The mighty Sherlockian mystery

The browsers ecstasy

Timeless: Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson in the BBC series ‘Sherlock’.

Mostly, we spent it talking about our favourite pastiches and catching up on what the other had missed. He had just finished reading The Sherlockian, a new hardback bestseller which we tried to locate here, but even first hand bookstores didn’t seem to have heard of it.

A relative visiting from London had brought it for him. In turn, I told him about Sherlock, the exciting new BBC series with a very young Holmes and Watson in 21st century London, solving cases by texting on iPhones and posting on social networks.

When he told me what The Sherlockian was about, it felt very familiar. I re-read the jacket blurb he was carrying: “In 2004, the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes scholar announced that he’d found the lost diary of Conan Doyle, which had gone mysteriously missing after the author’s death.

Before the scholar was to publicly unveil these diaries, he was found murdered, strangled with his own shoelaces. The room had been ransacked. The diary was nowhere to be found. Sherlock Holmes devotees around the world began a search for the missing diary — and for the murderer of their friend.” This new pastiche has a young Holmes scholar looking for the diary. I realised I had read an engaging non-fiction account of the true story behind this fictionalised one.

In David Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, the mythology of the great detective now acquires a real life modern legend in the true story of a great Holmes scholar and his mysterious death. Grann, the bestselling author of The Lost City of Z, is a fearless, imaginative reporter who painstakingly follows the footsteps of his subjects.

 In Z, he followed the explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett into the thick of the Amazonian jungle, encountering hardship and danger, risking his very life. In this anthology of various true tales of murder, madness and obsession, he attempts to solve a sinister mystery surrounding the legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle that has all the characteristics of one of Dr Watson’s casebooks.

Richard Lancelyn Green, the world’s foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes, is murdered just when he finally solves the case of the missing Conan Doyle papers. Over two decades, he had been looking for a trove of letters, diary entries and manuscripts written by Doyle which had vanished. If they ever turned up, they would be worth nearly four million dollars. But some believed the whereabouts of the papers remained hidden because they carried a deadly curse, not unlike the one from The Hound of Baskervilles.

Those who had pursued had either died suddenly or mysteriously. (Doyle’s own son, Adrian, for instance, who once had these papers, died rather suddenly.
The papers had disappeared soon after Doyle’s death in 1930. Scholars were desperate to find it also because access to such material would finally create a definitive biography of Doyle. Green’s great ambition was just that.

After years of searching, Green had a break that led him to the doorstep of Doyle’s youngest child, Jean Conan Doyle. She showed him some boxes and let him peek inside and Green noted that they certainly seemed like the missing archive. But, she was unable to let him examine it further because it had come under family dispute. She did tell him that she wished to bequeath all of it to the British Library. When she died in 1997, Green waited for the papers to surface, but nothing happened.

He waited and waited for years and nothing showed up. Then, in March 2004 Green opened the London Sunday Times to see the lost archive had turned up at a Christie’s auction house and was to be sold for millions of dollars. If this happened, it would go into the libraries of private collectors scattered around the world and scholars may never have access to them.

Green immediately set about alerting various Sherlockians, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, members of the Baker Street Irregulars, and the Doyleans, the more orthodox Doyle scholars. Together, they found a way to block the auction. A month later, Green told friends that he was being followed, and felt his life might be in danger. One night, soon after, Green disappeared.

The police found his dead body, on his bed, in his apartment, with a cord wrapped around his neck. Around him were Sherlock Holmes books and posters. Even his closest friends were baffled and concluded his death was “a complete and utter mystery”.

Fascinated by this unsolved mystery, Grann sets off to solve it. Sherlock, the modern TV series created by Steven Moffat and Mike Gatiss, works largely because of some inspired casting: Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson. Cumberbatch convinces us that this Holmes will grow into Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock.

Freeman’s Watson is a bit different though: it’s not too different from his character in The Office, except there he had to do a series of double takes at his boss’ stupidity, while here his double takes are at Sherlock’s genius and wit.

The character and myth of Sherlock is darker here than ever before, and he is often referred to in the series as a sociopath.

The fantasy these pastiches fulfill are not just for Sherlockians, but for all of us who yearn for more cases that break the canon by taking the great detective from Victorian London and placing him in the modern world. Somehow, and remarkably, this is one detective who seems to always be one step ahead of our imagination, easily and slyly becoming whatever we want him to be, even before we’ve wished it.

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