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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes

Monday, March 10th, 2014 | Posted by Bob Byrne

Sherlock BBC-smallMe? Oh, why, thank you for asking. I’ve been into Sherlock Holmes since the early eighties. Columnist, contributor, reviewer, short story writer, screenwriter, newsletter editor, website creator: I’ve found many ways to express my Holmes geekiness.

I used to run a Holmes On Screen website, which I dropped just before the first Robert Downey, Jr. movie: how’s that for timing? Swing by to see my (not one, but) two free, online newsletters inspired by the world’s first private consulting detective.

If you have a pulse, you may have noticed that Sherlock Holmes is rather popular these days. In the mid-eighties, the British TV series starring Jeremy Brett had revived interest in the detective. That interest waned as Brett’s health deteriorated and the series quality fell off towards the end. A few made-for-television movies, including ones starring Matthew Frewer (that Max Headroom guy), Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett, didn’t generate much excitement. Sherlock Holmes and the Vengeance of Dracula, once the hottest script in Hollywood, lost its luster and became a dead property. Sherlock Holmes was as viable as Martin Hewitt.* “Who,” you say? Exactly.

Then, on Christmas Day, 2009, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes opened and grossed over a half a billion dollars worldwide. A sequel did even better here and abroad. Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat, deciding to expand beyond Doctor Who, grabbed Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, put them in modern day London and helped make Sherlock Holmes even more popular than during the stories’ initial run with their simply titled Sherlock.

Elementary-smallAmerican television quickly followed with its own contemporary version, Elementary, starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu (You’d know that Watson was a woman if you were a fan of Rex Stout, creator of the Nero Wolfe mysteries).

And there are more Holmes stories being written and sold than ever before. Known as pastiches, every conceivable twist and turn regarding Holmes and Watson is being devised. Before the explosion of self-publishing, a Sherlockian (who is more than just a fan: more on that in another column) could do a reasonable job of keeping up with new Holmes stories being written. Now, with the plethora of pastiches, one cannot hope to buy every Holmes story being produced.

“Yes, Holmes is very popular and teenage girls are posting ‘I heart Sherlock’ pictures of Benedict Cumberbatch in my Facebook feed,” you say. “Why am I reading about it in Black Gate, that bastion of fantasy literature and related subjects?”

Well, partly because I’m good at talking Holmes and I may have slipped one over on John O’Neill, though I hope to prove that’s not actually the case.

The four novels (novellas, really) and fifty-six short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about his creation have endured as classics in the mystery field. But in the century-plus since we met him in A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has crossed into the worlds of fantasy, science fiction, and horror.

Holmes and Jack the Ripper: I’m going to tell you about a couple of films covering that very topic. Holmes and Dracula: check. Gothic tales: On the way. Aliens and time-traveling Holmes: Oh yeah.  Were you aware that the finest successor to Sherlock Holmes (Solar Pons) was created by August Derleth, best known for his work with the Cthulhu Mythos?

Sidney Paget illustration of Holmes

Sidney Paget illustration of Holmes

I’m going to talk about many of the Holmes movies and television productions, but also shine a light on the more exotic side of things. For example, did you know that two of England’s horror film legends donned the deerstalker (that’s the funny-looking hat that Holmes wears) for five movies and one TV series?

And that while one of them played Doctor Who on the silver screen twice, arguably the most famous Doctor of them all played the great detective in the most famous Holmes story of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Sherlock Holmes is more than a cultural phenomenon; he’s a literary one as well. I could fill a column with the names of mystery writers who have spun tales of the great detective. Many a non-mystery author has tried their skills at a Holmes story over the years as well.

I’ve been reading swords and sorcery since the mid-seventies and Michael Moorcock was one of the first authors I discovered. He penned “The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger.”

Fritz Leiber, justly regarded as a genre master for his tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, was not only a Holmes fan, but a follower of Solar Pons (“What’s with this new guy and Solar Pons?”) He wrote “The Moriarty Gambit.”

Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space-smallPhilip Jose Farmer was also a devotee of Holmes and Pons and wrote several pastiches, one which featured Tarzan. Former SFWA President Poul Anderson was a noted Sherlockian and wrote about Holmes.

Isaac Asimov was a first rank Sherlock Holmes man (was there anything he wasn’t expert in?) and even edited an anthology of science fictional Holmes stories. Manly Wade Wellman dropped Holmes right in the middle of War of the Worlds, while Clay Van Ash paired Sherlock and the diabolical Fu Manchu.

Gene Wolfe, Gordon Dickson, Vonda McIntyre, Stephen Baxter, Craig Shaw Gardner, Robert J. Sawyer, Mack Reynolds: many top fantasy and science fiction writers have turned to Holmes. Hollywood mavens Mark Frost (Twin Peaks) and Nicholas Meyer (Star Trek) have strong Holmes ties.

While Doyle was a leading spiritualist, he kept the supernatural out of his Holmes stories, though he did include the trappings of it, such as in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.”

