The gaslights glimmer through a swirling London fog. Hansom cabs rattle over the cobblestones. A gaunt, ascetic figure with a hawk-like profile, calabash pipe and Inverness traveling cloak hurries through the gloom. “Come, Watson, come!” he gasps. “The game is afoot!”
Neither the awesome cauldron of Reichenbach Falls nor a sedentary retirement at beekeeping in Sussex Downs could long still the shade of the world’s greatest detective. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not only alive and well in the hearts of his ardent admirers—he has emerged from Victorian England as the most omnipresent literary figure of 1974.
Even the faithful but slow-witted Watson could deduce a boom in Holmesiana from the evidence. New novels, anthologies, critical studies, and picture books about Sherlock Holmes flowed like the Thames this year. Dutton has printed 250,000 copies of Nicholas Meyer’s best-selling neo-Sherlockian novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Doubleday reports a tenfold increase in sales of its edition of 60 collected Holmes tales. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s revival of Sherlock Holmes is one of the biggest hits of the new Broadway theater season. Men’s stores have doubled and tripled sales of such items as tweedy deerstalker caps and Inverness cloaks (which begin at $750 at Manhattan’s Hunting World). Though Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce all but cornered the film market with 14 sagas in the 1940s, a new Holmes movie is said to be on the way.
All this commotion would seem balderdash to Arthur Conan Doyle, who dismissed his mysteries as mere potboilers and professed to dislike Holmes. But even Conan Doyle would be astonished at the liberties now being taken with the Holmes canon. In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, the indomitable Sherlock becomes a pitiful sight, ravaged by his notorious cocaine addiction and suffering from paranoid delusions. Watson tries to cure his friend by spiriting him to Vienna for treatment by a controversial doctor named Sigmund Freud. Samuel Rosenberg’s psycholiterary treatise, Naked Is the Best Disguise, argues that Conan Doyle himself was a sex-obsessed allegorist who modeled Holmes’s nemesis, the fiendish Dr. James Moriarty, after Friedrich Nietzsche. The most galling revisionist is novelist John Gardner, whose The Return of Moriarty tells how the diabolical villain neutralizes Holmes with a sinister bargain in order to execute his satanic schemes.
The greatest curiosity of all, of course, is why such singular fascination with Holmes now? English Actor John Wood, who has brilliantly reincarnated Sherlock on the stage in London, Washington and New York this year, believes “it has something to do with despair and world-weariness.” Could it be that Holmes’s icy certainty offers an antidote to 1974’s confusions? Could the master sleuth crack the Case of Double-Digit Inflation? The answer, alas, is hardly elementary.