Synopses & Reviews
A wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular culture's most beloved sleuth
Today he is the inspiration for fiction adaptations, blockbuster movies, hit television shows, raucous Twitter banter, and thriving subcultures. More than a century after Sherlock Holmes first capered into our world, what is it about Arthur Conan Doyle’s peculiar creation that continues to fascinate us? Journalist and lifelong Sherlock fan Zach Dundas set out to find the answer.
The result is The Great Detective: a history of an idea, a biography of someone who never lived, a tour of the borderland between reality and fiction, and a joyful romp through the world Conan Doyle bequeathed us.
Through sparkling new readings of the original stories, Dundas unearths the inspirations behind Holmes and his indispensable companion, Dr. John Watson, and reveals how Conan Doyle's tales laid the groundwork for an infinitely remixable myth, kept alive over the decades by writers, actors, and readers. This investigation leads Dundas on travels into the heart of the Holmesian universe. The Great Detective transports us from New York City's Fifth Avenue and the boozy annual gathering of one of the world's oldest and most exclusive Sherlock Holmes fan societies; to a freezing Devon heath out of The Hound of the Baskervilles; to sunny Pasadena, where Dundas chats with the creators of the smash BBC series Sherlock and even finagles a cameo appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch himself. Along the way, Dundas discovers and celebrates the ingredients that have made Holmes go viral — then, now, and as long as the game’s afoot.
"One of the most widely read and respected writers of detective fiction, James (The Private Patient) explores the genre's origins (focusing primarily on Britain) and its lasting appeal. James cites Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, published in 1868, as the first detective novel and its hero, Sergeant Cuff, as one of the first literary examples of the professional detective (modeled after a real-life Scotland Yard inspector). As for Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, James argues that their staying power has as much to do with the gloomy London atmosphere, 'the enveloping miasma of mystery and terror,' as with the iconic sleuth. Devoting much of her time to writers in the Golden Age of British detective fiction (essentially between the two world wars), James dissects the work of four heavyweights: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. Though she's more appreciative of Marsh and Allingham (declaring them 'novelists, not merely fabricators of ingenious puzzles'), James acknowledges not only the undeniable boost these women gave to the genre but their continuing appeal. For crime fiction fans, this master class from one of the leading practitioners of the art will be a real treat. 9 illus." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A lively look at the enduring detective. A Sherlock Holmes fan since childhood, Portland Monthly co-executive editor Dundas (The Renegade Sportsman, 2010) embarks on a cheerful romp through the conception, fame, and afterlife of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth. The detective story was still in its literary infancy when Conan Doyle invented a character based on one of his medical school professors, "a hawk-nosed, gray-eyed wizard radiating an air of command." Joseph Bell was a master diagnostician, making deductions from astute observations. "What if a detective did that?" Conan Doyle wondered. Dundas chronicles Holmes' evolution as Conan Doyle fleshed out his personality and appearance, beginning with A Study in Scarlet (1887). In The Sign of the Four (1890), Holmes emerged as "a magnetic figure, coiled in his armchair, wreathed in smoke: a gray-eyed whipcord of skinny muscle wrapped in a dressing gown." Watson, too, became deeper. Though "bluff and hearty," he seemed to harbor "inner pain and loneliness." Watson's regard for Holmes, Dundas writes, is "one of literature's great studies in devotion." Readers found the Holmes stories irresistible, but by 1893, Conan Doyle was tired of producing them and summarily killed off his hero. Watson was not the only one bereft; readers called the author a brute. Years later, offered substantial money by a periodical, Conan Doyle revived Holmes with a barely believable tale accounting for his survival. Dundas offers attentive readings of Holmes stories; traverses the bleak landscape of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902); investigates Conan Doyle's homes, haunts, and obsession with spiritualism; chronicles his visit to the cheesy museum at 221b Baker St. and his meetings with the Baker Street Irregulars, a "mother ship of a small, dedicated subculture of Holmes enthusiasts"; and recounts the work of the actors who have played Holmes, including Basil Rathbone, who felt the role consumed him, and Benedict Cumberbatch. A bright read for Sherlock's fans."--Kirkus Reviews
A LOS ANGELES TIMES summer reading selection
"For even the casual fan, the history of this deathless character is fascinating. Dundas does a fine job of tracing the roots of Holmes … [and] writes in a jovial, casual way that invites the reader to take part." — BOSTON GLOBE
"Find[s] fresh ground . . . [Dundas's] scholarship is impressive . . . He's an amiable guide, placing more than a century of Sherlockiana into an appealing, modern frame." — Daniel Stashower, WASHINGTON POST
"[An] entertaining new cultural biography of Holmesiana." — GLOBE AND MAIL
"Charmingly eccentric . . . Skillful . . . For all who enjoy the company of Sherlock Holmes, in any of his many forms, reading Dundas's account will be hours well spent." — Leslie Klinger, LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS
"Dundas weaves fascinating parallel histories of Holmes as literary creation, Holmes as broader cultural phenomenon, and the character's larger-than-life creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle ... Incisive, well-informed, and slyly witty (like Holmes himself), Dundas's book provides entertaining and irrefutable evidence that the game is still — and is likely to remain — afoot." — SHELF AWARENESS (starred review)
