On January 19th, PBS aired the long-awaited first episode of BBC’s Sherlock, season 3. Sherlock’s triumphant return to television (and Baker Street) did not disappoint. Before the last episode this Sunday, enjoy a bit of the Introduction from Dave Thompson’s upcoming book, Sherlock Holmes FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the World’s Greatest Private Detective.
There are probably as many books about Sherlock Holmes as there are words in all of the stories. Or at least different words.
That may be an exaggeration, but only marginally. There is no single character in western fiction who has inspired more authors to write about him than Sherlock Holmes, with even James Bond and Doctor Who—the two that come closest—lagging far, far behind in terms of simple shelf filling. A complete Sherlock Holmes bibliography could fill a small library, a vision that is made all the more remarkable when one considers that the original stories that inspired this phenomenal outpouring would take up barely six inches of shelf space.
Just four novels and fifty-six short stories constitute the complete adventures of Sherlock Holmes. To this there can be added a dozen or so other writings by Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, whose inclusion in, or exclusion from, “the canon” (as the primary series of tales is known) has fired a debate that might never end. But they would add no more than another inch of published paper, tucked away in a room that is already stuffed with so many other books that it would take a lifetime to read them all. “Never,” one might say, “has so little given birth to so much.”
Neither does this outpouring look like it is ending. The massive success of Sherlock, the BBC’s twenty-first-century reimagining of Holmes has inspired a whole new generation of writers and researchers to immerse themselves in the world of Holmes, and an older one to reacquaint themselves. Indeed, one of the most popular fiction serials of the modern age, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child’s Agent Pendergast, closed 2013 with the publication of White Fire, a thoroughly modern detective tale rooted in a near century-old Sherlock Holmes mystery.
Sherlock’s triumph, however, transcends all of these—that triumph itself being defined not by viewing figures (which themselves are massive) or popularity (ditto), but by the skill with which we are invited to enter a world in which the “real” Sherlock Holmes, the classic Holmes whom we have spent the past century-plus enjoying, never existed. Until today.
The original Holmes was a child of his times, the last years of the Victorian era and the first of the twentieth century. The modern Holmes is likewise a child of his times, the first decades of the twenty-first century. That is, more than one hundred years after Conan Doyle’s original stalked the streets, the intervening century has shaped the modern Holmes just as thoroughly as the prototype was shaped by the years that preceded him. Culture creates the heroes it requires. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes fit his era like a glove. British writers and TV creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s is equally well proportioned.
Conan Doyle’s Holmes studied newspapers and magazines. The modern one harnesses the Internet. The original Holmes was addicted to opium. His successor is addicted to nicotine. The original was partnered by an army doctor, John Watson, recently returned from what was then Britain’s most recent war, far away in Afghanistan. Today’s Holmes is partnered by a man of the same cut and same name, fresh from what is still Britain’s most recent war . . . far away in Afghanistan.
Parallel after parallel pile up, but the fact is, the modern television Holmes is as unique a televisual character as the original was a unique literary creation. The fact that they share the same DNA, investigate the same mysteries, and sometimes speak the same lines binds them, of course. But it also defines their individuality. Were they ever to meet face to face, the nineteenth-century Holmes and his twenty-first-century doppelgänger, they probably wouldn’t even say hello.
The Sherlock Holmes FAQ is a one-stop guide to over a century’s worth of mystery, mayhem, and most of all, deduction. Digging deep inside the manifold worlds of Sherlock Holmes, the FAQ is a dramatic and detailed digest of the Baker Street sleuth in all of his many guises, as TV and radio star, movie phenomenon, and, of course, literary giant.
Chapters investigate his predecessors and his successors, and discuss the influence that Holmes has had not only on other writers, but on real-life police procedures as well. The London that he perambulated in deerstalker and cloak is laid bare, plus the life and other fascinations of Holmes’ creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are mapped out in all their foggy, darkened atmosphere.
We meet giant hounds and fearful foes, common crooks and misdirected souls. Ghosts appear in these pages, and vampires, too – and more puzzles, conundrums, and mysteries than any mortal detective could ever hope to solve. But Holmes, as we shall see, was no mere mortal. And Sherlock Holmes FAQ is the story of his immortality.
The following is an excerpt of Funny: The Book by David Misch (Applause Books).
In 2002, Richard Wiseman, intriguingly named, of the University of Hertfordshire, set up a website called LaughLab, where people from all over the world could submit and rate jokes, the idea being to find the one that worked for the most people in the most countries. He received forty thousand entries (of which two-thirds were too racist, violent, or dirty to print).
The winner—later discovered to be based on a 1951 sketch written by Spike Milligan for the famed British radio series The Goon Show—was submitted by a psychiatrist named Gurpal Gosall, whose name may be funnier than the joke.
Two guys are hunting in the woods when one suddenly falls to the ground, and it looks like he’s not breathing. The other guy takes out his cell and calls 911: “My friend is dead. What should I do?”
Operator: “Okay, I can help. First we have to make sure he’s dead . . .”
There’s silence, a gunshot, then the guy comes back on the line: “Okay, now what?”
In second place was this:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes his friend and says: “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson: “I see millions and millions of stars.”
Holmes: “And what do you deduce from that?”
Watson: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those stars have planets, then it’s quite likely there are planets like Earth out there. And if there are planets like Earth, there could also be life.”
Holmes: “No, you idiot, it means someone stole our tent.”
Both of these demonstrate the importance of “precise ambiguity.” Take the hunters: It looks like he’s not breathing—kinda vague, right? But it has to be; the punchline depends on our not knowing if the guy’s dead. You have to say it looks like he’s not breathing because it’s what’s not said that sets up the punchline.
Holmes and Watson also rely on an equivocal phrase: Look up at the sky and tell me what you see. For the joke to work, the listener has to either have forgotten the beginning, which had Holmes and Watson pitching their tent under the stars; or when Watson says I see millions of stars, the listener thinks instantly, subconsciously, “Wait, aren’t they in a tent? Oh, David probably just said it wrong, not important, wait, David’s still talking, I better listen . . .”
Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.