The (In)Cedible Sherlock Holmes: Ironic Belief and the Metanarrative of the Modern Pastiche
When Sherlock Holmes made his debut on the stage of late-Victorian London he was a figure distinctly born of his day – and still is, though in an ever-expanding literary universe of his peers. Arthur Conan Doyle kept the world of Sherlock Holmes quite separate from most of the individuals and events of his era; he believed his tales to be ‘distraction from the worries of life’ that existed in ‘the fairy kingdom of romance’ (Doyle, 2004: 249). Sherlock existed in a recognisable fin de siècle London, but he did not rub shoulders with celebrities like Oscar Wilde, or criminals like Jack the Ripper, figures we know to have existed in the same space-time continuum. Copyright prevented Sherlock from hunting Dr. Jekyll or joining Van Helsing. In the last century, though, as Sherlock-inspired literature has flooded the market, the greatest detective in the world has become something else: a literary spirit guide to characters – both factual and fictional – of the Victorian and Edwardian chronotope (Cawthorne, 2011: vii).
Exactly how we approach this fusion of worlds and characters is best described by Michael Saler’s idea of the ‘ironic believer’,1 those ‘who were not so much willingly suspending their disbelief in a fictional character as willingly believing in him with the double-minded awareness that they were engaged in pretence’ (Saler, 2003: 606) – a form of complicit Orwellian doublethink without the sinister implications. In this context, Saler was referring to contemporary readers of the Holmes stories, but this same idea of ‘double-minded awareness’ still applies to the modern readers of Holmesian pastiches. Dr. Freud never mentioned working with a British detective in his notes; Queen Victoria’s secretaries never recorded a visit with a Mr. Sherlock Holmes; and yet, these are perfectly natural figures to appear in new cases because they would surely have met Holmes had he been real. There is little need to stretch the imagination into accepting these meetings, and it was merely an act of discretion that kept Watson from making these cases public sooner. Writers wishing to engage Holmes with his other fictional contemporaries require a slightly different approach. In wanting Holmes to be real – even if we are fully aware that he is not – steps must be taken to submerge our imaginations into a unified world where Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, Doyle and Stoker could be manifested. There must also be a reason for Conan Doyle/Watson to never have related these adventures before now either.
To this end, not all but many2 of the Holmes pastiches published in the last four decades have followed a two-fold reader-immersion process to satisfy the ironic believer: 1) in a preface, the author relegates the self to ‘editor’ of the found manuscript, and 2) Watson must explain the reason for narrative discrepancies (i.e. why did Robert Louis Stevenson never mention Sherlock Holmes in his account of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?), and present the ‘true’ story to the reader, who has now had their reasons to disbelieve assuaged. A new literary world is created in these two types of stories, one in which Holmes is ‘real’, and so are his contemporaries. Umberto Eco describes the need for ‘a completely furnished world’ in order to transformation of a much-loved cultural object into a ‘cult object’ so that ‘fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world.’ This is not enough, though, as fans must also be free ‘to break, dislocate, unhinge’ (Eco, 1986: 197-8) this created world, allowing them to explore it, to expand it, to reshape it according to their own designs and understandings of the world. Thus, we can take almost the whole of fin de siècle writing, then, and fold it into a universe where Sherlock Holmes is both the centre and the gatekeeper. As readers of these new Sherlock productions, we ‘believe’ – with mental tongue in cheek – that the Watson telling the story of Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with Jack the Ripper is the same Watson who told us about Sherlock Holmes’s encounter with the Baskerville hound. Each of these must be unified in the same man for readers intellectually, or else there is no consistency and no reason to believe.
With that caveat, it must be stated that there are several forms of Sherlock Holmes that do not fit under this study, such as the animated show Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (1999-2001) or the Young Sherlock Holmes series by Andrew Lane, which remove the character from his recognisable fin de siècle temporal situation. Sherlock Holmes does not aid MI6 in the Cold War; he does not wax despairingly on nuclear weapons; he does not eye the moon landing with his traditional indifference toward non-criminal trivialities; and Dr Watson is not a robot. These uses of Holmes break the reader’s faith in the author’s in situ world-building. For all of the flexibility extended to these novels in terms of literary and historical characterisation, there are in place some firm boundaries to the time and space of Holmes and Watson.