But many writers have taken Holmes into the realms of horror and the gothic. Even Stephen King has written a Holmes short story, “The Doctor’s Case.” Fred Saberhagen wrote two books featuring Holmes and Dracula and Simon Clark, and Basil Copper visited Baker Street.

There are several collections with a horror theme, including a trilogy of creepy anthologies I’ll be telling you about soon. And Neil Gaiman entered the Cthulhu demesne with his award winning short story, “A Study in Emerald.”

Heck, I rewrote Dickens’s A Christmas Carol with Holmes in the Scrooge role: that makes it a ghost story, right?

Holmes Murder by Decree-smallSherlock Holmes absolutely influenced the development of the occult detectives who followed him. Trivia Time: Though Ellery Queen credits William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki as the first occult detective, that’s incorrect. Flaxman Low, star of a dozen tales by Hesketh Prichard (with a little help from his mom), appeared a decade before Carnacki. Prichard knew Doyle and wrote Low partly to emulate Holmes.

So, hopefully you’ll learn some new stuff about Sherlock Holmes here (it helps if you read the posts in a Cliff Claven voice).

I’m also a serious Humphrey Bogart fan and will try to find some way to work him in once in a while. Ever see the only sci-fi/horror film that Bogie made? Not too many folks have, but you’re going to read about it. Comments are encouraged, including suggestions for future subjects.

Welcome to the Public Life of Sherlock Holmes!

*Martin Hewitt was the detective created by Arthur Morrison to replace Holmes in the pages of The Strand Magazine after Doyle (apparently) tossed his creation off of a cliff. They’re not making Martin Hewitt movies these days, are they?

Bob Byrne has been reading and writing Sherlock Holmes for over thirty years and founded, the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’


  1. […] today, my new weekly column, The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes will be up on Monday mornings over at Black Gate, the web’s leading fantasy literature and […]

    Pingback by The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes – my new column! | Almost Holmes - March 10, 2014 11:35 am

  2. As I’m sure the multitude of folks who aren’t leaving comments are dying to know more about me: I’m old enough to remember when AD&D first appeared; I know more about Humphrey Bogart, the Beach Boys, Watergate and Conan stories than I probably need to and I get the same weather as The Black Gate World Headquarters (but slightly milder), one day later. And I’ve been posting here on Black Gate as Sherlock for awhile.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 10, 2014 2:02 pm

  3. I first got hooked on Holmes thanks to a made-for-tv movie called “The Return of Sherlock Holmes” sometime in the mid-80’s.

    I’m looking forward to your columns. I wonder if you will someday tie in your interest in Bogey by writing speculative columns about how Holmes would compare to Bogey’s versions of Sam Spade (in the Maltese Falcon) and Phillip Marlowe (in the Big Sleep).

    Comment by AmyFarmer - March 10, 2014 3:30 pm

  4. Amy: I thought I was editing within my reply to you but actually had clicked on your original comment. I accidentally removed a few lines. My apologies.

    I remember a scene in that film where Holmes observed some stuff and “did his thing.” The female Watson then explained that no, it was sugar from her ice tea and she was not a cocaine user.” Bob Shayne wrote the screenplay for that movie. I’ll be mentioning him again next week, as he wrote two other Holmes tv films.

    Not quite on the Holmes to Spade and Marlowe. Though in Hard Boiled Holmes (an essay I wrote for Sherlock Magazine), I assert that you can trace the hard boiled PI stories back to Holmes and Victorian England. It’s not bullet proof, but it’s worth thinking about..

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 10, 2014 8:57 pm

  5. To the spate of Holmes-as-a-hot-commodity examples, I’ve noticed that the kids’ cartoon channel Qbo is re-running Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001). (I have small children; that’s the only reason I know what’s playing on Qbo.)

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 11, 2014 1:03 am

  6. Er, correction: “Qubo.”

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 11, 2014 1:04 am

  7. The great detective makes an un-named appearance in Zelazny’s last great work, A NIGHT IN LONESOME OCTOBER. Well, several un-named appearances. The narrator’s a dog, so he doesn’t know Sherlock’s name, but it’s pretty easy to figure out…

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - March 11, 2014 9:51 am

  8. The scene I remember from that movie was when they got on the airplane and Sherlock said it must have gotten its name because it “traveled along the plains.” Watson said something like “Not exactly,” and then Sherlock looked out the window just as it was taking off.
    Isn’t Bob Shayne the founder of New Line Cinema?

    Comment by AmyFarmer - March 11, 2014 2:29 pm

  9. Amy: Different Bob Shayne.

    There was another ‘Holmes Returns’ not long after this one. Anthony Higgins played Holmes. I think the one you saw, with Michael Pennington, was the better of the two. The humor was done fairly well.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 11, 2014 9:59 pm

  10. Holmes’ voice in ’21st Century’ is Jason Gray-Stanford. He’s best known as Randy Disher in ‘Monk.’

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 11, 2014 10:00 pm

  11. I’ve not read Zelazny’s book, nor Basil Copper’s ‘Necropolis.’ Holmes and Watson make a late cameo in that one.

    Comment by Bob Byrne - March 11, 2014 10:03 pm

  12. […] The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes […]

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