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Cocaine, corpse desecration, and mysterious spoon deaths: Why Sherlock Holmes still excites



Guy Ritchie’s awesome movie gave me a vital realization: we don’t spend enough time thinking about Sherlock Holmes. Everybody knows that he was a detective, he was smart, he wore a deerstalker cap, and he smoked a pipe. But there’s so much more to the man who could tell the difference between 140 different types of tobacco ash.

Let's start from Holmes's early years: When he first met Dr. Watson, Holmes was working in a laboratory. Not some namby-pamby sodium-chloride-and-Alka-Seltzer thing. He was developing ways to chemically detect the presence of blood, his hands all covered in bits of plaster and acid stains. (This fictional forensic technique, which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first wrote about in 1897's "A Study in Scarlet," is often compared to the Kastle-Meyer test, which wasn't developed until 1903.) Another one of Holmes's early experiments involved beating corpses with a stick to see how much human bodies can bruise after death. For a young Holmes, just starting out as the world’s first consulting detective, this was his daily life.

I asked Boston University’s Professor Charles Rzepka, who has written books on the subject, what he thought were Holmes’s most devil-may-care moments. He said, "Certainly it would be crawling out onto the roof ridge of Pondicherry Lodge and scampering down the drainpipe on the track of Tonga"—a murderous Andaman Islander with poison darts—"in The Sign of Four—and, in the dark! That, or shooting bullets into the walls of 221B in the shape of 'VR' in 'The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.' That, or mainlining cocaine."

I know, I know. Mainlining cocaine in a 7% solution isn’t as big a deal when you consider that Holmes’s morphine habit more than offset any long-term effects. For me, the greatest moment is the most obvious—Reichenbach Falls, locked in a fight to the death with Professor Moriarty, falling off a cliff into oblivion.

Only to survive thanks to a knowledge of baritsu, travel the world as a Norwegian named Sigerson, visit with the Dalai Lama in Tibet (which was closed to the outside world at the time, but not to Holmes), return to London under cover as an old bibliophile, surprise his best friend (who doesn’t recognize him, because he’s so well disguised), and then solve another crime by creating a wax bust of himself to lure an assassin into his trap.

Sherlockian dilettante Jarett Kobek contends that the Holmes’s bravest moment is from “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” where, upon witnessing the death of the eponymous blackmailer at the hands of one of his victims, Holmes burns all of Milverton’s documents, thus saving thousands of reputations and families. "Prima facie," says Kobek, “Holmes going down to die at the Reichenbach Falls may appear as the ultimate moment of bravery—but I prefer the quiet fortitude and dignity of Holmes ignoring the letter of the law while honoring its very spirit!"

Noble, yes. But Holmes also had a sense of humor that was wry, with a touch of the absurd. A good example is from “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty,” one of Holmes's lamentably rare espionage stories, where he serves an international peace treaty in a breakfast dish. Or maybe from “The Mazarin Stone,” where he plays a practical joke on a sniveling nobleman by hiding a precious stone in his overcoat.

So far, I’ve only skimmed the surface of 56 stories and four novels. Each work offers a new aspect of Sherlock Holmes to love, quite a bit of them have something to hate. (My favorite love-to-hate moment comes in “The Dying Detective,” where Holmes convinces Watson that he is dying in order to solve the case. What an asshole.)

If you want to get a hobby for a lifetime, and mayhaps remain a virgin for another ten years, start out with what we call the Canon. And once you finish the original texts, you’ll have the text about the text: Sherlockiana, pastiche novels and stories, fictional biographies, dozens of movies, and even poetry. The British government had to add the 221B address to Baker Street in order to accommodate the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It’s the greatest fandom in the world, a good way to live.

And, if you want to get really hardcore, a good way to die: in 2004, Richard Lancelyn Green, the greatest Sherlockian scholar of the day, was found dead, lying on his bed face down, garroted with a shoelace that had been tightened with a wooden spoon. The circumstances surrounding his death have remained a mystery.

--Arafat Kazi

Arafat Kazi is an advertising gent who likes to dabble in tales of derring-do and the movies of Monowar Hossain Dipjol.

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