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ELEMENTARY, SCHOOLED

In her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes—which is having a launch party tonight at Brooklyn’s BookCourt—psychologist and journalist Maria Konnikova gives us the training we need to think like the world’s foremost consulting detective. Disregarding the cocaine use and incessant violin playing (which she apparently leaves to our own devices), Konnikova shows us how to use Holmes’s metaphorical “brain attic,” and other strategies drawn from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, to hone our wits and sharpen our observation. Which will certainly come in handy the next time we need to differentiate the deadliest snake in India from a garden-variety speckled band.

Mon., Jan. 7, 7 p.m., 2013

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Albatross

In Albatross, director Niall MacCormick’s feature debut, Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) is a familiar type in a familiar film: 17 years old and smarter, sexier, and spring-loaded with better comebacks than everyone else in her provincial English town, she whirls into the dust-caked lives of Oxford hopeful Beth (Like Crazy‘s Felicity Jones) and her family like a slutty Tasmanian devil. After taking a job cleaning rooms at the inn run by Beth’s mother, Joa (Julia Ormond, playing an actress embalmed by bitterness), and father, Jonathan (Sebastian Koch, playing a writer burdened by early success), Emelia gives bitchy master classes in how to live. Pretty soon, everyone, including Beth’s adorably awkward little sister, wants to be like her—an aspect of first-timer Tamzin Rafn’s script that gets unmanageably creepy when Jonathan and Emelia, who claims a relation to Arthur Conan Doyle, begin an affair. At that point, Albatross shifts from indie fairy tale to farce, only to accept its fate as a coming-of-age melodrama. By the time a disillusioned, grimly deflowered Beth leaves for school wearing her ex-friend’s “I Put Out” T-shirt, tonal whiplash has eaten up the pleasures of this otherwise well-cast, evocatively shot small-town trifle.

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A Bond Makeover for Sherlock Holmes in Game of Shadows

Although supplying boy’s adventure thrills on the side, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are remarkable for how they make the process of empirical brainwork, and the resulting discoveries, breathlessly exciting. Each Holmes tale simultaneously unlocks a mystery while deepening the enigma of its hero in a miraculously sustained piece of character development. The great success of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes was making Conan Doyle’s gimlet-eyed detective, first introduced to readers in 1887, into a viable 21st-century blockbuster star—a success paralleled by the superior, contemporary-set Sherlock series for BBC TV. The great compromise, aggravated in Ritchie’s new Holmes adventure, was to do so at the expense of what made Conan Doyle’s hero, and his world, unique.

A Game of Shadows revisits Holmes and Dr. Watson (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, returning) on the eve of Watson’s much-protested-by-Holmes wedding as a wave of assassinations and bombings rock Europe, threatening to goad France and Germany into armed confrontation.

The film’s finale, its villain, and not much else come from Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem.” The acts of terror have been arranged by “The Napoleon of Crime,” one Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), a calculating profiteer seeking to plunge Europe into world war a quarter-century ahead of schedule, whom Holmes and Watson must cross the Continent to foil. The revelation of Moriarty’s munitions-plant headquarters, the device of our hero being held hostage while the supervillain elucidates his plan for world domination, the attention devoted to technology and couture, and the tendency toward naughty double entendres (“noshing on Mary’s muffins,” etc.): All of this suggests that Ritchie is more interested in bringing 007 into the Victorian period than in reintroducing Conan Doyle’s distinctly Victorian eccentric to ours. (Irene Adler, the American adventuress of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” whose genius for intrigue made her the one woman for whom Holmes could overcome his antipathy for the gender, is here again played by Rachel McAdams as the first “Holmes girl.”)

Downey Jr., once a troubled and pitied case of self-sabotage who, at the beginning of 2001, couldn’t be insured for a film, has lately proved steady enough to anchor two massive franchises: Iron Man and Holmes. Both Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and his Holmes are flip smart alecks, radiant with the self-love that develops when accustomed to being the brightest guy in every room. Holmes is the more pleasurable role to watch, allowing Downey Jr. to use his physical grace in ways recalling his Chaplin, negotiating the world with effortless hyperaware aplomb, a dancer in a familiar part.

Not merely held apart from the common run of humanity by the elevation of his mind, Downey Jr.’s Holmes is flamboyant in his brilliance, a shabby-elegant dandy, the disheveled Amadeus of detection, blithely cocking a snook at social mores rather than merely overlooking them in his farsightedness. (The traditional Holmesian aloofness is annexed in Game of Shadows to the detective’s brother, Mycroft, played by Stephen Fry in the movie’s funniest performance.)

