A Primer For The Great Detective

BILL WOOD | JUNE 14, 2023

Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.

There are journeys and then there are journeys. My recent London vacation included a visit to 221B Baker Street, residence of the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. The character of Holmes may be purely fictional, but his street address is very real and is in fact home to The Sherlock Holmes Museum (side note: there is also an amazing Beatles store directly next door!). Full of interesting history and vintage artifacts, the museum is a worthwhile experience and highly recommended for those vacationing in London, particularly Holmes enthusiasts. But for me the best part was staring out of the second story window at the hustle and bustle of Baker Street below, imagining myself at the heartbeat of so many timeless mysteries.


My wife and I are both devout Sherlock Holmes fans, poring through books, TV shows, movies, and in my case video games, whenever time permits. Growing up as a comic book kid, Batman was always The World’s Greatest Detective™, but my ever-growing appreciation for Sherlock Holmes has led me in a different direction. His duality is compelling: efficient yet unorganized, honorable yet disaffected, vitally flawed in numerous areas yet utterly devoted to a personal concept of justice that borders on vigilantism. It's no surprise that Sherlock Holmes remains relevant nearly a century-and-a-half after his first appearance in 1887; in creating him Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the template for the modern anti-hero.


It's interesting to note that Doyle’s original stories—which have been read and loved by millions around the globe—were at the time disregarded by his publisher and even the author himself as cheap fiction. In fact, Doyle apparently became so agitated with the runaway success of his own creation that he killed Holmes off, only to resurrect him after a flurry of fan protest... as well as considerable financial gain. This about-face on the author's part gave the general public perhaps their first taste of a true ret-con. In any case, the misdirected contempt for Doyle's earliest work brings to mind Lovecraft's publishing hardships (although unlike Doyle, Lovecraft's success came posthumously) and the superhero comics of the 1940s, which introduced numerous literary icons but were looked down upon as mind-rotting trash in their time.


But the purpose of this article isn’t to detail the entire history of Sherlock Holmes, as there’s already been plenty of observation and analysis in the 136 years since the detective’s arrival on the London crime scene. Instead I’d like to suggest a few basic reference points for newcomers who are curious and looking to dive in. Why bother? Well for starters, in this digital age there are numerous ways to become acquainted with Holmes depending on your preference, be it novels, movies, comic books, radio dramas, cartoons, or board and video games. In addition, the character exists in the public domain, meaning that Doyle's stories are now co-mingled with alternate realities and fan-fiction. For example, you can imagine my surprise the first time I downloaded a book to my eReader to discover a yarn about Holmes questioning his gender identity. I quickly realized that I was not reading a Doyle original (it's worth noting that many authorized movie and game releases are similarly not based on Doyle's original stories).


If you’re completely new to Sherlock Holmes, here are my top recommendations:


The Original Sherlock Holmes Stories ★★★★★

Books / Sir Arthur Conan Doyle / 1887-1927

This is the best and most convenient place to learn about Holmes and his various capers. Most of Doyle's writings are easy-to-read short stories, and being in the public domain they won’t cost you a dime. Simply hop onto Project Gutenberg, download your preferred format of choice to your PC or eReader and you're set. Of course you can always pick up an inexpensive paperback or one of the pricier hardcover editions on Amazon or Barnes and Noble, but it’s hardly a prerequisite to appreciating these literary classics.


There are 56 short stories and 4 full-length novels in the Doyle canon, with The Hound of the Baskervilles being one of his more acclaimed works. Just be aware that there are numerous fan-fiction stories to be found online, with varying degrees of quality. The aforementioned Project Gutenberg site is a terrific source for public domain works from the original authors, and if you're ever unsure if you're reading an authentic Doyle story or not, you can always check here.


The WWII-Era Films ★★★★

Movies / Basil Rathbone / 20th Century Fox, Universal / 1939-46

To many, Basil Rathbone in his Inverness cape and deerstalker cap is what comes into vision when they think of the great detective. And while he didn't invent the attire (I believe it was original Holmes illustrator Sidney Paget), Rathbone did develop an iconic identity for Sherlock Holmes that will never be forgotten. Devotees may insist that these movies are compromised by a "bumbling sidekick" version of Watson, heavy-handed WWII-era propaganda and the fact that the stories are mostly non-canon, but they are still entertaining in their own right, provided you're willing to strap on the nostalgia goggles.


