Elementary 'Big Book' of Sherlock Holmes stories lives up to its billing

By Kurt Anthony Krug

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Even though he owns The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City - the oldest and largest mystery-themed bookstore in the world, Otto Penzler didn't read mysteries when he was growing up.

"I always loved to read but almost never read mysteries when I was young, preferring adventure and science-fiction, as well as non-fiction about animals and American history. After working through heavy literature at (the University of) Michigan Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Herman Melville, even some (James) Joyce, etc. I wanted to read just for fun and to rest my brain when I got back to New York and thought I'd start with mysteries. After the complete Sherlock Holmes, tons of John Dickson Carr, Rex Stout, and Agatha Christie, I discovered (Dashiell) Hammett and (Raymond) Chandler and realized that serious literature was produced in the mystery genre," recalled Penzler, who graduated from U-M in 1963 with his undergraduate degree in English literature.

In fact, Penzler's love for Holmes, the famed detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, started in 1963 and began his passion for collecting books. Further, Penzler, along with several friends, has been a member of the Baker Street Irregulars a prestigious and exclusive literary society founded in 1934 and named after the street urchins Holmes employs as his intelligence agents for more than four decades.

So he stated it was a natural fit for him to serve as editor and provide the introduction of "The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes" (Vintage $25), which is the largest anthology of Holmes's stories ever assembled to date.

"There are many hundreds check that thousands of books, stories and articles about Holmes, and I have been familiar with all the important ones," said Penzler. "Still, there never has been one as massive as this. I thought it would be great for Sherlockians to have access to all the major parodies and pastiches in a single volume. Fortunately, my editor at Vintage agreed."

This anthology features stories by many renowned authors, including Whitmore Lake's Loren D. Estleman (no stranger to Holmes), Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Anne Perry, Tanith Lee, Leslie S. Klinger, John T. Lescroart, Thomas Perry, et al. It also showcases work by many of Conan Doyle's contemporaries, including J.M. Barrie (creator of Peter Pan), A.A. Milne (creator of Winnie the Pooh), and O. Henry ("Cabbages and Kings"). The book also features appearances by two other famous fictional detectives: Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot and Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.

When asked how long it took him to compile and edit this anthology, Penzler stated that the glib answer was 50 years since he's been a Holmes fan for 52 years. In reality, it took him only one year.

"As is true for virtually all of the 'Big Books' I've edited for Vintage, it's a full year from the time the book is proposed until the manuscript is delivered. I read more than 400 stories to come up with the 83 in this book, and clearing permissions is often a hugely time-consuming challenge," said Penzler, who also edited "The Best American Mystery Stories 2015" with New York Times best-selling novelist James Patterson and also edited "The Big Book of Jack the Ripper," which is slated for a 2016 release.

Holmes debuted in Conan Doyle's 1887 novella "A Study in Scarlet." His adventures are chronicled by his friend and associate, Dr. John Watson. With his deerstalker cap (although he was never described to have worn one in Conan Doyle's stories) and long pipe, Holmes was a brilliant detective who was tall and thin and lived at 221B Baker St. He was an expert marksman, a skilled swordsman, and master of hand-to-hand combat whose skill set including bare-knuckles boxing and martial arts. He had extraordinary powers of observation and a knowledge of the hard sciences, which would later influence forensics.

"I also like the fact that he is entirely cerebral and logical traits I admire yet is also eccentric, unpredictable, and colorful traits I also admire," said Penzler.

Holmes' greatest nemesis is Prof. James Moriarty, alias the "Napoleon of crime," who is the anti-Holmes: intelligent, cunning, methodical, Holmes' equal in every way. Interestingly enough, Moriarty made only one appearance under the pen of Conan Doyle in the 1893 short story "The Final Problem." Subsequent writers have brought him back.

"Conan Doyle had the extraordinary ability to make many characters compelling, including Moriarty and Mycroft (Holmes' brother). They are extreme figures, described in a captivating way. 'He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city,' and 'He sits motionless, like a spider in the center of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them.' Come on. How could you not be compelled to read more?" explained Penzler.

Holmes has influenced many characters, not to mention has been spoofed and paid homage to multiple times. His adventures has been adapted into other media, including the stage, radio, television, and film. Many actors have portrayed the famous detective. Most notably, Basil Rathbone played Holmes in 14 films between 1939 and 1946. Jeremy Brett appeared as Holmes in 41 Granada tele-films between 1984 and 1994. Oscar winner Christopher Plummer played Holmes in 1979's "Murder by Decree," where Holmes battles Jack the Ripper.

Most recently, Holmes has been portrayed on the big screen by Robert Downey Jr. in 2009's "Sherlock Holmes" and its 2011 sequel "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." Downey's portrayal of Holmes in the first movie earned him a Golden Globe Award. Earlier this summer, Oscar nominee Ian McKellen played a retired Holmes who returns to the fold in order to solve an unsolved case in "Mr. Holmes," which is based on the 2005 novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind" by Mitch Cullin.

Gregory House, the titular character played by Hugh Laurie on "House, M.D." the Fox television drama that ran from 2004-12 was inspired by Holmes. He was a brilliant physician but very anti-social. Holmes' anti-social tendencies have been played up on the BBC's "Sherlock" and CBS' "Elementary" both of which are set in contemporary times where Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, respectively. In "Elementary," U-M alumna Lucy Liu plays Dr. Joan Watson, a female version of Watson.

Penzler admitted that he doesn't watch "Sherlock" and "Elementary."

"I'm told they are excellent, but I seldom have enough time off to watch television except Yankees games in the season, which I record pretty much every day or night and watch when I get home, no matter how late," he confessed.

He also named his favorite actors to play Holmes because he couldn't limit it to just one.

"George C. Scott, who just thought he was Holmes in 'They Might Be Giants,' the first half of which was excellent before it devolved into a silly farce. As I am no longer young, I recall Basil Rathbone with enduring affection and thought Jeremy Brett did a great job. John Wood, when he played in 'Sherlock Holmes' with the Royal Shakespeare Company on Broadway, was brilliant in the early days of the run. He evidently got bored with playing Holmes night after night and soon began to parody himself," said Penzler.

Additionally, Penzler gave his point of view on what gives Holmes such staying power after 128 years.

"Many, many elements, and entire books have been written on the subject. One is that he is brilliant and confident, and when so much in the world is chaotic and confusing, it's a comfort to find some who is pretty much always right. He also symbolizes justice and pursues it ardently. Yes, he may allow a killer to go free, which is not what the law requires, but justice in his case does. Again, in the real world, where justice too seldom triumphs, this is a great comfort," he explained. "Holmes may be, as Watson said, 'the best and wisest man whom I have ever known.' It has been a joy to be immersed in stories about him for the past year."

Published: Thu, Nov 26, 2015

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