Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Afterword: "The Great Game?"

The game of applying the methods of the ‘Higher Criticism to the Sherlock Holmes canon was begun, many years ago, by Monsignor Ronald Knox, with the aim of showing that, by those methods, one could disintegrate a modern classic as speciously as a certain school of critics have endeavored to disintegrate the Bible.
Dorothy Sayers, Unpopular Opinions

When we started this blog, we had no idea of the cultural renaissance the tales of the great detective would soon undergo. Our discussions of Holmes have their origins much earlier, starting in the online publication of a short philosophical parable, “How To Do Things With Sherlock Holmes” dating to the summer of 2005 and continuing on during a trip to London in 2006. It would be four years before the Guy Ritchie film adaptation would appear in 2009, followed a year later by the Gatiss & Moffat televised series Sherlock for the BBC in 2010 and, most recently, the American series ElementaryBack then, although occasionally seen on American public television, usually at odd hours, the fantastic Granada series featuring Jeremy Brett was relegated to fond memories of decades prior or, if you were lucky, treasured VHS copies from the early 1990s, the series not being released on DVD until 2007. What did exist, as much then as now, and indeed tracing its own origins to Arthur Conan Doyle’s last years, was the “Great Game” of Sherlockian scholarship. Indeed, no greater evidence of this is more salient than the 2005 publication of the first volume of Leslie Klinger’s New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, an updating and expanding of William Baring-Gould’s seminal piece of…well, piece of what, exactly?

To the uninitiated and “players” of the “Great Game” alike, there would seem to be cause for reflection here. What is it about the Holmes canon that causes its most devout readers to seek to take possession of the narrative, and, if the multitude of Holmesian“pastiches” are any indication, to seek to elide or transcend its authorship, putting themselves, as it were, in Conan Doyle’s place, all the while claiming that it is them (and, one might infer, not Conan Doyle) who truly “believe” in Sherlock Holmes? While there have been many literary efforts that have sought to weave the threads of past popular literature together to produce speculative or derivative works, from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, or Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, or indeed, as Sayers noted, the lives of various Biblical characters, nothing has risen above the level of mere literary curiosity and brief glimpses on bestseller lists like those of Holmes and his fellow travelers. Can we imagine the same level of passionate intervention re-configuring the lives of Cathy and Heathcliff in Charlotte Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Stoker’s Mina and Jonathan Harker, or some other fascinating characters of world literature?  Is it perhaps some undercurrent among the Holmes faithful that would seek to reprimand Conan Doyle for some real or imagined abdication of his character? One need only look to Conan Doyle’s own autobiography, Memories and Adventures, for evidence that Conan Doyle gave a kind of permission for this sort of thing, responding to William Gillette’s telegraph to Conan Doyle: “May I marry Holmes?” with the response: “You may marry him, or murder or do what you like with him.” But could Conan Doyle ever have imagined what we have today? Moreover, could he have imagined the stakes involved?

For amid all the talk of “fandom” and Sherlockian or Holmesian claims of literary provenance and devotion are very real stakes, indeed. There are the alleged factional disputes that, under some scrutiny, seem to reflect little upon either the merit of the work of Conan Doyle as an author, or even the enduring legacy of his characters while seemingly remaining all-too cryptic to a causal fan or reader. Far more intense are the litigious intellectual property debates between Sherlockian writers and Conan Doyle’s own heirs. Where do these leave the legacy of Conan Doyle as an artist, writer, and to what end do these actions contribute to the cultural and literary legacy of Holmes today? We ask the question honestly. One glance into this blog should, we hope, evince our respect and admiration for the writers of Holmes-related material, and to every aspect of the community of artists, writers, historians, critics, and fans who share our love for Sherlock Holmes. We ask the question because we believe in their veracity, deeply respect their talent, and do not doubt for one moment their sincerity and courage of their convictions. If anything, we ask the question because these are the very people who have contributed to the legacy itself, who have perpetuated, grown, and cultivated it with such care. We ask this because we truly hope that Conan Doyle’s own unique literary fingerprint persists and does not, inadvertently,diminish or, in Sayers’s words, “disintegrates” as a result.

In contrast, there are so many positive aspects to being a fan and to having access to a community that supports, inspires, and continues the legacy. After all, it is that legacy that continues to draw generation after generation to the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. It is precisely this sense of belonging to something much bigger and far reaching than our lives and ourselves that first drew many of us to the stories, and kept us reading and re-reading. As we have endeavored to glimpse in our weekly posts, the most positive attribute of the Holmes canon is Conan Doyle’s ability to make it both real and personal—to allow us to see our human reflections in the fictional guise of Holmes and Watson, to delight in their triumphs, and to really appreciate the depth of the character and intellect at work both within the page and poised at the pen. For it was from the mind and imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that sprung one of literature’s most enduring personas—true man of mystery who inspires so many to travel with him on his adventures. Passing the canon along to friends and strangers alike is, in so many ways, keeping the “game” afoot.

Having reached the end of the canon, we hope this modest online venture will continue to the next phase of its existence. We’ll continue to read the canon closely, and wade ever deeper into the vast ocean of secondary literature. We promise to post our findings here, or in some other venue. If you have read with us, we truly thank you for spending the time, and hope you will continue to put Sherlock Holmes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, under the glass, as it were, for a closer look.

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