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Most Rational Mr. Holmes on a Singular Anniversary

January 18, 1987|Nicholas Meyer | Nicholas Meyer is a screenwriter and director.

A famous newspaper cartoon depicts a small boy in bed, staring with wide-eyed horror at a copy of the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Final Problem," in which the great detective finally meets his death. The caption reads: "Life's darkest hour." I was more fortunate than the original readers of "The Final Problem"; they had to wait 10 years before Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, got around to resurrecting him.

I, on the other hand, had only to turn the page to be put out of my misery.

Nevertheless, the frisson of despair that shot through me with the death of Holmes was sufficient to imbue in me (as with other Holmes aficionados), a longing to supply Doyle's deficiencies with Holmes stories of my own. As a teen-ager I even attempted to write a Holmes musical, but my efforts were somewhat overshadowed by the Broadway production "Baker Street," which beat me to the punch.

Years later, in a New York bar, I got into a lively discussion with a young woman on the subject of the location of Dr. Watson's wound. This (unresolved) argument sent me back to the original Holmes stories, which reanimated in me the impulse to create my own Holmes story. The result was "The Seven Percent Solution" and, subsequently, its companion volume, "The West End Horror."

These reflections are prompted by what Holmes would call a singular anniversary.

One-hundred years ago, an English magazine published a detective story written by an obscure young Scottish doctor, who was trying to earn money writing fiction while waiting for patients. He sold his novella outright to Beeton's Christmas Annual for 25 pounds. "A Study in Scarlet" did not exactly set the world on fire, but it did mark the first appearance of that most famous and imperishable of all fictional creations, Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective of 221B Baker St.

It was the Americans who kept Holmes alive, specifically the editor of Lippincotts Magazine, who, visiting London, invited Doyle to dinner and commissioned another Holmes novel--while at the same time ordering up a novel from his other dinner guest, Oscar Wilde, who obliged by writing "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Oh, to have been a fly in the soup at that dinner! Young Doyle was awed to find himself in the presence of the celebrated Irish author and pleased to hear such gracious praise of his own writing by him. There certainly followed a droll caricature of Wilde in "The Sign of the Four."

And finally, with the publication in Strand Magazine of the first Holmes short story, "A Scandal in Bohemia," Doyle and Holmes hit their stride and marched with seven-league boots into literary history. Two silhouettes are probably recognized the world over: one belongs to Charlie Chaplin, the other, in deerstalker, Inverness cape and curved pipe, is Holmes.

Ironically, the famous curved pipe was nowhere described by Doyle in any of the tales, nor did Sidney Paget, illustrator in the Strand, ever draw such a pipe.

Once again, we Americans may take the credit. William Gillette, having got Doyle's somewhat disinterested permission to do a play about Holmes ("You may marry him or murder him or do what you like with him," wrote Doyle), found he was unable to speak comfortably with a straight pipe clenched between his teeth. The problem was solved by a curved pipe, which lowered the center of gravity.

And then, Frederick Dorr Steel--yet another American--using Gillette as his model when he illustrated the first American edition, included the curved pipe and so it has ever remained. Some forms of this curved pipe are known as calabashes.

Here in Los Angeles, the Sherlock Holmes society (there's one in every major city in the world--"The Dancing Men" of Cleveland, "The Five Orange Pips" of Philadelphia, etc.) dubs itself "The Non-Canonical Calabashes."

For the true Sherlockian, the 100th anniversary of Holmes' first story is almost irrelevant. According to Sherlockian theology, he is a real person, whose 100th birthday (in 1954) was celebrated with due pomp and ceremony. Doyle is regarded not as his creator but merely as the "literary agent" who placed Watson's accounts of the detective with publishers.

It is doubtful whether any other fictional creation--Hamlet included--has ever laid quite so firm a grip on the imagination of the planet. The Abbey National Building Society, whose offices in Baker Street include Holmes' old address, maintains a full-time secretary for Holmes. Her only function is to answer letters addressed to the detective from all corners of the globe. Invariably they are told that Mr. Holmes has retired to Sussex where he is keeping bees. At least two volumes of letters to Holmes have been published. Any serious film buff will tell you that there are more feature films based on Holmes than on any other subject. The list of actors who have essayed the role reads like a casting directory.

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