- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 23, 2005


By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and edited by Leslie S. Klinger

Norton, $70, 1,878 pages


By Mitch Cullin

Doubleday, $23.95, 272 pages


“Mr. Holmes, they are the footprints of a horde of imitators,” one might say of traces left by the many dozens (probably hundreds) of acts of homage, pastiche, and parody that have emerged in the century since Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) finally bid farewell to his immortal creations Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.

Cases in point: This spring and summer alone will bring us Caleb Carr’s “The Italian Secretary” (in which Holmes solves a mystery rooted in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots); the eighth volume (“Locked Rooms”) in Laurie R. King’s delicious series featuring Holmes and his wife (!) and sleuthing partner Mary Russell; and — a real surprise — maverick Texas author Mitch Cullin’s moving portrayal of the Great Detective in old age, “A Slight Trick of the Mind.”

Mr. Cullin introduces us to Holmes aged 93, retired to his Sussex farm, where he reflects upon his long-ago adventures, tended by his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and assisted by her adolescent son Roger in his scrupulous cultivation of the science of beekeeping. All too conscious of his waning intellectual powers, Holmes finds a “measure of peace … in the harmony of the insects’ murmuring, soothing the mind and providing assurance against the confusion of a changing planet.” (The year is 1947.)

But this peace is disturbed by Holmes’s memories of his recent trip to Japan, during which he witnessed the ruin of Hiroshima and by a case recorded in a manuscript discovered by Roger, which brings even more unwelcome memories of a young wife depressed by multiple miscarriages, who took recourse in spiritualism, moving tragically beyond Holmes’s power to save her.

Further losses ensue, and Mr. Cullin ends this perfectly conceived and executed narrative with a compelling picture of the ultimate rationalist a stranger and afraid, alone in a fragmenting world he is powerless to remake. It’s a haunting variation on the image of Holmes approaching retirement that lends an autumnal glow to the later Conan Doyle stories, and it makes for an exquisite, immensely satisfying novel. Mr. Cullin’s specific inspiration may have been the late Holmes story “His Last Bow” (1917), in which the detective’s Sussex retirement is interrupted by World War I, requiring him to infiltrate a German spy ring, among other entertainingly detailed exploits.

Dedicated Sherlockians will have already realized this, of course. But even they will surely be informed as much as diverted by longtime Holmes scholar Leslie Klinger’s lavishly annotated and illustrated edition of the 56 short stories chronicling the adventures of the world of detection’s Boswell and Johnson. These romances of ratiocination and derring-do caused a sensation when they began appearing in London’s Strand Magazine n 1891. And the beat goes on.

The many reasons why are cited in John le Carr’s appreciative “Introduction” (which singles out Watson’s mastery of plainspoken narration) and in Mr. Klinger’s substantial essay on “The World of Sherlock Holmes,” which describes the prolific and varied career of Holmes’s indefatigable creator: “Conan Doyle was a successful playwright and poet, political journalist, war correspondent, historian, detective, scientist, visionary, prophet — a giant of the Victorian age.”

Mr. Klinger’s “gaming” extends to providing speculative biographies of Holmes and Watson as well, and maintaining the somewhat tweedy fiction that Watson was a friend and protg of Conan Doyle, who aided the younger writer’s literary efforts. Fair enough — though the conceit is likelier to appeal to Baker Street Irregulars (members of the most venerable of the dozens of “Active Holmes Societies” enumerated in an appendix) than to the casual reader.

The stories are presented almost without exception in the order of their original magazine publication, accompanied by mood-enhancing original illustrations (those of Sidney Paget seem to capture Doyle’s gaslit world most vividly) and numerous annotations (most dealing with obscure or forgotten 19th century objects, customs and arcana) and, where appropriate, followed by brief essays of varied relevance.

For example, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the first to disclose that Holmes did not perish following a struggle with his archenemy Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls — for thousands of thunderstruck readers would not have it so — stimulates “The Great Hiatus,” in which Mr. Klinger speculates on what Holmes was up to during the years when he was presumed dead.

Can any of these 56 safely be skipped ? Probably — but I’m not the man to admit it to you. Read Conan Doyle for the total experience of immersion in a vanished world, not for plots of brain-testing ingenuity (for those, look to Agatha Christie or Ross McDonald or Minette Walters) — and he will not fail you.

Don’t neglect these masterpieces: “The Red-Headed League,” in which actions provoked by an eccentric American millionaire outrage and baffle all of London — but not Holmes; “The Speckled Band,” a fine piece of Gothic hugger-mugger that inspired a successful stage play; “Silver Blaze,” the tale of a kidnapped racehorse (which includes the celebrated “curious incident of the dog in the nighttime” as well as Holmes’s observation on the importance of imagination to the consulting detective’s cerebral arsenal); “The Musgrave Ritual,” a mystery surrounding an ancient family secret and containing the first known allegation that “the butler did it”; “Charles Augustus Milverton,” which introduces a blackmailer whom Holmes proclaims “the worst man in London”; “Wisteria Lodge,” a “chaotic case” involving voodoo; and “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” a marvel of ingenuity, in which Holmes’s older brother Mycroft — who occupies an unspecified high government position — assists in the recovery of stolen plans for an innovative submarine possibly capable of making war obsolete.

There are many other incidental delights in stories somewhat inferior: the bewitching character of “The Woman” Irene Adler (“A Scandal in Bohemia”); Holmes in the throes of an apparent panic attack (“The Reigate Squires”); Holmes’s adversary relationship with unimaginative Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard (“The Six Napoleons”); and the engagingly silly melodrama (“The Sussex Vampire”) in which we hear of the Giant Rat of Sumatra (“a story for which the world is not yet prepared”).

The world will be waiting, with appropriately bated breath, for Mr. Klinger’s third volume of Holmesiana, which will include the four novellas (e.g., “The Hound of the Baskervilles”) and be published this year. Meanwhile, throw another log on the fire, relax in a favorite chair, prop your feet on your faithful mastiff, and return again to these matchless chronicles of a yesteryear that — thanks to the industrious genius of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — has never really gone away.

Bruce Allen writes for Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Sewanee Review, and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.



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