I’ve never gone too long without a little draught of Holmes since childhood, and my bookcase reflects that. In addition to the complete works (in two easier-to-handle volumes rather than the one mega-volume I grew up with), you may also see my copy of The Sherlock Holmes Crossword Puzzle Book, as well as two non-fiction(!) books: Sherlock Holmes: Fact or Fiction? by T.S. Blakeney and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes by Vincent Starrett. For those last two, I am greatly indebted to the Unabridged Bookstore on North Broadway here in Chicago. It is by no means the largest bookstore you will find, but they have a lot of unusual items from minor publishers.
The most dramatic moment in all of Doyle’s Holmes stories is surely the point in The Final Problem where it becomes clear to Dr. Watson that Holmes is dead, killed in a final showdown with the evil genius, Professor Moriarty. The two have apparently plummeted into the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a death-grip with one another.
Doyle’s reason for killing off his most popular creation was simply that he felt it was detracting from his more “serious” writing. But like any good superhero, Holmes proved rather harder to kill than even his creator might have imagined. After several years, Doyle ingeniously resurrected Holmes in The Adventure of the Empty House, neatly explaining away how the illusion of Holmes’ death had been manufactured, how Watson had misinterpreted the clues at the scene, and why Holmes had chosen to let everyone believe he had perished.
There have been many additional Holmes stories written in the past century by a variety of authors. Some, perhaps out of copyright concerns, have changed the names of the principal characters, though they have in every other way attempted to emulate Doyle’s style. There is a certain type of Holmes purist who will not deign to consider these imitations in any way. I am not that kind of purist, particularly since I discovered the work of Nicholas Meyer, which you would also find in my bookcase.
If that name sounds familiar to you, it may be on account of Meyer’s other accomplishments: He directed two of the Star Trek feature films, including perhaps the best of the lot, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But before he did that, he wrote a Sherlock Holmes novel (later a movie) called The Seven Per-Cent Solution. It is a brilliant creation. It picks up with the apparent death of Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, and reveals that this was all a ruse, reported with the complicity of Dr. Watson, to cover up the real reason for Holmes’ disappearance: namely, his meeting up with Sigmund Freud for treatment of his cocaine addiction!
It all ties together very nicely. Holmes was occasionally described by Doyle as a cocaine addict, and he would theoretically have been a contemporary of Freud’s. Let it be further noted that Freud was among the pioneers in the treatment of cocaine addiction. But beyond those plot devices, it must be said that Meyer is wonderful at evoking Doyle’s style. In fact, much as I adore Doyle’s work, I must allow that Sir Arthur was a rather sloppy writer at times. For example, he seems to have had trouble remembering from story to story whether or not Watson was married, as well as whether Watson was wounded in the leg or the shoulder during his time with the army in Afghanistan. Meyer, on the other hand, is a meticulous craftsman, a worthy and respectful heir to the Holmes legacy.
Meyer followed up that book with two other Holmes novels: The West End Horror, in which Holmes takes on Jack the Ripper (meeting Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw along the way), and The Canary Trainer, in which he meets the Phantom of the Opera. I enjoyed them both immensely and I sincerely hope we have not seen the last of his Holmes stories. Let me be clear on one other point – neither I nor very many scholars would ever describe the Sherlock Holmes stories as great literature; they are not likely to be ensconced on the same high shelf as Joyce or Shakespeare anytime soon. But if they are not great literature, they are in many ways great writing and great entertainment, and I think there ought to be a high shelf somewhere to honor such works!