While Downey Jr. can play manic, there is little time to witness Holmes’s melancholy in the absence of action—those lulls in which Conan Doyle doled out insights into his character, which Ritchie’s films entirely jettison. Game of Shadows repeats the first film’s inspired routines in which Holmes’s racing mind runs through a strategic rehearsal of every combat before the first punch is thrown. Ritchie’s assault tactics are less scientific: Keep the audience continually off balance with constant crazed flurries.

The rapport between Downey Jr. and Law, who has never located a tone for his Watson, hasn’t improved since their last outing, while there’s no deepening of either character beyond the playful homo subtext in an action piece that Downey Jr. spends in drag. The gamesmanship between Holmes and arch foe Moriarty is not handled much better, built around a metaphorical chess match as hackneyed as the film’s subtitle.

Lackluster screenwriting and the absence of actorly communion are breezed past with monotonous banter, as is the fleetingly visible plot. Like the first Ritchie Holmes, the period production design—again by Sarah Greenwood—is lavish, ranging between the cluttered lairs of archetypal Victorian pack rat-collectors (Holmes and Moriarty’s realms) and overwrought, damask-draped ornateness. It is, finally, all sauce, no meat—that is, usual multiplex stuff extracted from a most remarkable source.

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Robert Downey Jr.’s Wry Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is another critique of filmmaking—if only by example. As over-emphatic as one might expect from the ham-fisted Guy Ritchie, this resurrection of the world’s most famous detective is a dank, noisy affair—punctuated by occasional pratfalls and soigné bits of British understatement—unfolding in a gloomy London that seems a bootleg copy of A Christmas Carol‘s CGI set.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective was, in essence, a master of the 19th-century scientific method, who used empirical observation and logical deduction to make sense of a chaotic universe; it’s inevitable that his 21st-century avatar would be a buff superhero. In addition to being the smartest man on earth, the new Holmes is a master of barehanded fisticuffs—using strategies derived from lightning physical calculations. As played by Robert Downey Jr. with gloomy insouciance, Holmes is also something of a Bushwick boho. He wears shades and, rather than the traditional deerstalker hat, favors a porkpie job with the brim turned up.

Hollywood logic has further dictated that the movie be a bit of a buddy film, even a love story. Dr. Watson (Jude Law, batting his eyes a bit less than usual) is a good-looking bloke whose impending marriage drives Sherlock half-mad with jealousy. To complete the triangle, the unscrupulous queen of crime Irene Adler (played with game enthusiasm by Rachel McAdams) is hopelessly gone on the detective. “What if we trusted each other?” she plaintively suggests.

The wartime Holmes and Watson (Basil Rathbone and fumfering Nigel Bruce) battled the Axis, as well as the Spider Woman. A few near-subliminal references to terrorism notwithstanding, there’s little attempt to make super Holmes topical. On the other hand, there’s at least a residual trace of the detective as master of deductive logic. The movie opens with a raid on a Satanic ritual and, although it appears to go totally supernatural, is actually (and nonsensically) revealed as . . . something even less credible. The real mystery, however, is Downey. Whatever his personal demons, this actor seems immune from self-contempt; at least on the screen, he brings a wry conviction to even the most hackneyed part or ridiculously written role.

jhoberman@villagevoice.com

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The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

(Billy Wilder, 1970).
Wilder’s valentine to Conan Doyle’s mythical detective is an odd blend of comedy and melancholy, pairing Robert Stephens as a foppish and surprisingly vulnerable Holmes with Colin Blakely’s lovable Dr. Watson. Although the director was usually more concerned with story than imagery, this wonderful autumnal work turned out to be the best-looking picture of his career.

Thu., April 30, 6:50 & 9:30 p.m., 2009

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Edalji’s Cow

In a 1907 Telegraph article, designed to kindle public sympathy and indignation, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote, “The first sight which I ever had of Mr. George Edalji was enough in itself both to convince me of the extreme improbability of his being guilty of the crime for which he was condemned, and to suggest some at least of the reasons which had led to his being suspected.”

In 1903, Edalji, the son of a Parsi turned Anglican clergyman and his English wife, was convicted of the ghastly crime of “cattle ripping,” the exsanguinations of horses and cows via a vicious slash to the belly. Public outcry led to Edalji’s early release, but the government offered him no compensation or pardon, leaving Edalji unable to return to his beloved profession of solicitor. Conan Doyle, accustomed to writing of detectives rather than playing one, took up the Edalji case in an effort to lighten the “days of darkness” following his wife’s death. The crusade would eventually result in the long-overdue establishment of England’s Criminal Court of Appeals.

