The Sherlock Holmes Canon

sherlock_holmes_silhouette2I promised that The Bookshelf was going to get some attention, and there’s probably no better place to start than with my favorite book series of all time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon. I first became enamored with Sherlock Holmes back in junior high school when, for some reason, our English textbook contained the story The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle. I instantly fell in love with the cleverness of both the writing and the character. Not too long afterward I picked up a two volume paperback edition of the complete works and spent the next few weeks devouring each and every story.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 56 short stories and 4 novels featuring the world’s most renowned amateur detective and his trusty sidekick Dr. Watson from 1887-1927. Nearly all the stories were first published in England’s The Strand magazine, the 19th century equivalent of The New Yorker or Reader’s Digest. Doyle himself was a less-than-successful Scottish doctor who turned to writing to pay the bills. I assume Dr. John Watson was loosely based on Doyle himself. The main h1man though…Sherlock Holmes…was inspired by a professor of Doyle’s at the University of Edinburgh, Joseph Bell. Bell’s methods of deductive reasoning left a deep enough impression on Doyle that when he began writing stories Sherlock Holmes was created. Readers of The Strand fell in love with Sherlock Holmes immediately. In fact, the folks in merry old England had such an abiding affection for Holmes that when Doyle (who apparently didn’t love the character as much as his readers) tried to kill him off after just 2 novels and 24 short stories there was much consternation…so much that Doyle felt compelled to bring Holmes back to life, which would spur 2 more novels and 32 additional stories. Doyle seemed to have that yearning that so many artists – writers, actors, singers – have…to be taken seriously. Hopefully before his death in 1930 he came to realize that no other writings by him could have possibly come close to being the gift to the world that Sherlock Holmes was and continues to be a century later.

I will make the assumption that almost everyone from the youngest child to the greyest seasoned citizen has atleast heard of Sherlock Holmes and probably thinks they have a vague idea of what he’s all about…the deerstalker hat, the cape, the pipe, the phrase “Elementary my dear Watson!!”, the home address of 221B Baker Street. Holmes consistently appears in the top 5 of any lists dealing with beloved fictional characters, and at one time (I do not know if it is still the case) he held the Guinness world record for the most portrayed character in film. The character has been used in countless movies, plays and pastiches (in other words, imitations by other authors) that portray Holmes in a wide variety of ages and put him in all manner of fascinating situations…trying to track down real h2life serial killer Jack the Ripper, fighting Nazis in World War II, going up against Dracula. I don’t necessarily dismiss all non-canonical varieties of Holmes, but I do tend to tread lightly. Part of the magic of Holmes is the setting…foggy, gaslit, Victorian England. When one takes the character out of that setting it can either be an interesting fish-out-of-water scenario or a complete disaster. I am a traditionalist, so I like my fictional characters to stay in the era and locale of their origin, and I tend to prefer any new reincarnations be based on or atleast show respect to the author’s intent.  Putting a centuries old character in a modern day situation with guns blazing, car chases, and meaningless explosions does not impress me at all. For example, I sincerely believe that the powers-that-be responsible for the atrocity that was 1996’s Romeo & Juliet starring Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes should never be allowed to work in Hollywood again. At any rate, I recommend reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes canon first (obviously), and then being very selective in what other Holmes incarnations one digests. There was a PBS series in the 1980’s and early 90’s that was very good and pretty faithful to the canon. 41 of the 60 Holmes stories were produced, and the remaining 19 probably would have been done if not for the untimely death of its star Jeremy Brett (certainly among the best portrayers of Sherlock Holmes). I’ve always heard mixed reviews leaning toward positive about the 1940’s films starring Basil Rathbone, but to be honest my intent to see them has never come to fruition. The fact that only 1 of the 14 films, The Hound of the Baskervilles, is canonical is a concern, and it is well known that they portray Watson as a bumbling stooge which was not how Doyle wrote the character. I suppose one day I will cave and will attempt to be open minded, but I have a strong inclination that I’m not really missing anything.

The influence of Sherlock Holmes over the past 100+ years is truly amazing. Most mystery and detective type stories owe much to Holmes, and shows like CSIh3 wouldn’t exist without him. Sherlock Holmes was forensics before forensics was cool. Hundreds of societies (all based on the original Baker Street Irregulars, founded in 1934) regularly gather to discuss and celebrate Holmes. I cannot think of any literary figure with that kind of influence and following…not even Shakespeare. The stories themselves are interesting enough to keep the attention of adults, but uncomplicated enough that teenagers and maybe even overachieving and precocious pre-teens can read them. They are eminently readable, and one can go back to them over and over and they never seem to get old.  As a matter of fact, picking up a book of Sherlock Holmes stories is like reuniting with an old friend. I would strongly encourage anyone who has never read them to give them a whirl. You are unlikely to regret your choice.

3 thoughts on “The Sherlock Holmes Canon

  1. Sam, I’ve read most of the Canon too, and I LOVED the Jeremy Brett series… at one time I had about a dozen on VHS. I have two little gems to recommend: First is an out-of-print biography titled “Dr. Joe Bell, Model for Sherlock Holmes” (by Ely M. Liebow). I have a copy and maybe it’s still available online. The other is a collection of short stories written by contemporary mystery writers titled “Holmes for the Holidays” (Ed. by Anne Perry). Each story takes place around Christmas, they are all entertaining and a couple are downright excellent. Also, have you ever rented the comedy “Without a Clue” starring Michael Cain and Ben Kingsley? It’s a very funny take on Holmes and Watson. “The game is afoot!”

  2. I believe I caught atleast part of “Without A Clue” on TV a long time ago. I might put it in my Netflix queue since I don’t think I ever saw the whole thing. “Holmes for the Holidays” has been in my Amazon shopping cart for awhile and I’m kind of surprised I’ve never ordered it since it combines two of my great loves…Holmes and Christmas.

  3. I dont see how anyone can disagree with you. Great post and I am looking forward to reading some more of your posts on this blog. I really enjoy your writing style. Thanks p.s did you hear about Obama’s new plan?

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