The First Believers
The reason Sherlock Holmes can be written as a semi-corporeal figure of history is because of the uniqueness of his status as ‘the first character in modern literature to be widely treated as if he were real and his creator fictitious’ (Saler, 2003: 600). Even while Conan Doyle was still alive others were taking up the pen to write their own Holmes mysteries for print and stage. Readers in London wore black armbands to mourn the death of Sherlock Holmes after the publication of ‘The Final Problem’. The character captured the imagination of the country, who viewed him as a man no different from themselves but for his preternatural cleverness. The stage actor William Gillette created the iconic image of a lean man in a deerstalker cap with a calabash pipe (not exactly how Conan Doyle wrote Holmes, but a convenient stage persona). Doyle cared so little for his creation that when Gillette wrote to Doyle asking permission to write his own plays for the character, Doyle responded ‘You may marry or murder or do what you like with him’ (Davies, 2001: 15). However, even Doyle himself acknowledged that it was Gillette who ‘changed a creature of thin air into an absolutely convincing human being’ (Green, 1983: 293). It is this willingness on Doyle’s part to relinquish his creation to the public sphere and give Holmes an avatar in Gillette which contributed to Holmes becoming such a well-known figure. Spreading Holmes beyond the confines of the Strand also gave him a greater presence in society, contributing to the belief that such a man could be real. Scholarly studies, articles and biographies filled in some of the gaps that Doyle left, carefully researched pieces that kept Holmes and Watson within the plausible world.
Many of these extended creations tried to work within the canon established by Conan Doyle; his own son, Adrian, and mystery writer John Dickson Carr, wrote a collection of short stories, The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes (1952), based upon the ‘unwritten’ cases. The end of each story is accompanied by a small clue from the canonical piece that inspired the story: ‘Among those unfinished tales is that of Mr. James Phillimore, who, stepping back into his own house to get his umbrella, was never more seen in this world.’ This is a line from the short story ‘The Problem of Thor Bridge’, which led to Conan Doyle the Younger (and Carr) to write ‘The Highgate Miracle’, filling in this piece of back-story, a throw-away line fleshing out Holmes’s life, to be picked up later.
Other ostensibly ‘non-fiction’ pieces tried to accomplish the same world-building, such as William Baring-Gould’s Mr. Holmes of Baker Street (1962), which provided an entire history of Holmes, dating not just his canonical adventures, but the Adrian Conan Doyle/Carr tales and the theoretical family history of Holmes and Watson speculated upon by other writers of Sherlockiana. Many modern writers offer thanks to Baring-Gould and other Sherlockian scholars for their assiduous research, which help to maintain consistency in their own stories.3 Constancy is part of playing The Game of believing in Sherlock Holmes. Starting decades ago, and continued to the present, we find an assiduous cognition on the part of many authors that they are trespassing in an orchard not theirs, but nonetheless one in which they still hope to cultivate their own seedlings that will bear a fruit indistinguishable from the old trees. Consider the subtitle to Ernest B. Zeisler’s Baker Street Chronology: ‘Commentaries on the Sacred Writings of Dr. John H. Watson’ (1953); ‘Sacred’ is a very leading word choice, indicating a sacrosanct status of the canonical works, attributed not to Conan Doyle, but to Watson. These are not writing to be shoddily handled, but brought to life via the ‘love’ Eco stresses. The ‘ironic believer’ loves Holmes enough to play ‘The Game’ of pretending he is real, and stretching their imaginations to encompass both Conan Doyle’s canon and the works of Sherlockain scholars. All of this is enough to generate the ‘naïve believer’ who cannot distinguish between the fact and fiction of Holmes’s world.
The last quarter of the twentieth century, though, saw a change in this Sherlockian literary philosophy of not straying far beyond the canon, not the least of which can be credited to the handing off of the Conan Doyle estate from Adrian to his sister Jean in 1970 (who was far more lenient in allowing others to use her father’s work) and the gradual expiration of copyright on Sherlock Holmes, and, importantly, of other literary works. Holmes was no longer restricted to his own literary history, but was being given the opportunity to interact with history itself. The expansion of Holmes into the larger fin de siècle world was underway.
