Ex Libris: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact … how often is imagination the mother of truth?” — Sherlock Holmes

By Margaret Clay

“‘Excellent!’ I cried. ‘Elementary,’ said he.” Sherlock Holmes has thus been shrugging off the fervent admiration and amazement of Watson and his readership for nearly 130 years, and still he does not cease to find new devotees. From the latest movies starring Robert Downey, Jr. to modern hit spinoff shows like Sherlock and Elementary, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian detective seems to have no trouble staying relevant in the 21st century. In 2012, Holmes was even awarded the Guinness World Records title for “most portrayed literary human character in film & TV,” at the time having been played by more than 75 actors in 254 screen depictions — beating out Hamlet by 48 portrayals, and losing to Dracula by 18 for “most portrayed literary character” … human or otherwise.

As delightful and entertaining as each reinvention of Holmes proves to be, there is, however, nothing that compares to reading with relish Doyle’s original renderings of his beloved character’s escapades in solving crime from the streets of London to the far off countryside. Though unabashedly prideful in his abilities (a personality flaw widely considered to be the most distasteful in others), Holmes somehow still emerges as a highly likeable character. Like most celebrities, he revels in dazzling his onlookers while simultaneously deprecating his revelations as nothing more than what any average man could deduce for himself, if he but paid proper attention.

In a few surprisingly rare cases of raw humanity, the otherwise hubristically matter-of-fact detective humbly remarks as the captured criminal is led away at the end of a case, “There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes,” thus admitting that circumstances can arouse the latent desperation to commit crimes residing beneath the surface of any human being.

Conan Doyle published the first set of stories — A Study in Scarlett, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1891 to 1892 in The Strand) and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (stories published 1892 to 1893 in The Strand) — over the course of six years. Desiring to devote more time to his historical novels, and resenting the fact Holmes was overshadowing his legacy of other works, which he deemed better and more important, he decided to rid himself of Holmes and killed him in a final battle with the criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty in The Final Problem, set in 1891. He stoutly resisted public pressure to resurrect his hero for 10 years; in 1901 he made a concession and wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in serialized installments, but set it before Holmes’ alleged death. In 1903, Conan Doyle finally gave way to his fans’ persistent pleadings, and in The Adventure of the Empty House, set in 1894, Holmes reappears and explains away his death and three-year absence to a very bewildered Watson. This gap in Holmes’ cases is now referred to as “The Great Hiatus.”

In returning to this perennial favorite, I was delighted to discover The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, published in three beautifully slip-cased volumes by the scholarly W.W. Norton & Company. These volumes include all of the sleuth’s 60 cases (told in 56 short stories and four novels) complete with detailed notes by Leslie Klinger, a leading world authority. The stories are reassembled in the order in which they originally appeared, and Klinger includes insightful biographies of the characters Holmes and Watson, and of the mastermind behind it all — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These editions also contain nearly 1,200 entertaining illustrations and period photographs, showing different artists’ interpretations across the years of famous scenes, many of which are from the original publication in The Strand, as well as original book covers and posters. Klinger explores new Sherlockian theories, and there is a plethora of historical notes covering Victorian literary and cultural details. The appendices are full of contemporary responses and commentary as well as articles giving historical background to events shaping the stories, such as the Boer Wars.

These volumes can certainly be described as “The Sherlock Holmes Bible” and are sure to please both the passionate Sherlock Holmes scholar and the newest follower of the cases presented at 221B Baker St.

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