Sherlock Holmes: Master Detective

August 20, 2010

With the long run of Hollywood’s latest portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, it’s intriguing to look back on the master detective’s "birth".
A little over a century ago, during the Christmas season of 1887, a thin, craggy-faced figure emerged from the dark shadows and thick swirling fog of Victorian London. He was a brilliant sleuth with the improbably name of Sherlock Holmes - and he was destined to become one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction.
Holmes’ adventures have been translated into almost every language. All of the original novels and stories are still in print and in recent years there have been dozens of new books and stories about him by modern writers, the original copyrights having expired long ago. An excellent BBC series dramatizing the original Holmes stories played to large audiences on American public television and the A&E cable channel. It starred the late Jeremy Brett, considered by many fans as the best Sherlock Holmes in recent times.
Recent publishing efforts have included Sherlock Holmes coloring books, a Sherlock Holmes geography book, several cookbooks, and much more, including calendars, so you won’t forget "his" birthday (January 6). Countless parodies, ranging from the comic strip, "Hawkshaw the Detective," to Mad magazine’s "The Hounds of the Basketballs," can also be found.
Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t invent the mystery story - the first example of the genre was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue, written in 1841 - but in Sherlock Holmes, he created its most enduring character. During a 40-year span, from 1887 to 1927, Doyle wrote a total of 56 short stories and four full-length novels about Holmes and his enthralling adventures. The earliest of these were the first detective series with a continuing hero.
Doyle, who was eventually knighted and became Sir Arthur, never planned to be a writer. He practiced medicine for several years but found himself chronically short of cash. To earn extra money, he began writing novels and short stories.
On of these was A Study in Scarlet, which marked the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. After many rejections, Doyle finally sold the piece to Ward, Lock & Company, who used it as a cover story for their 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual. It was so well re-ceived, especially in America, that Doyle was encouraged to write more about the remarkable detective and his doctor friend. A Study in Scarlet was published in book form by Ward, Lock & Company in 1888; two years later, J. B. Lippincott Company printed the first American edition.
The next Holmes story, The Sign of the Four, appeared in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine. From then until the last story, in 1927, the Strand magazine was Sherlock Holmes’ showcase. American readers had to wait up to six months before new stories were reprinted in one of our magazines - usually Harper’s, Collier’s, or Liberty - or in a Sunday newspaper supplement.
The first stage version of a Holmes story opened in May 1894. Relics of Holmes’ theatrical life are quite scarce, but if you can find them, they are not prohibitively priced.
Among the actors who portrayed the sleuth onstage, the best remains William Gillette, of the American theater. Beginning in 1899, he played Holmes for 30 years and also starred in the first radio series, which debuted in 1930. The following 110 broadcast ex-ploits starred Richard Gordon. The show’s sponsor was George Washington Coffee, which offered listeners a pair of maroon-bound Sherlock Holmes books as a premium. The frontispiece in these books was a picture of Gordon in costume.
More than a hundred English and American films about Holmes and Watson - starting with a one-reeler in 1903 - have lit up movie screens. Many actors, some famous, many not, have starred as the detective and the doctor.
To many fans, the "real" Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson will always be Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Between 1939 and 1946, they played the brilliant, imperious sleuth and his bumbling friend in 13 films. They also repeated their roles on radio during the 1940’s.
Film memorabilia offers Holmes collectors many opportunities. Posters, lobby cards and stills from the Rathbone-Bruce classics are in fairly good supply, if a bit expensive. Material from later Holmes movies, such as "Sherlock Holmes in New York" and "The Seven Percent Solution" can be found quite reasonably priced.
The earliest actors who played Holmes turned for inspiration to the many illustrations drawn for the stories and books. The first artist of importance to create a visual image of Holmes was the Strand’s Sidney Paget, who did a total of 357 drawings for The Hounds of the Baskervilles and the ten short stories that were published as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
In the United States, the premier artist was Frederick Dorr Steele. During the 1920’s, he created the Sherlock Holmes we all recog-nize today, complete with chiseled profile pipe and deerstalker hat. Steele used photographs of William Gillette in costume as a guide and his Holmes bore a striking resemblance to the actor.
Apart from magazines and books, the first Sherlockian collectible was a board game manufactured by Parker Brothers. Called "Sherlock Holmes," this was first sold in 1895; a revised version came out in 1904. Over the years, fans have had several more games to choose from: "Bringing Sherlock Holmes" (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1935). "Sherlock Holmes: The Game of the Great Detective" (National Games, Inc., 1956); "Murder on the Orient Express: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery Game" (Ideal Toy Corp., 1967). A few games were also made in England.
Other collectibles: items produced in the last 60 to 70 years include jigsaw puzzles, bookplates, comic strips, comic books, prints, dolls (House of Nesbet (mid-1980’s), and a "Sherlock Holmes Writing Set" (Stuart Hall Co., 1946), with writing paper and invisible ink.
For a brief time in the 1920’s, Sherlock Holmes Cigars were marketed in this country. Their embossed, colorful cigar-box labels bore a Sherlock portrait of the William Gillette variety. About the same time, a British tobacco firm, Turf Cigarettes offered "Conan Doyle Characters" cards, mostly derived from the Sherlock Holmes sagas. Each cigarette package contained one card; 25 made up a complete set.
Beginning in the earliest years of the 20th century, a few souvenir postcards featuring Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and their cases have been published. These are rare and very difficult to find. The best is a set of 12, or more, with illustrations taken directly from the original Strand magazine drawings by Sidney Paget. They were used by the magazine in 1903 to publicize the return of Holmes and Watson to its pages.
As time passed, interest in Sherlock Holmes never stopped growing. Long before the age of computers and electronic information, he was a super hero who depended on brain, no brawn. In 1911, an ad for a new Holmes story promised readers: "Terror, danger, cun-ning, mystery, courage, ingenuity; and extraordinary crime; an amazing and unexpected solution."
There’s no doubt that Sherlock Holmes fulfilled all those promises - and he’s still doing it today!


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