Sherlock + Historical Figures
The significance of this era can be seen in recent collections like Encounters of Sherlock Holmes (2013) edited by George Mann and Professor Moriarty: Hound of the D’Urbervilles (2011) by Kim Newman, which deliberately set out to bring fictional entities into the semi-real world of Holmes, and to fictionalise real individuals in the same setting. This is part of a pattern that has emerged since the 1974 publication of Nicholas Meyer’s international bestseller The Seven-per-cent Solution: the synthesis of the literary Sherlock Holmes with contemporary figures known to us in our own history. In the first of Meyer’s pastiches, Dr Watson and Dr Sigmund Freud conspire to cure Holmes of his cocaine addiction. A dumbfounded ‘What?’ is likely to be the reader’s initial reaction. What does it mean that Sherlock Holmes, a product of fiction for all intents and purposes, knew Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology? Here we have two worlds colliding: Freud is being given a fictional life, and at the same time, Holmes is being pulled closer to our reality. There was even a letter sent to 221b Baker Street, inquiring as to the veracity of The Seven-per-cent Solution, to which the Abbey National Building Society (residents of that address as the time) responded quite simply: ‘Mr. Holmes has asked me to write to you with the information that The Seven-per-cent Solution is based on other stories and thus is authentic in one sense’ (Green, 1985: 231). Meyer’s work is being given authenticity ‘in one sense’ by the read secretaries assigned to answer the real letters sent to a fictional character at a real address. How does a man, a character, wrapped in their own solipsism, ever attain more reality than that? Even Dr John H. Watson has an author page on Amazon.com with over seventy titles accredited to him, giving him a digital existence; this is more than most (real) authors can claim. Despite modern creativity, though, the possibility of this continued existence goes back to the creator.
Conan Doyle cultivated a fertile field in which others could cavort with Holmes and Watson, leaving scattered clue for others to pick up on; ‘the giant rat of Sumatra’ and ‘the singular case of the aluminium crutch’, for example, remained behind after Conan Doyle died, and later writers could solve these cases to the best of their imaginations. This also allowed Watson the opportunity to leave behind ‘unpublished manuscripts’ (most in a tin box at Cox’s Bank) that others might find, edit, and publish themselves. Playing on the idea that Holmes was as real as his creator, and that Conan Doyle was only half of a literary team (Watson being the other half) then those works not passed on by Watson to his literary agent Conan Doyle are free to be ‘discovered’. Where the original stories employed no framing technique and simply launched into Watson’s narrative with a scene-setting paragraph, many of the modern novels must provide us with a frame that includes introductions by our so-called editors explaining how they came into possession of a Watsonian original. Watson himself must also leave us an explanation as to why these cases were not published after he recorded them. All of this is to engage the senses of the ironic believer: we know that it is not true, but we and the author engage in a game of mutual credulity. The author is taking Conan Doyle’s place, not necessarily as author, but as agent.
Meyer begins The Seven-per-cent Solution with a telling subtitle: ‘Being a reprint from the reminiscences of John H. Watson, M.D. / as edited by Nicholas Meyer.’ Meyer has disavowed himself of being the author of anything except the Forward and footnotes that permeate the tale and occasionally remove us from the nineteenth century and move us into twentieth century speculation. Meyer’s forward starts by addressing possible reader incredulity: ‘The discovery of an unpublished manuscript by John H. Watson may well engender in the world of letters as much scepticism as surprise. It is easier to conceive of the unearthing of one more Dead Sea Scroll than yet another text from the hand of that indefatigable biographer’ (Meyer, 1974: 9). He gives a history of the discovery of this manuscript, the efforts made to test its veracity, and his work at editing it for publication. The footnotes give either background to Sherlockian history (addressing references to other cases) or are Meyer engaging in speculation on the reader’s behalf: ‘Does this declaration suggest a reason why Watson never mentions his children, not even to state that he fathered any? N.M.’(Meyer, 1974: 121). Watson himself goes on to address readers and his reasons being persuaded that his particular tale ‘should never see the literary light of day’ (Meyer, 1974: 15). It is a two-step approach to fully submerge us into the universe controlled by Sherlock Holmes, one which continues to be emulated by other authors.
