But for some reason, I was enchanted by that drawing.
I didn’t read any of the books until I was in my 20s. During a break, back when I was working at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a collection of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the consulting detective, and was sucked in. I devoured all the stories, from “The Five Orange Pips” to “The Final Problem.”
Strange thing about the books, however: I never could picture a real person. As I read, I would always return to that memory of the line-drawn, surgically attached magnifying glass-handed, pinch-faced drawing. That’s weird for me, because with every book I read, I picture actual faces. Not illustrations.
It was irritating, because I could picture faces for the other characters. I assigned looks for everyone from Irene Adler to Inspector Lestrade.
Sherlock was different, for some reason. I couldn’t place a face to him, even though Basil Rathbone almost put a monopoly on the look.
That’s why I’ve had an open mind about all the different iterations of Holmes that have come out in the last few years.
If you’ve never read any of Doyle’s masterpieces about the detective, get thee to a bookstore now. Most of the stories can be found in a single edition, and I guarantee you will leave it dog-eared.
It’s easy to see why the stories are so enduring -- even in the stilted, forced language of Doyle’s Victorian age, the stories are pleasantly fast-paced and engaging. Holmes’ ability to make detailed deductions based on thorough-yet-breakneck observations is fantastic.
In a way, Doyle’s stories don’t play fair, because the solution to the mysteries are impossible for readers to figure out themselves. The average reader doesn’t have the chance to tackle the problem, even in today’s modern age.
Yet still, they are captivating, because they are one of the few instances where superior intelligence is treated like a superpower, yet the hero willingly shares his secrets. All it takes is observation: “You see, but you do not observe.” Simple, right?
BBC’s the best
What has been fascinating about all these different Holmes appearing in movies and TV shows is what aspect of Holmes gets highlighted. Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed literary character in history, according to a story by the Daily Mail -- a testament to Doyle’s creation.
I haven’t seen many of them. There are a lot of surprising actors -- Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin?), Roger Moore (Bond? James Bond?), Christopher Lee (Saruman?), Michael Caine (Alfred?), Ian Richardson (Mr. Book?) and Rupert Everett (Algernon?) have all had a chance at the role, as have 248 others.
Apparently, you can get fans quite riled up by asking who was better, Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. It’s funnier than asking magicians whether David Blaine or Criss Angel is better (for the record: I say Blaine in a landslide).
Anyway, each one of those actors has had a take about his character, and the directors and writers of the stories also had ideas. Downey and director Guy Ritchie, for instance, delved into Holmes’ quirky side (and fancy special effects, but that’s a separate gripe).
A couple of weeks ago, I praised Benedict Cumberbatch’s take on a modern Holmes. His portrayal is one of the best out there -- he runs circles around Robert Downey Jr. and Ben Syder, two of the latest to take on the role.
The developers of the show are largely responsible for how well done “Sherlock” is, however.
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who also write for “Doctor Who,” have put a tremendous effort into focusing on how Holmes is an abrasive maladroit.
In the books, spectators of Holmes’ brilliant solutions are dazzled by his intelligence, and Holmes basks in it, delivering his deductions like a brief college lecture. But in the displays in “Sherlock,” his deductions and ascerbic insults leave other characters blistering -- to the point where they think Holmes is no genius, but a serial killer. And that’s just Holmes -- er, Cumberbatch.
As Dr. John Watson was the narrator in the books, Martin Freeman’s Watson is the heart and soul of the viewer. He stands up to Holmes and others. He says exactly the right, stinging responses and never leaves a conversation wishing he had said something differently.
The two make for a great on-screen friendship that is almost tear-inducing at the end of the second season of the show (The U.S. debut of “The Reichenbach Fall” was shown Sunday on PBS).
I’ve never seen an on-screen adaption of a literary work be so deviant from its source material, yet so loyal. The work that Moffat and Gatiss have done betters the work that Steven Jackson did with his movie adaptations of “The Lord of the Rings.”
It’s so good that it re-awakens my love of Doyle’s wonderful books. And back to Cumberbatch -- he replaces the illustration in my head now.
He’s that good. He is Sherlock.
Another Sherlock book
The mystery section is filled with fan interpretations of Sherlock Holmes:
- Larry Millett wrote five Sherlock stories, each one bringing the famous detective to turn-of-the-century Minnesota. Why Minnesota? Millett loves his home state of Minnesota, apparently.
- Michael Chabon, author of one of my favorite books, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” penned a novella about the detective in his later years, and how he just can’t get away from a mystery.
- Caleb Carr, the historical fictionist behind “The Alienist,” wrote “The Italian Secretary,” which was endorsed by the Doyle estate as an official Holmes story.
Those do a good job at filling the void left by Doyle. But a book I’ve found puts the spotlight squarely on Holmes’ creator and author, not the detective.
“The Sherlockian,” by Graham Moore, tells two stories. On one hand is Doyle himself, working to solve the mystery behind the murder of a young girl with the help of Bram Stoker. On the other is a modern Holmes fan working to solve the mystery of one of Doyle’s lost diaries.
The book’s two Sherlock-worthy mysteries, while providing a look into the life of Doyle, include his odd relationship with his creation. It’s fascinating and thrilling, and actually make for a great introduction into Doyle’s world, including the reaction to when he decided to kill off his beloved character.
Moore is also writing a screen adaptation of Erik Larsen’s “Devil in the White City,” which is reported to star Leonardo DiCaprio.