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The Footprints of a Gigantic Detective: Sherlock Holmes Inspires a New Anthology

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“One day in 1897, Arthur Conan Doyle sat down to write a tale of an odd young man with peculiar skills and changed the world.”

This claim, at once matter-of-fact and momentous, is from the Introduction to “A Study in Sherlock,” a collection of original short stories edited by mystery writer Laurie R. King (the Mary Russell series) and Sherlockian critical writer Leslie S. Klinger (“The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes”).

What Conan Doyle did, of course, was to invent Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in “A Study in Scarlet” in "Beeton’s Christmas Annual," and has become arguably the most famous and enduring fictional character in modern history.  There was something about Holmes—his quirkiness, his derring-do, his outsider status, his keen intellect, his emotional hauteur, that made him hugely, and eventually universally, appealing. 

The introduction continues, “In no time at all, an entire industry of homages and satires, pastiches, and parodies sprang up around Sherlock Holmes.”  This vast body of material ranges from earnest amateur tributes to ambitious re-workings of the characters by novelists such as Ellery Queen, Nicholas Meyer and Lyndsay Faye.  Not to mention an equally huge body of critical literature, and the many film and television versions of Doyle's works, which include "A Game of Shadows," the current Guy Ritchie movie, starring Robert Downey Jr., and the critically acclaimed BBC series Sherlock, which transplants Holmes and Watson to 21st-century London.

Klinger and King, who spoke to me by phone from their homes in California, didn't want  “A Study in Sherlock,”  to be a collection of pastiches, but for the Doyle works to be an exciting point of departure for the distinguished cadre of crime and fantasy writers, including Lee Child, Neil Gaiman, Laura Lippman, S.J. Rozan, and Jacqueline Winspear, whom they asked to contribute stories to the volume.  “These are all A-list writers,” notes Klinger.  “And they’re inundated with requests to take part in anthologies.  The reason they liked our idea was that we said ‘Be inspired. We’re not asking you to write a Sherlock Holmes story. We’re asking you to write something that comes out of your Sherlock Holmes experience.’  And, they loved the freedom.” 

The editors selected authors who would represent a whole range of approaches and styles.  “I think we were looking for people who wrote more closely worked crime,” says King, “as opposed to looser, I suppose you would call them ‘coseys’, and people who are not known for writing Sherlock Holmes stuff.  When you start with that kind of seed, what kind of plant will grow from it?”  The resulting works are funny, provocative, elegant, poetic, outsize, and subway-stop-missing readable (full disclosure).

To some extent, all detective fiction turns on the premise “what if.”  But “A Study in Sherlock” offers literary, rather than plot-driven, “what ifs.”  What if Sherlock Holmes’ unmasking of “The Man With the Twisted Lip” was carefully orchestrated by a consortium of disgruntled opium den managers?  What if, after all those years cleaning up after him, Holmes’ long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Hudson had absorbed his techniques, and applied them to a mystery of her own?  What if a group of brat-pack bloggers solved a mystery with Holmes as their model?  And what if Holmes’ retirement to the life of a Sussex bee keeper was a smoke screen for the most critical investigation of his life?

Neil Gaiman and S.J. Rozan, heard in interviews, and reading their stories, below, were attracted to the project for different reasons.  Rozan writes the popular Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery series, and is attracted to opportunities to present an Asian perspective:  “In the Holmes Canon, as in a lot of Victorian literature, the Chinese who were presence in London at the time were considered mysterious, spooky, scary dangerous men, and I thought I would like to change that just a little.”

Gaiman grew up on the South Downs where, ostensibly, Holmes retires from active life, and says he doesn’t believe it—life there is too dull to have satisfied a man who craved intellectual stimulation as much as Holmes. "I'd always been faintly fascinated and puzzled by his decision to go and raise bees."  How much more likely that this was a cover for something more mysterious and challenging: “Holmes fundamentally celebrates what makes us human, which is our ability to imagine, to test hypotheses, to come to correct conclusions.”   Gaiman was also drawn to the subject because he has recently become a beekeeper himself, and draws on his own experience in the exacting descriptions of the hives. 

King and Klinger say the volume will tickle Sherlockians, many of whom will be in New York this weekend for annual tributes to the detective and his creator,  but will also invite the general reader to discover a timeless world.  “Holmes is everywhere,” says Klinger.

Use the player above to listen to an interview with Laurie King and Leslie Klinger.

Listen to Neil Gaiman read from "The Case of Death and Honey":

Listen to S.J. Rozan read from "The Men with the Twisted Lips"

Listen to an excerpt from Lee Child's "The Bone-Headed League," read by Rex Doane

Listen to an excerpt from Thomas Perry's "The Startling Events in the Electrified City," read by Andrew Joffe

Listen to an excerpt from Margaret Maron's "The Adventure of the Concert Pianist," read by Sarah Montague