Meyer went on to pen two more novels, following his same pattern of two-fold immersion via editorial Forward and Watsonian Introduction: The West End Horror (1976) in which Holmes and Watson team with George Bernard Shaw to solve a series of murders linked to the West End stages, roping in additional cast in the likes of Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Gilbert and Sullivan. There are more ‘real’ characters among the cast than fictional. The Canary Trainer (1993) does something even more interesting: while Holmes is playing dead after ‘The Final Problem’, he becomes a violinist in Paris under the name Sigerson (something alluded to upon his return to London and literature in ‘The Empty House’) charged by Irene Adler with protecting one Christine Daaé from a certain Phantom of the Paris Opera, whore the orchestra is under the conduction of none other than Gaston Leroux. Now we have both the historical figure and his fictional creations coalescing in the Holmes metaverse. There is nothing supernatural to this Phantom, nothing that lies outside the realm of plausible: Meyer must rationalise every act, every trick, even if we know that Gaston Leroux is real, and his characters are not. If Gaston Leroux is real, but Leroux is appearing via the narrative portal of Sherlock Holmes, then there is a sense of reality bestowed upon the latter as the narrator of a portion of Leroux’s life and the inspiration for his most famous work.
A year after The Canary Trainer Sam Siciliano would follow with his own take on Leroux’s characters encountering Holmes, publishing The Angel of the Opera (1994), ‘written’ not by Watson, but Holmes’s cousin Dr Henry Vernier, whose Preface indicates a need to present readers with a Holmes that is ‘much more interesting’ and ‘much deeper’ (Siciliano, 1994: 7) than Watson’s stories ever revealed. This is excusing Siciliano’s deviations from the Watsonian perspective and canonical interpretation of Holmes’s character, while allowing for the fusion of two fictions. It is also set in the period of Holmes’s ‘absence’ following the Reichenbach Falls incident, but as Dr Vernier frames the story, Watson was angry with Holmes and a ‘major row separated them for several years. Watson was so angry that he promptly invented Moriarty and killed off my cousin’ (Siciliano, 1994: 8). Another explanation for Moriarty, Holmes’s apparent death, and how Holmes filled the intervening time. ‘The Final Problem’ is possibly one of the greatest (unintentional) gifts that Conan Doyle gave to fans of Sherlock Holmes and their Game.
Now that Meyer had provided a (highly successful) precedence for this intertwining of the historical and fictional, there was no stopping the not hundreds, but thousands, of pastiches that followed suit. ‘Pastiche’ may not always be the right word, however, as even a century ago, there was an objection raised to Sherlockian enthusiast Vincent Starrett that using the word ‘pastiche’ because it ‘has a derogatory sense, one of caricature’ (Starrett, 1968: 198) – and Sherlock Holmes is not to be reduced to a mere caricature in the eyes of the believer. Calling these neo-Holmesian stories ‘imitations’, though, would be also be a somewhat inaccurate designation: many are extension in an ever-expanding universe that has formed around one character of immense plausibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly cover story on the resurgence of Holmes in the last decade, there is a discussion with Sherlockian enthusiast Otto Penzler, who estimates that ‘more than half of recent published works put Holmes into conflict with vampires, werewolves, supervillains, and in futuristic settings’ (Picker, 2010: 19). These ‘genre bending’ works violate the traditional canon and the self-contained world of realism that attracted early followers, who considered Holmes to be as real as – or more real than – Doyle himself. But with the fictionalisation of so many historical characters to incorporate them into the universe of Holmes, it has become a more common practice to add some weight of reality to fictional characters, even those that occupy the boarders of the fantastic.
There are several other ‘historical’ fictions that feature Sherlock Holmes. The Stalwart Companions (1978) by H. Paul Jeffers revels in nearly twenty pages of authorial framing to set up an adventure between Holmes and future US president Theodore Roosevelt, steeped in so much historical research Jeffers provides footnotes for readers as Meyer did. Daniel Stashower’s The Ectoplasmic Man (1985) is a found-manuscript about Holmes’s case with Harry Houdini, a real-life friend of Conan Doyle, until they had a falling out over the latter’s spiritualist beliefs. In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ Stashower continues to play the ironic believer’s game with his readers, mentioning ‘that contemptible faction that insists Sherlock Holmes existed only in the mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. They are a spurious lot, surely’ (Stashower, 1985: 13). Following the two-fold immersion, there is then the ‘Author’s Forward’ in which Watson confesses to not publishing the account because ‘Houdini, always secretive concerning the details of his private life, forbade me to write of the matter within his lifetime’ (Stashower, 1985: 17-8). For the uninitiated ‘naive believer’ in Sherlock Holmes, it is possible to continue naively believing that Holmes may have indeed interacted with these figures of his chronotope; but it takes the ‘ironic believer’ to move with Holmes into the realm of his fictional contemporaries.