That arresting initial glimpse, in which Conan Doyle at once deduces Edalji’s severe myopia as well as his dark skin and unharmonious features (exophthalmic eyes, jowliness), occurs late in Julian Barnes’s Booker-short-listed novel Arthur & George. More than half the book passes before the characters meet or even hear of one another. The intervening chapters detail the men’s various childhoods, adult careers, and in the case of Arthur, amours: Barnes suggests Conan Doyle required the stimulation of the Edalji case to effect his second marriage and its consummation. Section headings announce the name of the man discussed, and, as in a friendly game of badminton, Barnes chucks the birdie of third-person omniscient narration cheerfully back and forth between them. For the author of Flaubert’s Parrot, such formal sport is positively restrained.

A deft blend of genres—thriller, courtroom drama, biography, romance— Arthur & George never proves less than dexterous. As in previous books, Barnes negotiates the actual and the imagined effortlessly. And yet, there’s a hollowness, or perhaps hermeticism, at the novel’s core. Sherlock Holmes and his creator have made frequent appearances in books of the last couple years, and this one, too, can seem an exercise in homage or ventriloquism rather than an autonomous effort. Still, Barnes’s affection for the diffident solicitor Edalji, who stubbornly refuses to chalk up his ordeal to “race prejudice,” and the overgrown schoolboy Conan Doyle, who all but dons a deerstalker in pursuit of justice, isn’t derivative—or elementary—in the least.

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North by Northeaster

The name Stephen King creates some expectations: angry telekinetic teenagers, zombie pets, homicidal motor vehicles. But not much happens in The Colorado Kid: Big-city journalist Hanratty comes to Moose-Lookit Island, Maine, in search of material for a series on “Unexplained Mysteries”; old-fogy local newspaperman Vince Teague and his playfully named sidekick Dave Bowie (the entire staff of the Weekly Islander) fob him off with hoary tales about shipwrecks and strange lights off the coast; the outsider leaves on the next ferry. The real mystery begins when dewy-faced Stephanie McCann—assigned to the Maine paper for a post-graduate internship—notices Vince pocketing the hundred bucks Hanratty has left to cover the cost of their lobster rolls. Vince and Dave lead Stephanie through a question-and-answer session in which she proves her mettle as an investigative reporter by figuring out why he did it. Once she passes this test, the two old men induct her into the guild of journalists by telling her the story of an unsolved mystery too private—and too genuinely mystifying—to confide to Hanratty’s readers in The Boston Globe.

Sound modest? It is, but it’s also a small masterpiece, a powerful metafiction by a natural storyteller exploring the limits of his art. Despite the paranormal trappings, King’s work has always been driven by his interest in human psychology; he’s at his best in novels like Misery (1987) and Needful Things (1991), which explore the dark desires and not-so-hidden needs of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. On Writing, King’s excellent 2000 memoir cum advice manual, showed him to be a superb stylist as well as a thoughtful practitioner of his craft, and this novella represents a practical illustration of that book’s lessons. Both volumes provide indispensable reading for the beginning novelist.

Stephanie’s professional coming-of-age involves learning what happens when a mystery can’t be solved—when all you’ve got is “a bunch of unconnected facts surrounding a true unexplained mystery.” After two local teenagers find a man’s body on the beach one morning in 1980, Vince says, “there was nothing but unknown factors, and hence there was no story. . . . People don’t like things like that.” The unexplained mystery of the so-called Colorado Kid—his body only identified years later by the out-of-state tax-stamp on the cigarettes in his pocket—differs from the detective shows on television or Hanratty’s features for the Globe because those have only one unknown thing per story: Moose-Lookit’s very own church-picnic poisoning can be attributed to the secretary’s despondency following the end of her affair with the pastor, the local wreck of the Pretty Lisa Cabot to Prohibition-era gunrunning. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an end is always a happy one, no matter how gruesome or ghoulish it may be on the face of things. But a story without an ending leaves readers deeply unsettled, a new twist on King’s trademark handiness with the uncanny.

