I first become hooked on Holmes when as a child I read The Speckled Band and avidly watched the classic television series starring Jeremy Brett. I have been fascinated ever since by both Holmes the literary figure of Conan Doyle’s imagination, but also by Holmes the cultural icon, a figure who seems to exist utterly independently of the stories in which he first appeared. It was to examine Holmes in both of these guises that I decided to write The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary Guide. As that modern master of detective fiction, Ian Rankin, has observed, “he’s still a great, valid, wonderful, fictional character; he’s three-dimensional… He’s bigger than the books."
There can be few people alive today who do not have at least some awareness of Holmes. But how many of those know him through the original stories? How many more instead know only the legendary image of the deer-stalker and curved piped (neither of which, incidentally, came from Conan Doyle’s pen)? Would they be surprised to learn that Holmes was a cocaine-taking, bi-polar, martial arts expert? Or that staid old Watson was a boozer and gambler with “experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents”.
With the imminent release of Guy Ritchie’s cinematic take on the Great Detective (starring Robert Downey Jr as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson), Holmes is set to be reincarnated for a new generation. It is always exciting to discover a new interpretation of the Detective who, like the great figures of Shakespeare, seems to speak something new to each generation. For me, Jeremy Brett will always be the Holmes, but I know of plenty of others who give that honour to Douglas Wilmer (who played the character for the BBC in the 1960s), or to Basil Rathbone in the ’40s. Previous generations never looked beyond the silent films of Eille Norwood or the stage performances of William Gillette. It is hoped Downey Jr will hold his own among this exalted company. But however well he fares, it is the perfect moment for the uninitiated to make the acquaintance of Holmes and for the rest of us to make a reassessment.
Conan Doyle’s stories must remain the central plank of the Holmes mythology, and they provide the backbone of my book too. I took the opportunity to take a detailed look at all the four novels and fifty-six short stories Conan Doyle wrote during his long-running love-hate relationship with Holmes. From these core texts I have pieced together profiles of Holmes, Watson and a host of other important figures in the Detective’s story. A series of essays look in more detail at specific elements of the literary Holmes, including his methods, politics, vices and personal relationships.
Other chapters aim to put him into his wider cultural context, including his life on stage, radio and film, his place in the history of detective fiction and his unique position in popular culture. I was also honoured to be able to speak with several people whose lives have been professionally intertwined with Holmes, including actors, writers and devotees. They provided some truly remarkable insights.
As already mentioned, for much of the world Holmes is a pipe and deer-stalker, and those objects have become a visual shorthand for all detectives everywhere. As such, I was determined that my book should also provide a strong visual record of Holmes. Among some 170 pictures, there are illustrations of the original stories by Sidney Paget and Frederic Dorr Steele as well as a host of other less well-known artists, examples of book jackets and magazine covers (both official and bootleg publications), period photos of important figures and settings, and examples of advertising materials and memorabilia, from the classic to the bizarre.
It is my hope that The Sherlock Holmes Companion will go some way to unpicking the enigma that is Sherlock Holmes. But most of all, I hope it will remind the reader of the magic of the Great Detective.
The Sherlock Holmes Companion: An Elementary Guide by Daniel Smith is published by Aurum Press