Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2003 / 21 Elul, 5763

Richard Lederer

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The Return of Sherlock Holmes


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | The most universally famous of all literary characters may well be Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, the world's first consulting detective.

The intrepid sleuth's deerstalker hat, Inverness cape, calabash pipe and magnifying glass are recognized by readers everywhere, and the stories have been translated into more than 60 languages, from Arabic to Yiddish.

In December of 1887, Doyle, an underemployed novice medical practitioner, brought Sherlock Holmes into the world in Beeton's Christmas Annual. When, not long after, The Strand Magazine began the monthly serialization of the first dozen short stories entitled "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," the issues sold tens of thousands and the public furiously clamored for more.

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At the height of success, however, the creator wearied of his creation. He yearned for "higher writing" and felt his special calling to be the historical novel.

In December, 1893, Doyle introduced into the last story in the Memoirs series the arch criminal Professor James Moriarty. In "The Final Problem," Holmes and the evil professor wrestle at a cliff's edge in Switzerland. Grasping each other frantically, sleuth and villain plummet to their watery deaths at the foot of the Reichenbach Falls.

The normally staid, stiff-upper-lipped British public was first bereaved, then outraged. Conservative London stockbrokers went to work wearing black armbands in mourning for the loss of their heroic detective. Citizens poured out torrents of letters to editors complaining of Holmes's fate. One woman picketed Doyle's home with a sign branding him a murderer.

Finally, Doyle could resist the pressures from publisher and public no more. A hundred years ago, in September of 1903, ten years after the "death" of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle's detective rose up from his watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls, his logical wonders to perform again.

"The Adventures of the Empty House" demonstrated that Holmes had not really perished at Reichenbach. He had only faked his death in order to avoid retribution at the hands of Moriarty's henchmen.

"The Return of Sherlock Holmes," the series of 13 stories that brought back Doyle's hero, was greeted eagerly by detective- starved British readers. The author continued writing stories about Holmes right into 1927. When in 1930 Arthur Conan Doyle died at age 71, readers around the world mourned his passing. Newspaper cartoons portraying a grieving Sherlock Holmes captured the public's sense of irreparable loss.

Such is the power of mythic literature that the creation has outlived his creator. However many times the progenitor tried to finish off his hero, the Great Detective lives, vigilant and deductive as ever. Sherlock Holmes can never really die. His readers will never let him.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
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© 2003, Richard Lederer