Zach Dundas promises a lot with his title The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. He also delivers.
His book is like a guided tour of the Holmes multi-verse, written from the viewpoint of a long-time Sherlockian who set out to explore just why his hero has been so popular for so long. His searches take him almost everywhere. One charming chapter begins and ends with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, but also bounces into discussions of pastiches, Edgar W. Smith, The Baker Street Journal, The Sherlock Holmes Journal, Leslie Klinger, and the Marylebone Library.
Is there any aspect of the Holmes phenomenon, past or present, that Dundas misses? I think not.
The Creation Story and Dr. Joseph Bell? Check. Oscar Wilde? Check. Visits in London to the Criterion Bar and the Sherlock Holmes Museum? Check. Dartmoor? Check. The Baker Street Babes? Check. The Great Game? Check. BSI Weekend? Check. William Gillette? Check. Rathbone, Brett, Starrett, fanfic? Check, check, and check.
Dundas even mentions that masterwork of pig sleuthing, Freddy the Detective.
Steve Doyle appears on page 235, but unfortunately doesn’t make it into the index.
Even the parts that of the Holmes/ACD mythos that are perhaps overly familiar to veteran Sherlockians are engaging because of the chatty way they are written. Dundas triumphantly violates the rule in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style that says “Do not affect a breezy manner.” And it works. The stylistic result is a delightful read that is funny and fun even when you know what’s coming next.
But you don’t always know what’s coming next. Dundas serves up some wonderfully original insights. Such as:
“. . . Arthur Conan Doyle originated Sherlock Holmes. The rest of us, obviously, aren’t yet finished creating him.”
“Though they’re all ostensibly ‘mysteries,’ the Sherlock Holmes tales eventually sweep through just about every major pop-fiction genre. [‘The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor’] alone shifts from comedy of manners to social satire (parodies of newspaper gossip columns convey big chunks of narrative) to Western, of all things. Over the sixty stories, Conan Doyle would jump from hard-boiled noir to romance to Gothic horror.”
“In Watson, Conan Doyle crafts one of literature’s great studies in devotion. In return, Holmes comes to need Watson, though usually that need is unacknowledged. Going down to a major university to study ancient English charters? Bring Watson. Running a long con against a ring of German spies? Bring Watson.”
“The problem is that approximately 98 percent of pastiche, especially in its purely imitative form, is bad. Very. When another writer tries to warm up the magic lantern of 221B, the results usually flicker at best. Dialogue clunks with faux Victorianisms and leaden exposition. Artificial Holmeses and zombie Watsons creak about like creepy broken wind-up toys.”
Sometimes even a good book can exhaust a topic (or the reader, which is worse). But this one reminded me that Sherlock Holmes is a subject that can never be exhausted.
To hear to a great interview with Dundas, go to the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere podcast.