Saturday, July 11, 2015

Zach Dundas's "The Great Detective"

Zach Dundas is co-executive editor of Portland Monthly magazine, a longtime journalist, and the author of The Renegade Sportsman. He is a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Diogenes Club.

Dundas applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Great Detective actually captures the whole fairly well. The book is, in its humble way, a history of a cultural phenomenon: the talismanic detective of all crime fiction; one of the most frequently reinvented and remixed characters in all of English literature; the 130-year-old Baker Street sensation. You know who I’m talking about. Above all, it explores the question of why Sherlock Holmes, the hasty creation of an author who would have preferred to be known for other work, has thrived so vividly in our world.

But then again, the book is also a memoir of my own boyish enthusiasm and adult love for the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. And a small-scale biography of Conan Doyle and an investigation of his times. And a journalistic ramble through the present-day subcultures and pastimes that revolve around Sherlock.

Page 99 happens to hold a little knot of all these tangled skeins. It finds me narrating an episode in my youthful Sherlockianism—the day when I was about 12 and my uncle showed up with a letter in hand, created by a friend of his, purporting to be from “Doctor Watson.” This letter, I’ve noted, played to my flickering pre-adolescent belief in the fantastic and to a Montana kid always beguiled by the fantastical and foreign. At the top of the page, I write:
It would be easy enough to attribute my Holmesian affinity to the fact that I lived in a state popularly known as a fly-fishing destination or a place to retreat to if you believe that US currency is unconstitutional. But the Sherlock Holmes stories would probably have triggered the same monomania had I lived in New York, Tokyo, or exalted London itself. Looking back, I suspect that my imagination vibrated, like a just-struck tuning fork, to the Sherlockian cycle’s atavistic quality…Conan Doyle…can wield the hypnotic force of parables told by an elder at the campfire. His style of storytelling exerts a special power over a person whose own adventures have not quite started yet.
I go on to note that the letter from “Watson” was a small example of Sherlockian play-acting, a game (“the Great Game,” some call it) that has been going for almost as long as the character has existed. Much of The Great Detective focuses on how other people—not Conan Doyle, surely, who preferred cricket—have messed with, toyed with, and turned Sherlock Holmes to their own uses over the last century. Conan Doyle lost control of the character almost immediately, and other creative people began adding elements to the fictional idea he’d originated. (The deerstalker hat, perhaps most famously, is the contribution of brilliant illustrator Sidney Paget.) In the 1890s, fans wanted autographs from “Sherlock Holmes,” and by the 1930s a still-vibrant tradition of Sherlockian fan societies had blossomed in the real world. And here I stand, on Page 99, a young person just discovering this long tradition of fun.

Meanwhile, there’s Conan Doyle, unnerved. By the 1890s, the Holmes stories were making him famous and rich, vaulting a creation of his imagination into the popular consciousness. And he wanted out.

As much as Conan Doyle loved making money, he hated being told what to do. In his negotiations with the Strand Magazine, the author continually raised the price of Holmes stories—and the magazine kept saying yes. If Sherlock Holmes could prompt a magazine publisher, of all creatures, to part cheerfully with £1,000, what chance did Conan Doyle have of getting rid of the detective?

What chance indeed, when a kid in Missoula nearly 100 years later will eagerly devour every imaginary detail of Conan Doyle’s accidental but brilliant world? The Great Detective, in the end, tells a story of imagination’s power—and its unpredictable results.
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--Marshal Zeringue