The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes (2015) by Zach Dundas

Source: Review Copy (Houghton Mifflin Publishing)

The Great Detective

Sherlock Holmes was my root into crime fiction so I was excited to read a book about him. Dundas opens his book using the many physical reconstructions there are globally of Holmes’ 221B Baker Street flat as his starting point. This accessible and quite original opening leads to the question of ‘How had Arthur Conan Doyle created an illusory world so potent that it replicated itself in minds, and even actual spaces all over the planet?’ Or to rephrase it, how has Holmes retained his popularity 129 years after he first appeared in print and why have people been drawn to reinventing him so much? A key idea which comes across in the opening section is the idea that each generation, each TV production team, each reader even has their own version of Holmes and his world. Throughout the book we get to learn of Dundas’ own personal experiences of becoming a fan of Holmes, even starting his own Holmes club called The Street Arabs, which had a global presence. Moreover, through the course of writing this book Dundas also went on a number of expeditions to try and track down the physical locations of Doyle’s stories and I particularly enjoyed his comical trip to wintry Dartmoor.

Although Dundas begins thematically in a way, the remainder of the book, until the final chapter can be regarded as a history of Doyle and his creation, beginning with the original stories and then moving on to the stage, film and TV productions (including interview material from Benedict Cumberbatch and Steven Moffat), as well as looking at the fan clubs, societies and fan fiction which have been spawned as a result of Doyle’s work. Dundas has a flair for writing in an engaging way about the history of the stories, looking for the real inspirations and adding the appropriate pieces of context. You can see in his writing that he is also at ease talking about the way actors have approached the characters of Holmes and Watson. However I think Dundas is least comfortable when trying to grapple with literary analysis and his examination of the stories predominately comes across as quite descriptive rather than analytical. Dundas sometimes throws in an unusual idea or concept relating to Holmes studies, but then does nothing with it. For example Dundas disjointedly inserts Liel Liebovitz’s argument that Holmes is a ‘non-Jewish Jew’ due to his characteristics ‘urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate… and occupationally flexible.’ Yet following this brief outline, Dundas says nothing more about it, neither commenting on whether he agrees with it or not, nor explaining in more depth what is actually meant by the idea. Furthermore, a number of the ideas Dundas includes are not original and were therefore quite familiar to me, such as his suggestion that Holmes can be seen as an urban knight errant, an idea which can be found in the Ian Ousby’s earlier book Bloodhounds of Heaven: The Detective in English Fiction from Godwin to Doyle (1976).

However here are a few ideas that did interest me:

  • I liked the comparison Dundas made between the late Victorians and the 2010s, asserting that we are both information focused ages.
  • Dundas’ take on how Holmes has been commercialised was funny and refreshing, with the following being his comment on the London Sherlock Holmes Museum: ‘paying good money to see a real version of a place that never existed, a self-proclaimed, for-profit Sherlockian space that couldn’t be more inauthentic.’ Not a comment you would want on Trip Advisor! I also thought Dundas interestingly built on this concept by looking at Doyle’s depiction of London which ‘tapped popular stereotypes’ and ‘what people imagined about the place.’
  • Furthermore Dundas makes some thought provoking comments on Holmes as a character. He suggests that adaptations of Holmes have tended to miss out two ingredients from the stories which are that Holmes ‘is a basically nice person… [with Doyle describe[ing] the detective as genial, suave, friendly… [and Holmes] approaches his work… with boyish enthusiasm and joy.’ I can see how modern adaptations of Holmes present him more as a social misfit than as ‘a basically nice person,’ but on the other hand is that characteristic truly there in the books? The examples Dunas gives are when Holmes is being nice to a client, soothing them so they are in a state to give him data. Is this genuine niceness or just niceness with a purpose? Dundas does go on to give examples of how Holmes is not nice to Watson, which does seem to go against his previous statement. Dundas’ impression of Holmes centres more on him being a ‘rebel,’ as opposed to one academic theory that Holmes is a ‘symbolic force for law, order, empire and Victorian morality.’ He is a maverick figure who is composed of many facets some of which are contrary to another.
  • Another idea Dundas gave was that Doyle incorporated features from many other genres in his stories. This was a partially familiar idea to me as Doyle’s use of melodrama and the gothic have been mentioned before. Yet Dundas also suggests that Doyle also incorporated the following genres: comedy of manners, social satire, hardboiled noir, the western, romance and espionage. For some of these such as the romance, espionage and the western genres there are obvious examples, but for hardboiled noir I was wondering where this genre featured in the Holmes canon, as Dundas himself gives no examples. Unfortunately this is another instance of where Dundas brings up an idea (in this case quite a good one), but he does very little with it and he doesn’t elaborate or build on it, leaving it unsubstantiated and unfinished.

