Holmes investigates Holmes. Art by Henry Chamberlain.
It is clear that Zach Dundas loves Sherlock Holmes. A quest to explore how and why the interest in Sherlock Holmes has endured is the subject of his new book, “The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes.” In a highly accessible and conversational narrative, Dundas weaves classic Holmes stories into his own idiosyncratic reportage. The result is jolly good fun and goes a long way in explaining the Holmes phenomena.
Can one really put one’s finger on the Holmes appeal? Well, sure, for one thing, he’s a comfortably familiar character right up there with Superman, Snow White, Snoopy, and Frankenstein. He’s the ultimate brand. Of course, do people still actually read the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Well, Dundas is here to assure you, if you have not, that it’s fun stuff. Much of the appeal to this book is Dundas’s unbridled enthusiasm for his subject. He makes no bones about letting you know his passion runs deep going back to reading Holmes tales as a kid.
Time and again, Dundas will casually describe to you an adventure from Sherlock Holmes lulling you in until you’re deep into the plot. Then he’ll alternate with one of his own quests such as dragging his family all across the moors of the English countryside or endless searching for the real-life potential counterparts to fictional Victorian London. For Dundas, part of the mystery lies in attempting to understand what all his fellow tourists see in Holmes.
As he waits in line to enter a replica to 221B Baker Street, Holmes’s fictional digs, he can’t help but get a little smug assuming no one else in line has actually read Doyle. This lapse can be forgiven. When the only thing setting you apart from the crowd is the fact that you’ve read something that they haven’t, that’s more of a humbling experience than something to be proud of. And, it’s in that spirit, that Dundas shines as he shares his various facts and insights.
What you get here is a low-key and quirky look at what Holmes meant in his own time and what came soon after-and beyond. As Dundas observes, Holmes went retro rather quickly and embraced his new position, as it were, with gusto. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the Victorian era quite literally came to an end. However, in the Holmes universe, the Victorian era would now enter a perpetual loop as Doyle kept on creating Holmes adventures set circa 1890. In short, Holmes was the original steampunk. And, with that in mind, it makes more and more sense as Dundas explores the myth and mystique of Holmes leading him all the way to Benedict Cumberbatch.
Ultimately, the mystery to Holmes does seem to be that such an esoteric character should have such broad appeal. That said, there are a number of erudite, refined, offbeat, and just plain weird characters that have struck a chord with wide audiences. Doctor Who is one, for sure. But you can rattle off any number of them from Star Wars to Game of Thrones and so on down the line. The general public is not always looking for some obviously populist figure to be the next pop culture superstar. And, with Holmes, you get a ready-made multi-layered artichoke of entertainment at the ready to be peeled back for deeper and richer understanding. That is what Dundas delightfully demonstrates in this quite entertaining book.
“The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes” is 336-page hardcover, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and available as of June 2. You can find it at Amazon right here.