Some of the material here feels overly familiar: The two old-guy Maine reporters speak in textbook local color, and the cynical reader may find the novel’s coming-of-age aspect sentimental. A few minor details breach the story’s realism: In 1980, for instance, there would have been no Starbucks in Denver, Colorado, a distracting lapse in a tale so concerned with verisimilitude. But these small weaknesses don’t detract from the novel’s great pleasure: its persistent and slyly self-aware subversion of the expectations all readers—including the characters themselves—bring to a detective story. At one point Stephanie realizes that the dead man’s widow was “a real person, and not just a chess-piece in an Agatha Christie whodunit or an episode of Murder, She Wrote“; Vince speaks ruefully of expecting the widow to be “a pale and dark-haired beauty. What I got was a chubby redhead with a lot of freckles.” Like these characters, the narrator plays with precedents in television, literature, and film: Stephanie looks “prim as the schoolmarm in a John Ford Western,” while Vince sees himself as a stereotype from the kind of movie “where the newspaper feller with the arm-garters on his shirt and the eyeshade on his forread gets to yell out ‘Stop the presses!’ in the last reel.” The challenge involves fighting the impulse to even out the rough edges of a story for the sake of a satisfying ending: Late in the book, Vince warns Stephanie that she’s “still expectin Rex Stout to come waltzin out of the closet, or Ellery Queen arm in arm with Miss Jane Marple.”

King is especially well served by his publisher, Hard Case Crime, a new imprint dedicated to publishing recent and classic hardboiled crime novels in a compact mass-market paperback format that faithfully reproduces the lurid covers (this one from an original painting by Glen Orbik) of the 1950s drugstore paperback. The book’s material form gives bite to its clever reflections on deduction and detection, though they owe more to Conan Doyle than to Mickey Spillane. The spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories looms over these pages (Vince invokes that character’s dictum that “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”), and the short snappy chapters give the impression of an Encyclopedia Brown all grown up and ready to work. Harold Bloom dubbed the National Book Foundation’s decision to award King its 2003 lifetime achievement award “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life,” but such contempt is woefully misplaced. The novella ends with a narrative refusal that brings to mind the famous “Conclusion, in Which Nothing Is Concluded” of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, and deserves in both its conception and its execution a place beside the classic tales of Poe, Conan Doyle, Stevenson, and the 20th-century masters of pulp.


Jenny Davidson is the author of a novel, Heredity (Soft Skull). She blogs at Light Reading (jennydavidson.blogspot.com)

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Houdini and Holmes Creator Debate Fairies, Ghosts, Miracles

Harry Houdini, the best in the world at escaping from coffins, declared in 1926 that there was no such thing as an
afterlife. His disinterest in the spiritual realm enraged many of his fans—particularly his close friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a firm believer in ghosts. In one of the most publicized intellectual debates of the time, the two argued over the skills of a medium named Margery by staging séances and bickering over “real-life” photos of fairies.

Without adding much plot, Gabriel Brownstein’s The Man From Beyond chronicles this celebrity feud through the eyes of a young, breathless reporter named Molly. She follows the two men wherever they go with the hope that she’ll eventually escape her usual beat: writing about lipstick. She does, and soon exudes the confidence of a sultry movie star—she’s glamorous, pissed off, and usually smoking. Both Conan Doyle and Houdini confide in her, revealing details about Margery, the famous psychic, who oozes goo from her naked body while screaming in the voices of dead people.

As he observes the channeling process, Conan Doyle, unlike his most famous character, has no interest in getting to the bottom of the mystery. He’s developed, in his late age, the “credulousness of a five-year-old boy.” These scenes of spiritual contact are slow and poetic, with many floating tables and blobs of slime. In careful prose, Brownstein evenly portrays both the beauty of these bizarre “miracles,” as Conan Doyle calls them, and the intellectual desperation it takes to believe that they’re real.

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Forgotten Gems Sparkle in Definitive Wilder Retro

No one wrote and directed a more impressive roster of hits than Billy Wilder. His enduring achievement includes Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and Some Like It Hot. And with time, it’s been evident that Wilder’s “flops” are of greater interest than a number of other directors’ successes—Ace in the Hole and Kiss Me, Stupid, big-time failures when released, look better with every revival. Arguably, some of Wilder’s finest work is to be found in three late-career flops: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Avanti! (1972), and Fedora (1978). These singular films, more overtly romantic than anything he had done before, form a loose trilogy. All were made in Europe—it’s as if the Austrian-born director, for many years a relentless chronicler of the postwar American scene, felt the need to return to the continental culture he had abandoned in favor of Hollywood.

