Reviews — From the May 2014 issue

A Study in Sherlock

How the detective escaped his creator

Discussed in this essay:

Sherlock. PBS.
Elementary. CBS.

When does a fictional character cease to belong to the author who invented him? Last December, a federal judge in Chicago ruled that Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and their associates, foes, and accoutrements — including 221B Baker Street — are in the public domain in the United States. (They were already so in the United Kingdom.) The suit’s defendant, the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lost to Leslie S. Klinger, editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, who persuaded the court that any elements from stories published before 1923 should be in the clear. “Sherlock Holmes belongs to the world,” the triumphant editor told the New York Times.

Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele of “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” 1903, from Collier’s © Eileen Tweedy/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Illustration by Frederic Dorr Steele of “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” 1903,
from Collier’s © Eileen Tweedy/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Can there be any doubt that Klinger is right? The world’s greatest consulting detective is arguably the most popular fictional character of the modern era — adapted, staged, radio-dramatized, filmed, pastiched, parodied, comic-booked, video-gamed, and performed by countless actors, several of whom have seen their public image indelibly merged with the role. Two popular current television series, Sherlock (jointly produced by the BBC and PBS) and CBS’s Elementary, transpose the late-Victorian sleuth to contemporary settings. The blockbuster Warner Bros. film series — starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Guy Ritchie as a two-fisted, action-packed steampunk extravaganza — would probably, despite its period trappings, look nearly as alien to Conan Doyle as would the present-day imaginings of Holmes on the small screen.

0090-BasilRathbone-Harpers-1405-390aThis cornucopia does not delight everyone. In a pair of short essays for The New York Times Book Review, two critics, James Parker and Pankaj Mishra, were prompted to respond to the question “James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot: Why Do We Keep Resurrecting the Same Literary Characters?” Parker speculated that the “collective imagination” might be “caught in a diminishing loop of derivative creativity, some kind of stranglehold of the secondhand.” For his part, Mishra opined about the failure of the myriad Conan Doyle adaptations to engage “with the original myth of Holmes,” seeing the stories as, at heart, reassuring fantasies of the nineteenth century’s “ultrarational culture.” Take Holmes and Watson out of London in the 1890s and they lose their resonance, their local seasoning.

But isn’t it the retelling that makes a myth? Classical myths and fairy tales have passed through many hands and have no discernible original; there’s no ur-version of, say, Orpheus or Cinderella, no pristine source without the fingerprints of Ovid or Charles Perrault (and who knows who else before them). Myths are stories that can be transformed significantly, depicted in any sort of medium, yet retain an identifiable essence. When Jean Cocteau made Orphée as a lush black-and-white French art film in 1950, it was still Orpheus, and he wasn’t called derivative or accused of resorting to cultural hand-me-downs. Creating new variations on classical motifs is not mere rebranding or rebooting; it’s one of the things great artists do.

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Laura Miller is a staff writer at Salon. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.

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