Reviews — From the May 2014 issue

A Study in Sherlock

How the detective escaped his creator

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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.

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.

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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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