THERE is a man in the United States who collects Sherlockian memorabilia to such a degree that he has been obliged to reinforce the floors of his house with iron girders. The weight of statuettes, mugs, framed pictures, books, and, presumably, deerstalker hats, became so great that collapse was imminent. The extraordinary irony of the story is that the monomaniac in question has never read a word written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, never even perused a Holmes short story. Obsession: a far from uncommon symptom of those involved in the world of Sherlock Holmes and his creator.
Christopher Redmond, on the other hand, is an addict of a quite different sort. Not only has he read virtually everything written by Conan Doyle, but he understands and appreciates the Scottish authors oeuvre with a crisper intelligence and a more refined critical sense than almost any other concerned writer in North America. Hence if anyone was going to compile a Holmes handbook it deserved to be Redmond, both for his sake and for ours.
What this former co-editor of the journal Canadian Holmes gives readers -- in a distillation of 25 years of research and study on and around the subject -- is an authoritative introduction to an intriguing phenomenon. In essence it is as if the reader were taken by the arm by a Communicative, indulgent, and never patronizing expert and guided through the labyrinthine streets of late Victorian London, along the corridors of Scotland Yard, and, most important of all, initiated into the delightful nuances and esoteric flavours of Edwardian English literature, the life of an Edinburgh doctor, and the sometimes awkward and contrived nomenclature of Sherlock Holmes partisans.
Redmond begins with the canon, the name given to the four novels and five volumes of short stories written by Conan Doyle about Holmes, consisting, Redmond informs us, of 660,382 words. He analyses and summarizes each of the 60 stories and then moves on to discuss the main characters, the supporting cast, the detective's methods, and his rooms at 221B Baker Street. After a sojourn among sources, translations, illustrations, and copyrights, the author provides a synopsis of Conan Doyle's life, correctly claiming that "Doyle is of importance as a social reformer, a religious leader, and a Public figure generally" as well as being the father of perhaps the most popular fictional creation in the history of English letters. Conan Doyle has for far too long been confined rather than liberated by his achievements as a detective writer. Simply, there was far more to the man than Sherlock Holmes, whom he of course tried to kill off and with whom he was never completely happy. The last half of A Sherlock Holmes Handbook explores the disparate and, one has to say, sometimes slightly deranged contemporary followers of Holmes and the societies and clubs they have formed. There is room for optimism, however, with more sophisticated and balanced organizations being established all the time and all over the world. Redmond also writes about the television, film, and radio adaptations of the stories, dismissing some rather fatuous versions and stating that Jeremy Brett's superlative interpretation of Holmes has fundamentally altered the mass perception of the character. In one of the most astute and compendious sections of the book, Redmond discusses crime and punishment during Conan Doyles life, placing the criminology and social conditions firmly in historical context. In his conclusion Redmond writes with a disarming passion and sincerity that:
Sherlock Holmes, who was conceived on a page of Arthur Conan Doyle's notebook and brought to birth in a shilling paperback, has escaped his creator's control. Surviving embarrassing distortions by advertisers and film directors, surviving parodies and caricatures, the decay of time and the damage of dog-eared pages, he has earned eternal life.
It is this tantalizing autonomy, this streak of anarchy engendered by the best literature that makes Holmes what he is, made Conan Doyle what he was, and makes this Volume Such a poignant addition to the subject.
Loath as I am to give unqualified praise to any book and much as I wish to wear the mask of a modernist critic by chanting my disappointment like some lugubrious mantra, it is annoyingly difficult to make any genuine criticism of this little gem of a publication. Quite a three-pipe problem, damn it.