Sherlock + Fictional Characters
These novels, which combine Holmes with his literary contemporaries, are more likely to fall under that category of ‘pastiche’ as Conan Doyle’s creation must blend with another author’s. In the use of historical figures, the reason for excluding Holmes from their history is usually of one of discretion on the part of the detective and his chronicler toward the client. However, the approach to literary figures of history via the portal of Sherlock Holmes is addressed in two paths: one is a route tempered by the balm of sympathetic understanding on Watson’s part to the real authors’ predicaments of relating tales seemingly too fantastic for belief; the other, on the reverse, is the charge of deliberate falsification of the facts on the part of the ‘original’ author. As an example of the first, Loren D. Estleman’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (1979) uses Watson’s preface to state that
Holmes’s admonition to ‘be kind to Stevenson’ was unnecessary. Although it is true that Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of the singular circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Danvers Carew contains numerous omissions, it is just as true that discretion, and not slovenliness, obliged him to withhold certain facts and to publish The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde under the guise of fiction. Victorian society simply would not have accepted it in any other form. (Estleman, 1979: 21)
This is the reverse of the track Estleman uses in Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (1978). Watson also starts out by addressing the world of fiction which crosses into Sherlock’s world:
Before I begin my narrative, I feel that it is my duty to set the reader straight upon a number of erroneous statements made recently regarding the events therein described. I refer in particular to a surprising monograph which has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity since it first appeared some four months ago, authored by an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker, and entitled Dracula.
…Although Holmes does not agree, it is my belief that Professor Van Helsing induced Stoker to deliberately falsify the facts where our line of investigation transacted his, in order to build up his own reputation as a supernatural detective, and to invent entire episodes to explain the discrepancies. (Estleman, 1978: 15)
Playing into the reader’s role of the ironic believer, it is not enough to simply filch a well-known literary character: their creator must be incorporated into the story, acknowledging the very fact of their creation. Discrepancy between original narrative and Watsonian interpretation of events must be accounted for in order to engage us in The Game of being ironic believers. We know Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, and Dracula – we have for over a hundred years – and Sherlock Holmes never met them until now. ‘Irony’ tells us they are meeting now because copyrights have expired and it makes for an exciting story; ‘Believability’ tells us they are meeting because in a nineteenth century world threatened by vampires and mad scientists, only Sherlock Holmes can save us.
The character of Dracula has appeared in dozens of Holmes pastiches since, but there is an interesting study by Daniel Cottom about these two figures – and their creators – about their representative significance in the fin de siècle. In ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’ Cottom asserts
It need hardly be said that Stoker’s and Doyle’s protagonists never literally met, but this is not only because they happen to be fictional. The tales in which they live have incompatible premises, which represent two strains of the Gothic tradition. With Dracula we have an exploitation of otherworldy terrors in the tradition of Horace Walpole and Matthew Lewis, whereas Holmes updates the heritage of Ann Radcliffe, whose works dramatize eerie mysteries that are then all submitted to a rational explanation as her narratives draw to a close. (Cottom, 2012: 537)
Cottom is speaking of these two figures never meeting in their contemporary composition as bohemian products, but does not take into account their present connections. The human mind desires patterns and unity, and that includes fictions. Dracula and Holmes were in the same fictional London at the same time and therefore may have met. Many other authors seem to think so in their own pastiches: Séance for a Vampire (1994) by Fred Saberhagen; Sherlock Holmes and the Plague of Dracula (2007) by Stephen Seitz; and Sherlock Holmes and the Whitechapel Vampire (2012) by Dean P. Turnbloom meshes both the Dracula story and Jack the Ripper.
Dracula is not the only creature of questionable metaphysics Holmes encounters; the Martians of H.G. Wells have inspired more than one author. Sherlock Holmes’s War of the Worlds (1975) sees Holmes, Watson, and Doyle-creation Professor Challenger tackling the Martian invasion. Similar to Estleman’s use of criticism for Stoker, the Wellmans finish their account of extraterrestrial invasion with a letter from Watson to H.G. Wells, stating that the author ‘vastly exaggerated [his] own experiences, resorting sometimes to pure faking’ (Wellman, 1975: 224). Our role as ‘ironic believer’ is not to believe that Martians really came to Victorian England – because surely we would remember such a thing – but to believe that in a universe where, all else being equal, if both Sherlock Holmes and Martians existed, then Holmes would have defended Britain against the invaders. If someone (such as H.G. Wells) were to write a narrative about such an event that did not include the heroic actions of Sherlock Holmes, then they must be taken to task for such an omission and the true story told.
