Fame is fleeting in today’s disposable age. What’s hot this morning is history this afternoon.
It’s remarkable when any piece of popular culture manages to stand the test of time.
Sherlock Holmes — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great literary detective, who first appeared in print back in 1887 — is one of those rarities. In fact, Holmes might be more popular now than ever.
Not only are there two hit TV shows featuring modern-day versions of the celebrated super sleuth (Sherlock, from the U.K., and Elementary, the American counterpart), but there also are recent audience-pleasing feature films starring Robert Downey Jr. (who has a third one coming) and Ian McKellen.
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As for books, the shelves are filled with new Holmes titles — from a short-story compilation (The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories) to a novel (Art in the Blood) to a classy re-release of the Conan Doyle originals (Sherlock Holmes: The Novels).
What’s the secret to the guy’s staying power?
“I think there are several reasons why Holmes has endured for the past 125 and more years,” says Michael Dirda, author of 2012’s Edgar Award-winning On Conan Doyle. (He also wrote the introduction for Sherlock Holmes: The Novels.)
“First of all, Conan Doyle was, as the editor of The Strand Magazine declared, ‘the greatest natural-born storyteller of the age.’ Has anyone ever willingly stopped reading halfway through ‘The Speckled Band’ or ‘The Red-Headed League’?
“Second, the novels and stories of Baker Street are among the world’s great comfort books. Even when we know the plot, we return for the overall atmosphere — the cozy opening scenes in Baker Street, the gaslight and hansom cabs background, the world of 1895.
“Third, Holmes is an iconic figure representing the romance of reason and the power of thought alone to solve any problem. But he is a rich and complicated enough character that he can be interpreted in any number of ways. Every generation can invent its own version, or versions, of Sherlock Holmes.”
Now that Dirda spells it out for us, it seems so … elementary.
Here’s a rundown of new books about Victorian England’s great detective:
▪ The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, edited by Otto Penzler ($25): This cinder block with a soft cover from Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (a division of Penguin Random House) is nearly 800 pages, containing more than a century of Sherlock Holmes tales from various authors.
It’s definitely a mixed bag of material, as some of the pastiches are pathetic imitations. But there also is some terrific storytelling.
One of the best is “The Doctor’s Case,” written by Stephen King — yes, that Stephen King — in the 1980s. It’s a fiendishly clever locked-room murder mystery in which Sherlock’s sidekick, Dr. Watson, is actually the one who comes up with the solution.
Another favorite: “The Adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra,” by John T. Lescroart. Holmes aficionados will recall Watson mentioning this case in 1924’s “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” calling it “a story for which the world is not yet prepared.” Seven decades later, Lescroart spilled the details.
The book even contains a couple of Sherlock trifles by Conan Doyle that aren’t considered part of the official “canon” of four novels and 56 short stories.
▪ The Sherlock Holmes Book, from the editors of DK Publishing ($25): This hefty 350-pager is all about sensory overload.
Primarily a chronology of Conan Doyle’s original stories, the snappy text is enhanced by a visually stimulating approach to layout and typography. There are reprints of classic Sidney Paget illustrations from The Strand Magazine, images from old book jackets and movie posters, new charts and pulled quotes.
One of our favorite illustrations showcases the adaptability of Holmes on stage and screen. Seems the character has been in more than 200 movies, has been played by more than 75 actors and “has been animated as a mouse, a duck, a bulldog and even a cucumber.”
▪ Art in the Blood, by Bonnie MacBird (HarperCollins, $25.99): This new Holmes adventure, faithful to the style and the timeline of the original canon, is set in 1888.
A kidnapping case sends Holmes and Watson from London to Paris, where they discover that the missing child connects somehow to a stolen statue, the Winged Victory, and the murdered children from a Lancashire silk mill. Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s older (and more clever) brother, makes a cameo appearance.
Speaking of Mycroft, he’s the star of his very own mystery novel. Mycroft Holmes (Titan Books, $25.99) is written by Kareem Adbul-Jabbar (yes, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Anna Waterhouse.
Sherlock: Chronicles, by Steve Tribe (Dey St. Books, $29.99): This book is more than 500 pages of insider material about Sherlock, the popular BBC drama.
The author interviewed creator Stephen Moffat, stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson), and other key crew members. Visuals include behind-the-scenes photos, original concept artwork and costume and set designs. Very thorough, maybe a little too thorough for the casual viewer.
▪ Sherlock Holmes: The Novels (Penguin Classics, $25): We would be remiss without also showcasing the original works that started the whole Sherlock sensation.
This soft-cover collection contains Conan Doyle’s four Holmes novels — A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles (the best of the bunch) and The Valley of Fear.
The re-release also features Michael Dirda’s insightful introduction and fun new cover art by Adam Simpson that make it worth owning, assuming you don’t already have these novels on the shelf.