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Book Review

‘The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes’ by Zach Dundas

Author Zach Dundas has been addicted to Sherlock Holmes since boyhood.
Author Zach Dundas has been addicted to Sherlock Holmes since boyhood.Kate Madden

Sherlock Holmes will never die, not when fans like Zach Dundas exist. Addicted to Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective since boyhood, Dundas has thrown himself into all things Holmesian for this chock-full work.

Although Holmes is the draw, Dundas’s subtitle is a bit of a misnomer. His book is not simply concerned with the fictional detective. Framed by Dundas’s explorations of Holmesiana, from museums to fan clubs and conferences, the book combines the memoir of a fan, the history of an author and his most notable creation, and, to a lesser extent, an analysis of a literary sensation.

That Sherlock Holmes is a global phenomenon is incontrovertible: Dundas describes “the unending hive-mind reinvention of Sherlock” in multiple venues and throughout the decades. Beginning with a visit to the museum at the detective’s fictional home of 221B Baker St. in London, the author, whose day job is executive editor of Oregon’s Portland Monthly, finds a full-blown tourism industry, catering to “American, German, Japanese, Norwegian, Nigerian, and parts-unknown” visitors. He then goes on to document the many permutations of Holmes in film, stage, television, literary pastiche, and fan fiction that have captured the hearts and minds of readers since Holmes’s first appearance in the July 1891 issue of Strand Magazine.

For even the casual fan, the history of this deathless character is fascinating. Dundas does a fine job of tracing the roots of Holmes, explaining how Conan Doyle, a struggling doctor, began writing, and where he found the inspiration for his most famous characters (including Watson and Holmes’s arch enemy, Moriarty). Although other books (many of which are cited in the text) provide similar histories, it is always fun to hear, for example, that Conan Doyle never depicted Holmes in a deerstalker cap. That came from the illustrator Sidney Paget.

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Perhaps the least interesting thread is Dundas’s own story, which serves as a framing device — one character in search of an author. Personal stories can work as an entry into a discussion: Tom Piazza wrote a great essay on Charlie Chan by exploring his own obsession with the character in his collection “Devil Sent the Rain.” But Dundas is a bit too self-conscious about his affection for Holmes, reminding us once too often that “Sherlock Holmes did not exist.” Still, he joins the throngs in the search for “the (un)real thing,” seeking the models for the detective’s Baker Street abode as well as the settings for the stories’ various crimes and breakthroughs.

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Too often, these personal details distract rather than illuminate. Although parents of young children will sympathize, the narrative is not served by the author noting his “several interventions to prevent my [5-year-old] child from breaking a ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’ chess piece” at a Holmes museum. Likewise, when Brixton is cited as “where Conan Doyle set his murders,” the author did not need to add, “My only personal impression of the neighborhood derived from fruitless teenage hours spent trying to learn the bass line from the Clash song, ‘Guns of Brixton.’ ”

More interesting are the author’s explorations of Holmes fandom, from the more established groups, such as the invitation-only Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, to smaller, regional offshoots like Alabama’s Disreputable Little Scarecrows of the Shoals. Tracing these groups back to an avid fan of both Holmes and clubs in 1934, Dundas attends several events and writes in a jovial, casual way that invites the reader to take part. Glasses are “clinked,” and discussions range from theatrical interpretations of the great detective to whether Watson had PTSD.

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At one of these (a dinner held by the Baker Street Babes), he meets a doctoral candidate in adaptation studies whose work focuses on the great detective. “Sherlock Holmes is like the North Star of the culture,” she says, neatly summing up Dundas’s own implied thesis. “Everything else swirls around and changes, but he is always there.”

THE GREAT DETECTIVE: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes

By Zach Dundas

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $26


Clea Simon is the author of
17 mysteries. She can be reached at cleasimon.com.