As far as can be discerned in the most popular pastiches (there being over 8000 on record as of 2010, far too many to read in a decade [Picker, 2010: 19]) Holmes does not meet any of his historical/fictional contemporaries that would have frequented Bloomsbury and fallen under the category of Modernist: Conrad and Marlow, Ford and Dowell, James and his Americans, et cetera. Instead, Holmes encounters those creations which occupy the liminalities of the Gothic threat to safety and order. What Cottom is saying (and present writers are unconsciously acknowledging) is that Sherlock Holmes has more in common with the fantastic than the Modernist. Dracula and Mr Hyde are dangerous to others; Marlow and Dowell are only threats to themselves. The existential musings of Modernist men and women unhappy about their world and laden with malaise can already be filled by Holmes when he is not on a case; there is no need for character repetition. Perhaps the inventions of Bloomsbury are too rooted in their own realistic world for even the ironic believer to accept their straying into the gothic world of Holmes.
Sherlock + Jack
There is certainly one piece of history that modern writers have tied Sherlock Holmes to more than any other: Jack the Ripper. The Last Sherlock Homes Story, Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson, The Whitechapel Horrors…These are just a few of the titles of Sherlock versus Jack. The case of Jack the Ripper occupies a unique space in the historical and fictional spheres of Holmes. The reality of five women murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn 1888 is undisputable; however, to solve the crime, to unmask Jack, must be a fiction. As the most infamous crime of the nineteenth century, it is all too tempting to have England’s most clever detective stop its most infamous criminal. But history tells us that Jack was never brought to justice: now he is not a man but an idea, a series of actions and results, speculations and newspaper articles, but Jack the Ripper can never be real to us in any literary form, or no more real than Sherlock Holmes himself. To pit these two characters against each other requires narrative acrobatics on the part of the author to explain why we have no identity for Jack the Ripper. To bring him to justice (whether Sherlock Holmes was the one to do it, or Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline) would be untrue to history. So how do modern authors navigate this historical and literary synthesis?
Michael Dibdin, in The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (1978)4 presents us with the traditional frame that has come into use: Watson’s lost manuscript is locked away until decades after his death, a piece never revealed to Arthur Conan Doyle, or ‘ACD’ as Watson refers to him throughout the novel. The ‘Editors’ provide a Forward explaining the discovery of Watson’s narrative, the disagreement about its publication and that some will ‘regret that two of the great mysteries of crime are finally solved, and will seek to discredit the solution’ (Dibdin, 1978: xiii). Dibdin method of uniting these facts and fictions is to cast Sherlock Holmes himself as the schizophrenic killer, as Holmes, Moriarty, and Jack the Ripper, all in one. And who is to say that Holmes was not the Ripper? Jack was never caught. Watson and Holmes – rather than Holmes and Moriarty – fight to the death at the Reichenbach Falls, and only Watson emerges, with a secret he must keep. Conan Doyle, unconcerned with the loss of his literary cash-cow, keeps writing Holmes stories, though there is no more Holmes, and no more input from Watson. Watson quietly goes along with this because he wants his friend to be remembered as ‘the best and wisest man’. Here we have the solution to the Whitechapel murders, an identity in the form of Moriarty generated by the split personality of Holmes, who did indeed die in Switzerland in 1891, the relationship between Watson and Conan Doyle is detailed, and the origin of the stories we know explained. There are no loose ends.
Bernard Schaffer’s Whitechapel (2011) is as much a detailed history of the actual murder investigation as it is a Sherlock Holmes story, using Holmes as a vehicle to explore genuine fact (in all its gory details) in pursuit of an answer. Schaffer sides with those theorists who blame the well-connected Montague Druitt, and it is those connections which keep Watson from publishing his full account with the solution to the murders. Lindsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) presents a new solution to the crime, that in which it was a police officer assigned to the investigation, but Faye can do this while still remaining within established fact – besides the presence of Sherlock Holmes on the case. All of these tales walk us through one of the most documented crimes in history, using the characters of Holmes and Watson to solve the unsolvable.
