17 DECEMBER 2005, Page 45

The character who refused to die

Simon Baker

THE NEW ANNOTATED SHERLOCK HOLMES, VOLUME III: THE NOVELS by Arthur Conan Doyle, edited by Leslie Klinger Norton, £30, pp. 907, ISBN 039305800X ✆ £25 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY by Nick Rennison Atlantic Books, £14.99, pp. 280, ISBN 1843542749 ✆ £11.99 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655 ‘Y ou have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.’ It could be a fanciful tryst between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, but it is something far more auspicious: the first meeting between Sherlock Holmes and his chronicler, John Watson, MD, in 1881.

Their friendship spawned many things: worldwide societies, sightseeing tours, commemorative deerstalkers (though Holmes never wore one), theme pubs and comedy sketches are just a few. Amid all that, it’s easy to overlook the four novels and 56 short stories which constitute one of the great contributions to English story-telling.

The ‘Canon’ (as Sherlockians call it) was for a long time denied serious appraisal, possibly due to our snobbish disdain for genre fiction. Fortunately, things have improved. Novels such as Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution and Julian Barnes’s brilliant Arthur & George confirmed Doyle as this year’s deceased author of choice, much as Henry James was in 2004, and so the final volume of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes comes at a good time. It contains the novels — A Study in Scarlet (1887), The Sign of Four (1890), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), and The Valley of Fear (1914) — and completes a series which began with last year’s two-volume edition of the short stories.

It is a handsome book, slip-cased and mediaevally large. In it you will find essays (including one by Joseph Bell, Doyle’s model for Holmes) and many annotations. This is an American edition, and some notes explain things that English readers will be familiar with; certain others concern ‘theories’ propounded by enthusiasts (that Holmes was a woman, say), and tend towards silliness. But the majority are informative, offering biographies, background information and crossreferences. There are original illustrations and actor photographs, too, which show how our perception of the duo’s appearance has been fashioned by what we’ve seen more than by what we’ve read. The illustrators aged Holmes (who completed most of his famous cases in his late twenties and thirties), while film-makers unfairly turned Watson into a genial, corpulent duffer, far away from Doyle’s resolute man of action.

Most of all, though, the book contains Doyle’s work. His plots are famously colourful (where else does one find a league of redheaded men, a murderous lepidopterist, or a vampiric child?), but he had the prose, too. His language is clear, unostentatious and always sensitive to the setting. When a story takes place in London (‘that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the empire are irresistibly drained’), he evokes the cold glint of the dirty, wet streets with appalled fascination, while in the countryside he dusts off a new lexicon, to present a world of silent menace:

I looked out myself across the melancholy downs. Rain squalls drifted across their russet face, and the heavy, slate-coloured clouds hung low over the landscape, trailing in grey wreaths down the sides of the fantastic hills. In the distant hollow on the left, half hidden by the mist, the two thin towers of Baskerville Hall rose above the trees.

Wherever he brings us, though, his is an England of perpetual winter, a crepuscular shadowland of gabled houses and murderous thoughts. The gothic influence is constant here, and it also touches his characterisation. Holmes becomes more conversational over the years, but never loses his dark austerity, while the minor parts form a brilliant and almost unrivalled roll-call of the bizarre.

Nick Rennison’s Sherlock Holmes: The Unauthorized Biography, meanwhile, moves fully into the area of wild supposition, and falls flat. Holmes gave us only two pieces of life history: that his ancestors were country squires and that his grandmother was the sister of the artist Vernet. A full-length life story, complete with faux-scholarly ‘data’, seems to go against what Doyle intended, and certainly goes against what most readers will endure. Holmes did not have a failed acting career or any of the things Rennison lumbers him with, and we cannot be convinced otherwise. Flaccid writing such as ‘Holmes’s love of the theatre was stimulated by the toy theatre bought for him by his grandmother when he was still a small boy’ only makes things worse. This might have been a witty enough short essay, but between hard covers it comes across as a dinner-party game which got out of hand.

But it, and Leslie Klinger’s work (and that of Barnes et al.), is a testimony to Doyle’s achievement. Usually, the biggest compliment for genre fiction is that it transcends the genre and becomes literature. Doyle went one better. In creating Holmes, he transcended literature itself and created life. Along with only a handful of other fictional characters, Holmes lives, no longer just on the page but in reality. He lives in our turns of phrase and our customs. He’s there when we see a pipe or a violin. And when we close the book and switch off the light, Holmes rises from the page, ever-awake, and, with his collar turned up to his lean jaw, steps silently from our room into the fog-bound, labyrinthine night.