I’m not writing about Sherlock. But…

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 11, 2013

In writing a book about real-life great detectives, you could say that I was almost writing a rebuttal to Sherlock Holmes, even an anti-Sherlock (in the sense of antimatter). In a way that’s true, too; I resisted including his name in the title (a decision which any publisher other than myself probably would have vetoed for the sake of sales) and tried to avoid making reference to him in the book, any more often than was really necessary.

And yet, he just kept finding his way in again and again.

But, then, the whole thing began with Sherlock Holmes in a sense, or nearly so. I have become a fan of the character, in recent years, and had I not been one I might not have stopped in the middle of The Mystery of Blue Train to take offense at Hercule Poirot’s declaring himself “probably the greatest detective in the world.” Had I not done that, I might never have considered the question that followed from the recognition that this was, of course, an exceptionally geeky response on my part. Instead, attempting to check my descent into “who’s stronger” comic book nerditry (endearing though it is) I thought of moving the question of “greatest detective” from fiction into the real world, and… here we are.

Looking at detective reality, however, doesn’t actually obscure Sherlock from view, truth be told. The reality is that, for most people, Sherlock Holmes is both the most familiar icon as well as the ne plus ultra of detection. Even for those who don’t actually believe he really existed (a belief allegedly rather widespread), the idea of Holmes does exist, and permeates our thinking about detectives, certainly in Anglophone culture. As I learned from NightJack, even the sleuth’s old rivals in Britain’s police acknowledge his iconic status in their profession; at any rate I have difficulty imagining that the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System‘s name is entirely coincidence.

Meanwhile, if one wants to write about great detectives, any notions of avoiding Holmes quickly seem almost hopeless. By the early 20th century even those real-life detectives who were, still, winning renown on their own merits were nonetheless compared to Sherlock Holmes as the most efficient way to express their genius as detectives. Even going back before Holmes’s 1887 debut is no foolproof means of escape. At least one or two of the most remarkable detectives who came and went before A Study in Scarlet had such uncanny (and perhaps not entirely coincidental) similarities to Sherlock Holmes that it feels more out of place to mention them without observing the connection.

I tried hard to avoid hammering at it, all the same. Through one or another elliptical (but obvious) reference to “Conan Doyle’s great protagonist” and “221B Baker Street’s famous occupant” I managed at least to avoid typing “Sherlock Holmes” again and again in a book that, I swear to you, really isn’t about him. As a result, I found myself frequently recalling and sympathizing with Life in Year One, and its own author’s repeated reminders (perhaps more to himself than to his readers, really) that “this is not a book about Him.” Despite that, at least one version of the book’s cover art amusingly and prominently visualizes the ghostly but quite recognizable contours of the blank space left by that person’s pointed exclusion from the book.

I’ll leave off any direct examinations of associations between Sherlock Holmes and Jesus of Nazareth—someone else has probably already done it anyway—but I can certainly relate to where Scott Korb was coming from. (Sherlock Holmes did at least leave my book’s cover entirely to its real subjects, but as noted, that probably has less to do with modesty on his part and more to do with my knowing the book’s designer and publisher very, very closely.)

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