Why did Arthur Conan Doyle never discuss Jack with Sherlock and his readers, though? In an essay by Jon Lellenberg that follows Caleb Carr’s Holmesian pastiche The Italian Secretary, Lellenberg hypothesises:
There is a reason why Sherlock Holmes never investigates a series of murders resembling the Jack the Ripper case of 1888, and that Dr Conan Doyle, interested in real-life crime normally, never appears to have studied or discussed it either. Some things are unspeakable except in terms of a psychology that Sherlock Holmes would have shrunk from embracing of his own accord, so repulsive its philosophical implications might have seemed to him. (Lellenberg, 2005: 274)
Theft, fraud, and the occasional homicide inspired by vengeance or inheritance were far more acceptable for Conan Doyle (and Holmes) to contemplate than the unfathomable ruthlessness of a serial killer. In Judith Flanders’s study The Invention of Murder, she notes that while some of Sherlock’s early adventures were quite violent, they turned later to the ‘quirky, even whimsical’ and that this is perhaps why Holmes remained so popular: ‘There was enough blood, enough violence, in Whitechapel’ (Flanders, 2011: 438-9). Holmes can keep away the shadows of danger that haunt the streets (and pages) of late-Victorian London, then and now.
Why Sherlock Holmes? Why is he our literary spirit guide to this era? That in itself is an entire PhD thesis, but Cottom makes an interesting insight into the canonical character: ‘In the world as Doyle portrays it, Sherlock Holmes is the only subject who can be supposed to know. No one else can enter into, communicate with, and comprehend all parts of society as he can’ (Cottom, 2012: 559). Pastiche writers of today can move Holmes beyond his self-contained universe and into the realms of history and literature, because if anyone was to know everyone in the fin de siècle (and be able to tell us the truth of them) it would be Sherlock Holmes.
I started out calling Holmes a literary Virgil, guiding us through the contemporary texts and events of Conan Doyle’s time. Type ‘Sherlock Holmes’ into Amazon and you will find scores of Holmes-related texts published every year, feeding this expanding universe. Sometimes we are still permitted to enjoy Holmes for himself – id est, Anthony Horowitz’s recent bestseller The House of Silk (2011) approved by the Conan Doyle estate, and engaging with neither historical or literary characters and remaining contained within the canonical world of Holmes himself. But this is an exception to the published Holmes stories of the last four decades, which have chosen instead to engage not just Holmes, but the whole of the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras as source material to build their narratives. The employment of Holmes in these narratives is not just about telling us a new Sherlock Holmes story: these are about moving Holmes into a wider engagement with history, and at the same time, pulling history into the world of Holmes, building verisimilitude for the potential existence of Holmes. Sherlock Holmes is a figure that has come to permeate so much of our culture (passing the boundaries of pure-fictionality) that it is legitimate to sit back and philosophically consider how real Sherlock Holmes is or may have been. He has become a focal point around which to construct an entirely believable historical universe, walking us through London’s foggy streets and introducing us to both Queen Victoria and Mr Hyde.
- As opposed to the ‘naïve believer’, who does not know any better.
- There are too many pastiches to be read these days, so for the most part this paper is focused on the Sherlock Holmes novels that come from reputable pens and publishers, rather than tiny presses, ebooks, and print-on-demands. One of the noticeable differences between these types of books is that the more well-known authors and titles engage in The Game of persuading the ‘ironic believer’ via the mentioned techniques.
- Lyndsay Faye, Nicholas Meyer, and Laurie R. King are among the best known examples that have used Baring-Gould as inspiration.
- For anyone who has not yet read the novel, and wishes to remain safely ignorant of the ending, then consider this your warned: Spoilers Ahead.
Cawthorn, Nigel. A Brief History of Sherlock Holmes (London: Robinson, 2011)
Cottom, Daniel. ‘Sherlock Holmes Meets Dracula’, English Literary History (79, 2012), pp. 537-67
Davies, David Stuart. Starring Sherlock Holmes: A Century of the Master Detective on Screen (London: Titan Books, 2001)
Dibdin, Michael. The Last Sherlock Holmes Story (London: Faber and Faber, 1978)
Doyle, Arthur Conan. His Last Bow and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 2007)
Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality (London: Picador, 1986)
Estleman, Loren D. Sherlock Holmes versus Dracula: or, The Adventure of the Sanguinary Count (London: Titan Books, 1978)
—. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes (London: Titan Books, 1979)
Flanders, Judith. The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011)
Green, Richard Lancelyn, ed. The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1983)
—. Letters to Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin Books, 1985)
Lellenberg, John. ‘Dr Kreizler, Mr Sherlock Holmes…’, in Caleb Carr, The Italian Secretary (London: Time Warner Books, 2005), pp. 262-75.
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