Arthur Conan Doyle published A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Nearly 130 years later, Sherlock Holmes and John H. Watson continue to attract followers. But while Conan Doyle’s four novels and 56 short stories are canonical, the Sherlockian universe has expanded (with no end in sight) to include stage and screen adaptations, spinoff stories, and fan fiction.
The question is why. “Why have Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and the mysteries Conan Doyle challenged them to solve not only endured, but thrived?” Zach Dundas asks that question at the outset of The Great Detective. A “Sherlockian” since adolescence, Dundas’ book-length answer is part memoir, part biography of Conan Doyle and history of his times, part literary criticism of the Holmes canon, and part ethnography of the consulting detective’s fan base.
The result is a fascinating read, especially if—perhaps only if—you are a Sherlockian too, which I am. The reason Conan Doyle’s stories endure is because he gave readers a memorable character (Holmes), a great relationship (Holmes and Watson), and a world that is at once both Victorian and universal.
A British soldier returns from Afghanistan to a London teeming with international intrigue and low crime and there meets a man who has the skill to navigate them both. That’s how A Study in Scarlet begins. That’s also how the BBC’s Sherlock begins. Plus ça change… But it still works.
And that’s why Holmes and Watson thrive.
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