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Sherlock Holmes' Popularity Is No Mystery

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective stars in three new books. One author ties the phenomenon to society's desire for rationality after 9/11.

June 05, 2005|Walker Simon | Reuters

NEW YORK — Sherlock Holmes, the detective famous for icy logic, is hot again, brought back to life by authors who believe that the supremely rational character strikes a chord in this age of post-9/11 uncertainty.

Seventy-five years after the death of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes is popping up in historical locales from Hiroshima to Holocaust-haunted Europe in recent portrayals by literary-minded American writers.

Caleb Carr's "The Italian Secretary," a novel commissioned by Conan Doyle's estate, hit bookstores in May, following Mitch Cullin's "A Slight Trick of the Mind," which featured the sleuth amid the debris of the world's first atomic bomb attack.

"I think that he just embodies the modern era's belief that through reason ... we can solve all our terrible difficulties," Carr said. "That's been challenged recently by the resurgence of fundamentalist religious thinking."

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Michael Chabon's "The Final Solution" places Holmes in 1944 Britain hunting for the parrot of a German Jewish boy, who is muted by Holocaust horror. Laurie King, in a book due this month, has Holmes tapping repressed memories of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

The authors have aged Holmes accordingly in the historical novels. Holmes is 89 in the Holocaust tale, and 93 as he ponders the devastation of Hiroshima.

Cullin says the Holmes persona resonates differently today.

"The very idea that such a character could exist, could untangle the knots and problems complicating our lives, makes him more attractive now than, let's say, in the apathy years of the 1980s," said Cullin, who admits that his Holmes is "fairly overwhelmed by the horrors and ambiguity of the modern world."

There have been myriad Holmes revivals, however, including "The Seven Percent Solution," published in the mid-'80s.

Conan Doyle portrayed Holmes in four novels, including the "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and in 56 stories published between 1887 and 1927. The stories were wildly popular, inspiring thousands of imitations and parodies over the years.

By the count of Holmes expert Leslie Klinger, there are probably more than 4,000 imitative stories of Conan Doyle's work.

"Most are deservedly ignored; a few are by excellent writers. This year, Chabon, Cullin and Carr joined the list," said Klinger, who has compiled a 1,700-page annotated edition of Conan Doyle's Holmes works.

Carr teams Holmes with sidekick Dr. John Watson in his book, which pits the duo against the specter of ghosts and spirits. Holmes goes solo in the other new entries.

Carr's novel grew out of a short story requested for the forthcoming anthology "Ghosts of Baker Street," commissioned by the Conan Doyle estate to portray encounters between Holmes and Watson with the supernatural.

The novel revolves around two murders in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where a ghost is feared to reside.

Chabon's Holmes is a solitary curmudgeon retired in 1944 in the English countryside. Piquing his interest is a 9-year-old Jewish refugee whose parrot squawks an enigmatic sequence of German numbers -- suspected of being a Nazi code or numbered Swiss bank account.

Cullin, 37, said he became interested in Holmes when, as a boy, he had access to a trove of books belonging to a collector living nearby in his hometown of Santa Fe, N.M.

Asked to house-sit, he delved into the library, which ranged from Holmes rare editions to Holmes-inspired pornography.

He said his new novel uses the sleuth as a vehicle to explore Japan's postwar identity crisis. It depicts an elderly Holmes regretting what science has wrought as he gazes at Hiroshima, flattened by "unfathomable destruction."

Holmes' popularity among these serious-minded authors is not a mystery, said Carr, whose books include tomes of history, terrorism analysis and psychological thrillers.

"They used to just be, basically, fun gimmicky things, but now there's this feeling that there can be a much more serious literary undertaking," Carr said.

Carr suggested the reason is "elementary, my dear Watson" -- a famous phrase associated with Holmes, but which actually does not appear in Conan Doyle's books. It was popularized in the 1929 film "The Return of Sherlock Holmes."

"I think that's because the whole emphasis on reason and on rationality is very threatened right now, and I think that people who still believe in the power of reason are taking Holmes much more seriously than before because of the threat to rational thinking in the post 9/11 world," Carr said.

"In that atmosphere, Holmes is going to shine like a real beacon to a lot of people."

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