Holmes Obsession: Solving The Mystery Of The Sherlock Craze

The Case Of Our Curious Obsession With Sherlock Holmes

Recently, the movie and television industries have seen a resurgent interest in fiction's most iconic detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's gruff and clever Sherlock Holmes.

Both in 2009 and again last year, Robert Downey Jr. played a highly stylized and brawny version of Holmes, and in 2010 the BBC produced the first season of "Sherlock", a modern-day adaptation, to much critical acclaim. Now CBS's "Elementary" is in the works - another modern-day take, with Lucy Liu playing Watson.

Why the sudden Sherlock obsession? What is so appealing about watching a whip-smart Victorian-style detective solve crimes, smoke pipes and deliver witty one-liners?

Michael Saler, author of "As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality" explains in his book that since the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Rationalism, mankind has attempted to create its own mysticism via religious beliefs and the occult. For those less willing to suspend reality, immersion in a literary world was a more appealing option, because it allowed you to acknowledge that you were participating in mere fantasy.

This puts into context the existence of Sherlockian groups such as the Baker Street Irregulars (BSI), which has existed and thrived since 1934. It was founded by Christopher Morley, an editor at Doubleday, and about 300 writers, lawyers, collectors and devoted Sherlockains from around the world are now members of this exclusive group, which hosts an annual meeting in New York and publishes a journal of scholarly articles with subtitles such as "Is Sherlock Holmes dead, and if so, when did he die?" and "How the real-life study of Sherlockians appeared in a 1930s pulp magazine."

Saler isn't a BSI member, but when I spoke with him over the phone he excitedly shared an anecdote about an admired Arthur Conan Doyle story, "Silver Blaze," in which Holmes says his famous lines about the curious incident of the dog in the night-time (the dog did nothing in the night-time, and that was the curious incident).

"Holmes isn't simply didactic like other detectives, and that's the appeal," Saler says.

Michael Dirda, author of the Edgar Award-winning "On Conan Doyle" and a BSI member, agrees with Saler's sentiments in a review of "As If":

"Using the same combination of deduction and imagination characteristic of their hero, members of the Baker Street Irregulars 'play the game,' as they call it: When they rigorously deduce fanciful meanings in Holmes’s adventures, they employ the rational techniques of modernity to further a sense of enchantment." They have been doing this in some capacity since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle began writing by creating "maps, documents, footnotes, charts, glossaries, historical timelines, photographs, illustrations and allusions to events outside the story proper."

Devoted fans also have plenty of Sherlock-themed books and memorabilia to choose from. There are essays honing in on small details of Doyle's stories, there are Victorian almanacs and household guides, there is turn-of-the-century pastiche. Collectors can specialize or, if they can afford it (even moderately priced items can run $300-$400), they can employ a "vacuuming" technique, sucking in Holmes popsicle wrappers, Holmes advertisements, and multiple copies of the same book in different colors.

Saler laments that the hobby is too pricey for him to partake in whole-heartedly, but Dirda relates his first forays into book collecting in "On Conan Doyle":

"Over the years I had admired and envied the book collections of my various professors: leather-bound rows of classics, beautiful editions of modern firsts, expensive scholarly tomes, the complete works of great writers. Little did I know then that book collecting is less about acquiring books than about finding the shelf space to store them."

Leslie Klinger, author of more than ten Sherlockian books that play with the notion that the detective was an actual historical person, is an avid collector. He co-edited last year's "A Study in Sherlock" and served as a sort of fact-checker for the Warner Bros. adaptations, ensuring historical accuracy. But his writings and expertise were preceded by a desire to merely own, and not necessarily read, as many Holmes books as possible.

"You start out wandering into bookstores, and they pull out a bunch of crap," Klinger told The Huffington Post in a telephone interview. "In the old days you contacted dealers who specialized in mysteries, you'd get catalogs in the mail and you'd race to the phone. These days it's all eBay and search engines."

He became a serious collector in 1976, when he spent $3,500 on over 300 books published by BSI members in the 40s and 50s. Since then he's accrued over 4,000 books, which he keeps on double-shelved walls in a 15 x 15 foot office, plus a few cartons in his garage.

"I have a very forgiving wife," Klinger jokes. "It's sort of a sick pleasure, seeing all of the books lined up… There's Sherlockian pornography, Sherlockain comic books. You slow down after a while because you run out of the low-hanging fruit. It's simply a collecting gene… It could be anything, I suppose, but for me it's Sherlock Holmes."

So what does an owner of thousands of essays and Encyclopedias concerning the Victorian period think of Jude Law bantering with a lipstick-wearing Robert Downey Jr.?

"It's pulling in an audience who wouldn't normally read the book, and in fact we're seeing a huge rise in sales of the original," Klinger says. "It's a wonderful popularization."

While Saler's theories on literary fantasy make sense of the presence of scholarly fan groups and fervent collectors, they don't explain why Sherlock Holmes stories seem to enchant more than other past imaginary worlds, like those of H.G. Wells.

"There's a certain misplaced nostalgia about the Victorian period, but when you read genuine material, you find that it was not great. Women had it tough," Klinger says.

Maybe Dirda falls victim to this vague longing for a simpler time. "I occasionally reread [Holmes stories] for comfort," he says. "They do take us back to a privileged, cozy, comfortable world in which it's always 1895."

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