NEW YORK Sherlock Holmes devotees gather here and in many other cities every January to celebrate what they believe to be the birthday of "the world's greatest consulting detective." This year the Holmes hobbyists can tell that their hero is making a comeback.
A big-budget movie is scheduled to premiere in November starring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. John Watson. It will portray the detective as a "tortured perfectionist" who has a dash of a Victorian James Bond about him. A BBC drama that began shooting this month will place Holmes in the London of today. Less eagerly anticipated by the hobbyists is a new comedy film in the works at Columbia, starring Sacha "Borat" Baron Cohen as the detective and Will Ferrell as Watson, but even it represents homage (of a sort) to Holmes.
The New York gathering this year of the Baker Street Irregulars, named after a group of boys who aided the great detective in Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle's stories, attracted several outsiders such as myself because we are just a few months away from the 150th anniversary of Conan Doyle's May 22 birth. But while you may think that he was the author of the Holmes stories, it is the amusing conceit of the Irregulars that Holmes and Watson actually lived. Conan Doyle, they contend, was merely Watson's opportunistic literary agent, who took credit for chronicling Holmes's exploits.
Holmes hobbyists take their passion seriously, with the annual New York celebration stretching over five days of sleuthing, scholarship and schmoozing. Ever since the Irregulars were founded 70 years ago, members have published learned papers addressing unresolved questions in the "canon," or the 60 original Sherlock Holmes stories published between 1887 and 1927. Devotees have included Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the late science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov and the singer-songwriter Neil Diamond.
Some members take a stab at writing their own pastiches. Lyndsay Faye, a young actress and author, will have her recounting of Sherlock Holmes's pursuit of Jack the Ripper published this April by Simon & Schuster. "Holmes and Watson are one of the finest literary friendships of all time," she says. "They are the reason Sherlockians read the stories again and again. The two of them fight for justice starkly different men who complement one another to perfection."
Membership in Holmes societies was overwhelmingly male until recently, but there's now a large female contingent in groups such as The Adventuresses of Sherlock Holmes. Patricia Guy, the author of several books on wine, flew all the way from Verona, Italy, to attend this year's BSI bashes. She says Sherlockians in continental Europe often make up in passion for their small numbers. "I'm a great comfort to an Italian bank worker who visits me frequently, because I'm the only one who can discuss his endless questions" about Holmes, she told me. "He's clearly eccentric, so some would say I'm his therapist."
Indeed, I first realized what rich storytelling possibilities the Holmes character and milieu offered after seeing a 1970s romantic comedy called "They Might Be Giants." The movie starred George C. Scott as a judge who goes mad after the death of his wife and imagines himself to be Holmes. Joanne Woodward plays Dr. Mildred Watson, a therapist assigned to monitor him. The two team up and use inspired lunacy to combat a modern-day Professor Moriarty, the arch-nemesis of Holmes in the original Conan Doyle tales.
So the popularity of Sherlock Holmes exists at several levels. Many readers merely want to tackle one of the master detective's "three-pipe problems" and solve it. Others love the stories because they speak to the desire of many of us for rationality, justice and fair play. "I know justice is often messy and incomplete," says Michael Miller, who works as a state prosecutor in Minneapolis and is a longtime Sherlockian. "But in the Holmes stories you can find satisfaction that criminals will be caught and all mysteries will be logically resolved."
The stories are also popular because they so marvelously stir up nostalgia for Victorian England and the civilized rectitude of the era that Holmes embodies. Vincent Starrett, a member of the Baker Street Irregulars, summed up that aspect of the appeal of Holmes and Watson in a 1942 poem called "221b":
Here dwell together still two men of note
Who never lived and so can never die:
How very near they seem, yet how remote
That age before the world went all awry …
Here, though the world explode, these two survive,
And it is always eighteen ninety-five.