Like Doyle's original literary work, many Rathbone-Holmes movies are now in the public domain, so you can watch them legally on YouTube or any number of free streaming services. My favorites from this era include The House of Fear and Terror By Night, but your mileage may vary.


Side note: It's interesting to note that although Holmes' cape and deerstalker outfit is often considered his quintessential style, it isn't something he would have worn frequently. As the name suggests, it was outdoor/hunting attire, so unless he were traveling to the countryside, the city-based Holmes would typically have worn a tailored suit with a top hat.


The Hound of the Baskervilles ★★★½

Movie / Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee / Hammer / 1959

If you enjoy your English murder mysteries with a dose of gothic horror, then you may find this 1959 gem right up your alley. Hammer Films, the British film company responsible for numerous horror epics throughout the '60s including the Christopher Lee Dracula films, combines its top two acting talents with its top director Terence Fisher to deliver an atmospheric Technicolor retelling of Doyle's most famous detective tale.


The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes ★★★★★

TV Series / Jeremy Brett / Granada / 1984-94

Not to be confused with the 1954-55 series of the same name. Generally considered the greatest on-screen version of Holmes that has ever existed, seasoned actor Jeremy Brett dives into this television role of the legendary sleuth with aplomb. Seeing Brett portray the quirky and at times misanthropic Holmes, it's easy to forget that you're watching an acting performance... he's that brilliant (if you need convincing, watch the finale of "The Six Napoleons" episode). David Burke and Edward Hardwicke's portrayals of Dr. Watson are equally superb. Another upside to this acclaimed British TV series is that most of the stories are based on Doyle’s canon, well-researched and faithful, so if you’re looking for the original tales in cinematic format, this is the place to be.


Sherlock ★★★★½

TV Series / Benedict Cumberbatch / BBC / 2010-17

This is probably the best place for younger viewers to get started as it places Sherlock Holmes in a modern setting without sacrificing one iota of his trademark character or wit. And—like Jeremy Brett before him—it's harder to imagine an actor better suited for the role than Benedict Cumberbatch. What's interesting is that while these episodes take place in the 21st century, most of them are very much constructed around Doyle's canon.


The Sherlock Holmes Game Series ★★★½

Video Games / Frogwares / multi-platform

If you’re the sort who prefers playing to reading or watching, the Frogwares series of video games allow you to roam about Victorian England in the shoes of the legendary London sleuth. As might be expected from a series starring Sherlock Holmes, these games eschew reflexive action in favor of analytical problem solving, but the mysteries presented will definitely put your wits to the test!


Most of the video game stories are non-canon, although selected Doyle stories such as "The Case of Black Peter" and "The Abbey Grange Affair" are featured. This approach is understandable, since Holmes-gamers might not want to play through a mystery where they've already read about the outcome. My two favorites in the series are Crimes and Punishments and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes as they adhere closely to Doyle’s version of his famous detective. More recent games—although enjoyable from a gaming perspective—attempt to expand upon or modernize Holmes to the extent that there’s little of the original character left in them.


If you've devoured all of the Holmes content above and are still hungry for more, here are a few bonus recommendations that you may find interesting:


The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes ★★½

TV Series / Ronald Howard  / 1954-55

Not to be confused with the Jeremy Brett series, this half-hour episodic series stars Ronald Howard (the British actor, not the American actor/director) and is your standard British TV fare, e.g. Richard Greene's Robin Hood. Not required Holmes viewing by any stretch, but I do enjoy it when I'm in the mood for something light-hearted.


Sherlock Holmes In New York ★★★

TV Movie / Roger Moore, John Huston, Patrick Macnee / 1976

Not spectacular, but not as bad as you might think for a 1970s TV movie. British spy show fans will get a kick out of seeing The Saint's Simon Templar (Roger Moore) and The Avengers' John Steed (Patrick Macnee) teaming up as Holmes and Watson respectively.


Side note: If you're wondering where the Guy Ritchie-Robert Downey films figure in all of this, I actually haven't seen them yet so I can't rate them. Soon!


Regardless of which path you choose, I hope you find your journey with Sherlock Holmes memorable and rewarding. It's amazing to see that his timeless appeal continues to this day. I’ve personally been inspired to create The Sherlock Holmes Collection, a six-poster series honoring the classic Basil Rathbone films, as well as a Jeremy Brett Sherlock poster. These posters are available for purchase on Etsy and eBay. - BW


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Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
Kung Fu poster by BIll Wood.
The Cramps poster art by Bill Wood.