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The Adventure of the Immortal Detective: Discovering Sherlock Holmes in the Archives

The BBC’s modernized television adaptation Sherlock and the steampunk-inspired Hollywood blockbuster Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are only two of the most recent incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. The Ransom Center holds an eclectic array both of Sherlockiana and of materials illustrating Doyle’s diverse pursuits.

Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet, which received several rejections before being published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual (alongside the forgotten tales “Food for Powder” and “The Four-Leaved Shamrock,” as well as some truly terrifying Victorian advertisements—“Steiner’s Vermin Paste, It Never Fails!”). The Center holds one of the 11 complete copies known to exist, as part of the Ellery Queen book collection. The Queen collection also includes books from Doyle’s true crime library, many of which previously belonged to W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

The character of Irene Adler plays a significant role in both the mentioned recent adaptations, but she appears in only one Doyle short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle papers include the handwritten manuscript for this story, as well as a manuscript page from the most famous Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Doyle papers also contain some interesting oddities, such as Doyle’s laconic answers to an autobiographical questionnaire (His favorite food? “Anything when hungry—nothing when not”) and a fan letter Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker in praise of Dracula.

The popular image of Sherlock Holmes owes much to Sidney Paget, who illustrated the original publication of many of the stories in The Strand Magazine. It was he who put Holmes in the iconic deerstalker, never specifically mentioned by Doyle (Sherlockians will tell you that the “ear-flapped travelling cap” described in “Silver Blaze” is the closest reference). The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle art collection includes two original Paget drawings featuring Holmes and Dr. Watson—but no deerstalker.

The Center’s collections also document fans’ longstanding obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Morley, whose papers the Center holds, founded the first American Holmes fan society, the Baker Street Irregulars, in 1934. Elsewhere in the collections, one may find a manuscript of Dorothy L. Sayers’s learned disquisition on the conflicting dates given in “The Red-Headed League,” a handwritten essay celebrating the centenary of Holmes’s purported birth by A. A. Milne, and T. S. Eliot’s perceptive review of the collected stories in a 1928 issue of the Criterion.

In later life, Doyle developed a strong interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. The Center holds a large collection of Doyle’s spirit photographs, in which ghostly apparitions hover over the living, as well as his copies of the Cottingley fairy photographs. Doyle used the photographs to illustrate an article he wrote for The Strand Magazine about fairies and interpreted the images as clear evidence of their existence. The Center’s personal effects collection includes Doyle’s Ouija board. (Also present: two pairs of his socks.)

Sherlock Holmes himself has had an afterlife to rival any of Doyle’s spirits. The Center holds some early examples of what today would be called fan fiction: Maurice Leblanc pits his gentleman thief against a Holmes substitute in Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes (1908); in the same year, the first in a series of Spanish plays paired Holmes with A. J. Raffles (himself a Sherlock-inspired figure from the pen of Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung). Holmes even went to Broadway in Baker Street: A Musical Adventure of Sherlock Holmes (1965). As a bumper sticker from the Baker Street Irregulars proclaims, “Sherlock Holmes is alive and well!”

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