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A mysterious season

Posted: October 29, 2010 3:45 p.m.
Updated: November 1, 2010 5:00 a.m.

I don’t know if it was unconscious decision on my part due to the Halloween season, but I  have found myself enmeshed in the classic mysteries of Sherlock Holmes.

In some distant holiday past at my father’s home in Maryland (I think), my grandparents gifted me with a set of classic books. They were leather-bound, with gold-edged pages. The set included collections of Jack London and O. Henry stories ... and selected cases of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

I would later add to the collection by purchasing my own copies of a translation of Le Morte d’Arthur, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a collection of Edgar Allen Poe and, of all things, Tolstoy’s War and Peace which must have the most depressing and unsatisfying ending of any book I’ve ever read. I suspect I’ll be re-reading Poe next.

My biggest surprise in reading the Holmes mysteries is that there’s more of them than I originally knew.

My collection includes the novels “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Sign of Four” and “The Hound of the Baskervilles” along with the short story collections “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes” and “The Return of Sherlock Holmes.”

I’m reading the last of the short stories right now, “The Second Stain,” which was going to be the last Doyle-penned Holmes story in 1904.

But I recently learned there’s one more novel there’s one more novel, “The Valley of Fear,” and two more short story collections, “His Last Bow” and “The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.”

“His Last Bow” contains short stories written by Doyle between 1908 and 1913, plus an additional story from 1917. “The Valley of Fear” was originally serialized The Strand in 1914 and 1915 but appears to be set sometime before the end of the “Memoirs” collection. Some believe it should be read between the last two stories of “His Last Bow,” so I’m going to try it that way.

“The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes” contains stories published between 1921 and 1927.

1927?!!?

I’m obviously not the Holmes aficionado I thought I was. I had no idea Doyle wrote original Holmes mysteries almost until his death in 1930.

It will be a real treat to read these “new-to-me” stories. It’s hard to tell, but it seems the stories in both the later short story collections “take place” in earlier time periods and not necessarily those of the 1910s and ’20s, with the exception of the titular short story “His Last Bow,” which is set in 1914.

Doyle’s novels and short stories have been great fodder for TV and movie adaptations.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Holmes is the most portrayed fictional character in movie history, with 75 different actors having played him in more than 200 films.

Basil Rathbone -- a most appropriate name for a Holmes actor since the detective once went under the assumed name of Basil -- was perhaps the most known in movie circles. Rathbone, and Nigel Bruce as Dr. John Watson, played Sherlock in 14 movies between 1939 and 1946.

But it was perhaps television which brought us the greatest actor to ever bring Holmes to life: Jeremy Brett.

Brett played Holmes for Britain’s Granada Television for a decade between 1984 and 1994 in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The program has repeatedly been shown in the U.S. on PBS’ Masterpiece Mysteries.

I loved Brett’s interpretation. It was spot on, as they say; cold and calculating one minute, charming the next and excited on the hunt after that. It’s interesting re-reading the stories to note Doyle’s references to Holmes giving a slight smile when something tickles his fancy (usually when he realizes an official police detective’s on the wrong track). I can actually see Brett pulling off that smile. He was perfect.

Two actors played Watson, David Burke and Edward Hardwicke. They could have been twins and were both brilliant. The perfectly depicted Watson’s utter loyalty to Holmes.

I have yet to see Robert Downey Jr.’s take in 2009’s “Sherlock.” My nieces enjoyed it, so I’m hopeful. Some reviews, however, have said it focuses too much on Holmes’ anti-social behavior, making him a bit too cynical.

But that’s what Holmes was, if you read carefully enough. At the beginning of “The Second Stain,” Watson says Holmes has allowed him to tell the story because enough time has passed although he’s retired and is trying to avoid publicity.

Still, I’m a Downey Jr. fan and have it in my Netflix cue to watch.

In the meantime, there’s a new television incarnation, thanks to the folks at the BBC. Again being shown in the U.S. on PBS’ Mysteries, it sets the Holmes cases in modern London. Instead of a diarist or book writing doctor, Watson is a blogger. Instead of the Baker Street Boys, Holmes employs an iPhone and the Internet. He doesn’t use drugs or smokes, but gets his “kick” from nicotine patches.

Despite the translation to 2010, the consulting detective is firmly in place. “Sherlock,” as the three-part series is called, is absolutely brilliant.

Part two aired last night; the third installment will air this Sunday. It’s already been renewed for a second series, as they call seasons in England.

In the meantime, I’ve downloaded the “missing” stories to my iPod Touch and have started reading them.

Long live Sherlock Holmes!

 

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