Private Life, Wilder’s valentine to Arthur Conan Doyle’s mythical detective, is an odd blend of comedy and melancholy, pairing Robert Stephens as a foppish and surprisingly vulnerable Holmes with Colin Blakely’s lovable Dr. Watson. When an alluring client (Geneviéve Page) asks Holmes to find her missing husband, the trail leads to Loch Ness, where he encounters an almost surreal assemblage of oddities. An unacknowledged passion grows between Holmes and the lady, but in the end, he returns to Baker Street, his cocaine, and Dr. Watson. Although Wilder was usually more concerned with story than imagery, this autumnal work, with its lush location shooting by Michael Powell’s cinematographer Christopher Challis, turned out the best-looking picture of his career.

The vein of tenderness evident in Private Life recurs in Avanti!, which has aged beautifully. This dark comedy concerns a stodgy American (Jack Lemmon) who gets involved with a pudgy Englishwoman (Juliet Mills) in Italy, where they have gone to claim the bodies of their deceased parents, who they discover had been lovers. Lemmon’s performance as the right-wing executive who undergoes a transformation is as good as anything he has ever done for Wilder.

Fedora, an elaborate Gothic melodrama, reads a tad like Sunset Boulevard revisited. It too stars William Holden—here he’s a down-on-his-luck producer who travels to Corfu in an attempt to jump-start his career by signing up a legendary, ageless screen beauty who had retired at the height of her stardom. The mystery diva is surrounded by a sinister entourage bent on guarding the secret of her miraculous youthfulness. Although Fedora suffers from the casting of a merely serviceable Marthe Keller in a role that called for the charisma of a young Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, it remains a florid and haunting speculation on the nature of art, legend, and celebrity, and one of Wilder’s most personal films.

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Watching the Detective

He was born on January 6, 1854, and died for the first time in May of 1891. Died, that is to say, in print, in “The Final Problem,” locked in mortal combat with Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, with the two of them plunging to their death at the Reichenbach Falls.

A few years later, it became evident that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. In 1894, he returned to active practice, and handled hundreds of cases in the next decade. In 1902 he turned down a knighthood, retiring a year or two later to the Sussex coast, where he took up beekeeping—he hoped royal jelly, the food of the queen bee, might lengthen life and minimize the effects of aging—and began his magnum opus, The Whole Art of Detection. He put it aside, probably in 1912, and began undercover work in anticipation of the coming war with Germany.

He seems to have retired at the war’s end, but it’s hard to say for sure. There’s no record of his death, and there are inferences, certainly, of his continuing life over the years. A recent report (of which more later) has him in Japan during the American occupation, strolling in the ashes of Hiroshima. He was 93 at the time, and if he’s still alive now he’d be 151. That might strike one as impossible, but is the continuing existence of Sherlock Holmes one whit less conceivable than that he should have somehow ceased to be?

The novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) marked the first appearance in print of Sherlock Holmes, but it wasn’t until four years later, when short stories began appearing in The Strand, that the character became popular with the reading public. His audience grew with every new appearance, but almost from the beginning his chronicler, Arthur Conan Doyle, began to tire of him. Before he’d finished the first series of 12 stories, his mother had to talk him out of killing his hero off, a threat which he acted upon in the 24th story, “The Final Problem.”

If Doyle was happy to see the end of Holmes, he seems to have been the only person so disposed. City of London stockbrokers donned black armbands, and some 20,000 angry readers canceled their Strand subscriptions.

It’s hard to say why Doyle tired of Holmes, but it’s not unheard of for authors to grow weary of chronicling the exploits of series characters. Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers are supposed to have had a conversation in which each expressed a desire to put a violent end to her chief protagonist, but neither Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey received such harsh treatment.

Some 30 years ago, Nicolas Freeling killed his series detective, Inspector Van der Valk, midway through a novel, leaving his widow to solve the case. He subsequently wrote further about the widow—Arlette, her name was—and launched another whole series of books (about one Henri Castang). Readers, by and large, washed their hands of the son of a bitch. It’s my understanding that Freeling resuscitated Van der Valk in 1990 in Sand Castles, but it was too late to win back his audience. They were through with him.

But when Sherlock Holmes came back, all was forgiven. Holmes had faked his death? For good and sufficient reasons, he’d deceived the faithful Watson, living out of sight and in disguise until he could return? Well, sure, why not? If that meant more stories about the fellow, that was fine with the public.