Why was Doyle’s creation so successful then?

Dundas’ answers to this question are predominantly in his final chapter, but a few other suggestions can be found buried within the history of Holmes he gives. Below are the key ideas I took away in this matter:

  • The conciseness of Doyle’s stories were a key element of why they were successful, as was the atmosphere/ milieu he creates and Dundas suggests that the ‘wider world’ of the Holmes stories is one of the key three reasons for the stories’ successfulness.
  • There are also a number of gaps in the chronology of Holmes and Watson, which have led to reader speculation, which in turn has led to reinventions of the characters. Dundas writes that ‘Arthur Conan Doyle opens many doors, that he never explored himself,’ such as the unpublished cases Watson mentions, which Dundas describes as ‘story telling prompts’.
  • Another reason for the series’ success given by Dundas is that Holmes ‘also embodies the spirit of [the Victorian] age, an age still very much with us… Holmes distils and symbolises the best of the period’s commitment to rationality and progressive thought… Sherlock’s power to turn knowledge into both a tool and a vehicle for adventure are two of the characteristics that allow him to transcend time. He can work in an Information Age, even ours.’
  • The relationship between Holmes and Watson is also asserted by Dundas as another reason for its success, though this reason is not a particularly new one.

What sort of reader is this book targeted at?

I think the less you know about Doyle, Holmes and the various Holmes franchises there have been, the more you will get out of this book. Therefore for me the parts of the book where I learnt the most was when Dundas looked at the various productions of Holmes on stage, TV and film, as I did not know a lot about this area. Yet when it came to Doyle himself and his stories the information given is quite familiar, as was Dundas’ chapter on the origins of the detective story, which is heavily reliant on Judith Flanders’ excellent book The Invention of Murder (2011) (which I have read).

Overall Thoughts

I think Dundas’ love for Holmes is evident and he is very good at writing entertainingly, though sometimes his lexicon comes across as a little too cool for school, such as referring to A Study in Scarlet (1887) as a study in Watson ‘getting his groove back.’ This is also a book which will make you crack a smile and laugh at points, such as the cringe worthy excerpt given from the William Gillette stage adaptation which gives Holmes a love interest. An area I think Dundas could have done better in, is in the structure of his chapters which can at times lack clear direction (especially the first chapter). I think this occurs because his chapters tend to include 2-3 separate topics, which he cuts and changes between, returning to them at various points. I’m not sure this was an entirely successful structure to adopt as it was a bit irritating when he stopped half way through an anecdote to begin a different thread. Overall though the book has encouraged me to return to and re-read the Holmes stories, which can never be a bad thing. I was a bit disappointed when it turned out the book was not going to directly address consistently the question it poses at the beginning of the book until the final chapter, but once I decided to enjoy the book for what it was, instead of what it was not, I ended up liking the book more and learning a lot in the process.

Rating: 3.75/5


  1. This has been on my reading list for a while. From the description of the book I thought this would focus more on contemporary times and the fan clubs and adaptations rather than on Conan Doyle and the origins of the detective story. I just finished reading Martin Booth’s biography of A.C.D. and have also just recently read Mattias Boström’s excellent book on Sherlock Holmes, so I might give this one a pass, for now at least.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes if you read those two other books then some of the chapters will be familiar with you. But the latter chapters do focus more on contemporary responses to Holmes. In fact the author of this book is friends with Mattias, as Mattias when he was younger joined Dundas’ young Sherlock Holmes group.

      Liked by 1 person

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