"The author of this wonderful book has crammed it with enough research — Holmesean, Watsonian, Doylean — to bulge the seams ... [But] Dundas's matey writing style makes the details easy to absorb ... A delight for Baker Streeters." — BOOKLIST (starred review)
"A lively look at the enduring detective ... A cheerful romp ... A bright read for Sherlock's fans." — KIRKUS REVIEWS
"Sherlock Holmes means different things to different people: to die-hard readers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original (who cracked his first case in 1887); to older filmgoers, Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing; to children of the 1970s and pretty much no one else, Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens; and to younger fans, Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch. All of them turn up in The Great Detective, in which Zach Dundas traces Sherlock's evergreen celebrity. Such is Dundas's enthusiasm that one almost forgets Doyle's wary role in the legend. The author's resigned response to an extraordinarily rich $45,000 offer from Collier's Weekly to resurrect Holmes in 1903: 'Very well.'" — VANITY FAIR
"The game is afoot! Like Sherlock Holmes himself, Dundas's pursuit of his quarry spans centuries, genres, and continents — and it's a delightful journey into the mythology and meaning of an icon that everyone knows, many are obsessed by, and nobody has ever quite topped." — PAUL COLLINS, author of The Murder of the Century and NPR's Weekend Edition "literary detective"
"The Great Detective is a moving study, capturing as I've never before seen our interest in the quintessential sleuth and his stalwart biographer. Sherlock Holmes will never fade, and this book proves it." — LYNDSAY FAYE, author of Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson
"Sherlock Holmes is both immortal and immaterial — and the inspired deductions and ratiocinations of Zach Dundas bring us closer to understanding why we've spent over a hundred years trying to claim Doyle's detective from the fictional world and give him a home in our own. The best and wisest Holmes book that I have ever known." — MATTHEW SWEET, author of Inventing the Victorians
From one of the most widely admired--and widely read--writers of detective fiction at work today comes an illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem and those writers who have satisfied it. Essential for every lover of detective fiction.
In a perfect marriage of author and subject, P. D. James—one of the most widely admired writers of detective fiction at work today—gives us a personal, lively, illuminating exploration of the human appetite for mystery and mayhem, and of those writers who have satisfied it.
P. D. James examines the genre from top to bottom, beginning with the mysteries at the hearts of such novels as Charles Dickenss Bleak House and Wilkie Collinss The Woman in White, and bringing us into the present with such writers as Colin Dexter and Henning Mankell. Along the way she writes about Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie (“arch-breaker of rules”), Josephine Tey, Dashiell Hammett, and Peter Lovesey, among many others. She traces their lives into and out of their fiction, clarifies their individual styles, and gives us indelible portraits of the characters theyve created, from Sherlock Holmes to Sara Paretskys sexually liberated female investigator, V. I. Warshawski. She compares British and American Golden Age mystery writing. She discusses detective fiction as social history, the stylistic components of the genre, her own process of writing, how critics have reacted over the years, and what she sees as a renewal of detective fiction—and of the detective hero—in recent years.
There is perhaps no one who could write about this enduring genre of storytelling with equal authority and flair: it is essential reading for every lover of detective fiction.
From one of the most widely admiredand widely readwriters of detective fiction at work today: a personal, lively, and illuminating exploration of “the human appetite for mystery and mayhem,” and those writers who have satisfied it. Here is the perfect marriage of author and subject: essential for every lover of detective fiction.
For longtime Conan Doyle fans as well as readers just discovering Sherlock Holmes, a wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular cultures most beloved sleuth.
For longtime Conan Doyle fans as well as readers just discovering Sherlock Holmes, a wickedly smart and rollicking journey through the birth, life, and afterlives of popular culture’s most beloved sleuth
Today he is the inspiration for fiction adaptations, blockbuster movies, hit television shows, raucous Twitter feeds, and a thriving subculture. Over a century after Sherlock Holmes first capered into our world, what is it about Arthur Conan Doyle’s peculiar creation that continues to fascinate us? Journalist and lifelong Sherlock fan Zach Dundas set out to find the answer. Through sparkling new readings of the original stories, Dundas explores Conan Doyle’s fictional and real-world inspirations and reveals how the Holmes tales laid the groundwork for an infinitely remixable myth, kept alive over the decades by writers, actors, and readers. Dundas’s investigation leads him—like a Bill Bryson of Baker Street—on travels into the heart of the Holmesian universe. He infiltrates fan conventions, nearly freezes on a heath out of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and talks to the creators and star of the BBC’s Sherlock. Along the way, he discovers and celebrates the ingredients that have made Holmes go viral—then, now, and as long as the game’s afoot.
About the Author
P. D. James is the author of twenty previous books, most of which have been filmed and broadcast on television in the United States and other countries. She spent thirty years in various departments of the British Civil Service, including the Police and Criminal Law Departments of Great Britains Home Office. She has served as a magistrate and as a governor of the BBC. In 2000 she celebrated her eightieth birthday and published her autobiography, Time to Be in Earnest. The recipient of many prizes and honors, she was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 and was inducted into the International Crime Writing Hall of Fame in 2008. She lives in London and Oxford.