And indeed, it was to mean another 32 stories and a pair of novels. The last of the stories appeared in 1927, and in 1930 Conan Doyle died. You think that was the end of it? Not a chance.

The Sherlock Holmes stories—what Sherlockians call the canon—have never been out of print. They constitute a sizable body of work, but the entire canon is dwarfed by the enormous number of pastiches and parodies that have flowed without interruption over the years, and the vast sea of Sherlockian scholarship and textual analysis.

Almost 40 years ago, William S. Baring-Gould published an annotated edition of the Holmes canon. Now Leslie S. Klinger has brought out a hugely improved and enlarged version in two handsome volumes, with a third (containing the four novels) to follow.

In 1933, Christopher Morley started the Baker Street Irregulars, the first society devoted to the scholarly study of the canon. You may well be aware of it, but did you know that it’s one of over 400 active Sherlockian associations? (Scion societies, they’re called, and some of them seem to be narrow offshoots indeed. The Companions of Jefferson Hope, headquartered in Columbia, South Carolina, is composed of Sherlockians who have had aortic aneurysms. Both the Blanched Soldiers of NOAH and the Sir James Saunders Society are made up of Sherlockian dermatologists. His Last Miaow brings together Sherlockians “who have lived with cats.”)

One needn’t search for a reason why enthusiasts of any stripe would band together to share their enthusiasm. That noted, it may be said of the Irregulars and its scion societies that their être is possessed of a singular raison. Members prioritize the voluntary suspension of disbelief upon which the enjoyment of fiction is predicated. As far as they’re concerned, Holmes and Watson were real people, and the sacred canon consists of Watson’s actual reports. Yes, Sir Arthur’s name appears as a byline, but he was at once a trusted friend and literary agent, and may indeed have done some editorial tinkering. And either he or Watson has done some fictionalizing, changing names and addresses and disguising circumstances, but surely much of the truth can be ferreted out by painstaking scholarship.

And some of that scholarship leads to remarkable conclusions. The great Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, was an ardent Irregular; his paper, arguing persuasively that Watson was in fact a woman, is a landmark effort.

Some years ago, I published a book with the usual disclaimer (“All characters in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental”) followed by another one-sentence paragraph: “The earth is flat.” In response, I was shortly invited to join the Flat Earth Society of Canada, and was in due course designated plenipotentiary for the eastern United States. (Since I was never relieved of this title, and surely never resigned it, I suppose I hold it still.)

The original Flat Earth Society, headquartered in England, may or may not have been formed by genuine believers. The Canadian bunch, centered in the philosophy department of a university in New Brunswick, were spiritual kinsmen of the Baker Street Irregulars, deriving great pleasure from opposing and exposing the globularist heresy while stoutly advocating the virtues of common sense and the trusting of one’s other five senses in the bargain.

Devout Sherlockians read their way through the entire canon annually. But that’s not all they read. They also consume great quantities of fiction starring Holmes or Holmes clones, ranging from alternatives like August Derleth’s Solar Pons stories—a substantial body of work in their own right—through pastiches (in which other writers assume Watson’s mantle and add to the canon, occasionally reporting on cases like that of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, to which Watson had alluded previously) to outright parodies, like Bob Fish’s outrageous stories of Schlock Homes. Much of this work is privately published, for the delectation of other Sherlockians, but some of it is the work of professional writers, including such luminaries as Nicholas Meyer, John Lescroart, and Loren Estleman, and it’s not unknown for a new Holmesian adventure to hit the bestseller list.

I don’t know what sort of sales are likely for A Slight Trick of the Mind, the work I referred to earlier. It’s a new book by Mitch Cullin (out this month from Doubleday) and it’s quite extraordinary. A Sherlockian might call it revisionist, in that we learn among other things that Holmes always called his friend John, never Watson, that he smoked cigars almost exclusively and didn’t much care for a pipe. More to the point, Cullin shows us this master of observation, this supreme rationalist, at a time when age has made great inroads upon his memory and mental acuity. The narrative moves through time, and our hero—our eternal hero—has never been more heroic, or more human. Is it the last word in Sherlockiana? Surely not—Michael Chabon’s recent The Final Solution and Caleb Carr’s forthcoming The Italian Secretary both revive the sleuth for yet another adventure. I don’t know why this one character has proved so durable. I don’t think I’ll try keeping bees. I’m pretty sure the condo bylaws would have something to say about that. But maybe I’ll give that royal jelly a try. What could it hurt?


Lawrence Block’s most recent novel is All the Flowers Are Dying (William Morrow).