‘The World Is Full of Obvious Things’: A Sherlock Holmes Reading List

Image by Julian Breme (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Sherlock Holmes feels uncannily contemporary these days — from his dizzying array of post-hipsterish quirks (Cocaine user! Virtuosic violin player! Exotic tobacco aficionado!) to a social aloofness that feels straight out of a Millennial INTP‘s playbook. (His knack for Twitter-ready aphorisms doesn’t hurt, either.) I’ve been rereading Conan Doyle’s stories for almost 20 years, and the guy has never felt more fresh.

After more than a century of massive, ever-splintering fandom, Holmes is still a commercial juggernaut, a literary character at once instantly recognizable and endlessly customizable. How many fictional creations could plausibly be portrayed, in the span of four years, by Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ian McKellan (whose Mr. Holmes will be out in theaters later this month)?

The Holmes universe has long fractured into an ever-expanding multiverse, one in which the original canon is but one galaxy (and a minor one, at that) among many apocryphal ones. From Sherlockian cosplay in the Swiss alps to a family’s archives in Illinois, here are five stories that speak to the ubiquity and longevity of one Victorian detective.

1. “Sherlock Holmes And The Adventure Of The Impudent Scholars.” (Jenny Hendrix, The Awl, November 2011)

What do Franklin Roosevelt, Isaac Asimov, and Neil Gaiman have in common? They were (and in Gaiman and Asimov’s case, still are) members of the Baker Street Irregulars, a semi-secret, tightly-knit scholarly society dedicated to The Game — the study of Sherlock Holmes as if he were a real, non-fictional figure. Jenny Hendrix digs into the history of this strange literary club.

2. “Traces of Life.” (James Hughes, Slate, October 2011)

“I was no longer staring into bottomless boxes of disjointed belongings, wondering how the pieces would fit, but conducting a study of sorts, aware that mysteries of the material world are never-ending, but solvable.” After his father’s premature death, Hughes digs through the late man’s archives, inspired by a collected volume of Holmes’ stories and a Netflix queue full of Basil Rathbone adaptations from the 1940s.

3. “The Curious Case of the Sherlock Pilgrims.” (Edward Docx, Prospect, November 2012)

What happens when 70 costumed Holmes fans, coming from as far as Japan, descend on a small village in the Swiss alps to reenact the detective’s (ultimately fake) death? In Docx’s gonzo recounting, “this is a pilgrimage, this is fervor, this is religious, this is beautiful, unintelligible, and insane.”

4. “The 3-Pipe Solution: The Underrated Creativity of Sherlock Holmes.” (Maria Konnikova, The Atlantic, January 2013)

In the popular imagination, Holmes’ intelligence is that of a particularly powerful computer, a machine moving triumphantly from one act of deduction to the next. Maria Konnikova resists such a characterization: “it occurred to me that what allows the detective to attain the heights of deduction that he does is the very thing a computer lacks entirely: the power of imagination.”

5. “Sherlock Holmes’ London.” (Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010)

From Baker Street to St. Paul’s, Hammer crisscrosses London, Conan Doyle’s “other alluring creation,” looking for traces — some more fabricated than others — of the 19th-century metropolis that served as the backdrop for so many of the detective’s adventures.