Channeling Holmes

[My introduction to the 2012 Edgar Awards program guide, which I edited this year. The quotes are from authors, booksellers and librarians from the pieces they wrote on Holmes for the program.]

Aren’t we all?

The Sherlock Holmes canon has long been subject to assiduous mining by laborers in literature and film. Steve Hockensmith says, “Holmes has fought Martians. Holmes has fought zombies. Holmes has fought dinosaurs. Holmes has fought Nazis. Holmes has fought icky Lovecraftian yuck-gods. Holmes has fought the fiendish Fu Manchu. Holmes has fought Dracula…a lot! Like, maybe not as often as he’s fought Jack the Ripper — would those two just get a room already? — but at least half a dozen novels have chronicled the master sleuth’s battles with the count.”

Leslie Klinger says, “I was fascinated to discover that for more than sixty years, people had been studying the Holmes stories, hunting down obscurities, wrestling with problems, and most importantly, playing what I later learned was called “the Game.”” “There’s always a market for Sherlockian scholarship,” says Barbara Peters.

I just read where CBS is bringing Holmes back in a new television series called “Elementary,” only this time they’re setting it in New York City, with — wait for it — Lucy Liu playing Watson.

This guy just won’t die. Why is that?

Kristine Katherine Rusch says it’s because Watson is the narrator. “If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had written his famous stories from Holmes’s point of view, readers wouldn’t have tolerated it, just like most of us wouldn’t have tolerated Holmes in our lives at all,” she says. “No matter how brilliant he is, the man is also insufferable.”

Peter Abrahams agrees: “One of the most important decisions Conan Doyle made – consciously or not – was to write the Holmes stories in the first person. Watson is a character who just keeps growing on you, and the concept – to show the action of the great man through the eyes of a decent and fair-minded haut-bourgeois – works beautifully.”

So, it’s Watson. Agreed. But it’s so much more.

Carole Nelson Douglas says it’s character, as in this of Irene Adler: “The only woman to outwit Holmes had to be his moral equal, a woman with too much integrity to be anyone’s mistress but her own.”

Lyndsay Faye says it’s craft. “More than any other writer I have ever had the privilege of admiring, Conan Doyle knew the value of absent space.” As in that infamous dog who didn’t bark in the nighttime.

Jan Burke says, “I love his client list.” Think about it. Who else works for the King of Bohemia?

Toni L.P. Kelner says it’s family, as in bequeathing Holmes to the next generation. “It was December, and I’d handed the day’s mail to Daddy. One envelope was clearly a card, and after he opened it, he grinned and handed it back to me. It was signed John H. Watson. Then, before I could say anything, he showed me the London postmark on the envelope. All I could think was, “Doctor Watson sent us a Christmas card!”” Donna Andrews, too, inherited Holmes: “One fateful day, [my father] brought home The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”

I’d say it was family, too, but then my favorite character was always and ever will be Mycroft, Holmes’ older, smarter brother. Who has himself been spun off as a character a time or two. I first encountered Mycroft outside the Canon in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Mike is a computer, oh, a sentient one, of course, and a formidable general in the fight against Earth tyranny.

Watson, character, craft, clients, computers. Librarian David Wright says, “[Some] will simply give in to the gravitational pull of a truly mythic character; a cornerstone of cultural literacy.”

I’ll go along with craft. Conan Doyle was a maddening tease. He had Watson name-dropping cases all over the place, as in the beginning of The Adventure of the Speckled Band, when Helen Stone says to Holmes

I have heard of you from Mrs. Farintosh,
whom you helped in the hour of her sore need.

And that’s the last we hear of Mrs. Farintosh. I’ll go along with characterization, too. Doyle was also a master at writing villains, as in Dr. Grimesby Roylott, of Stoke Moran, again in The Speckled Band

When a doctor does go wrong he is the first
of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.

which is fun anyway you look at it. Conan Doyle was himself a doctor. Holmes was modeled on one of Conan Doyle’s university lecturers, surgeon Joseph Bell. Fu Manchu was a doctor, or so he claimed. Hannibel Lecter. House.

Infuriating, insufferable, made human by Watson, deemed infallible by his clients, with a clearance rate that would turn any CSI detective pea green with envy, and a treasure to be handed down from one generation to the next for what looks at this point like perpetuity. Laurie R. King says, “As readers, we may not want to be Holmes—may not even want to be around him, much—but we rest better knowing he is there.”

Which is why crime fiction writers, hard-boiled and cosy alike, are always channelling our inner Holmes. S.J. Rozan says, “Present him with a bizarre and seemingly random set of facts, and he’d make sense of them.

“Every time.”


Dana View All →

Author and founder of

2 Comments Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: