So the first full trailer for Mr. Holmes has been released, and at the very least it looks like a unique take on Sherlock Holmes at a time of his life left unconsidered by many as portrayed by the brilliant Ian McKellen. While I am left unconvinced by the trailer, I personally cannot wait to see it – which is how I feel about anything Sherlock Holmes related. The movie, about an extremely aged Sherlock Holmes investigating his last case, reminds me of a wonderful book I read regarding a famous, aged, and unnamed detective undertaking a case and battling his failing body and mind. This got me to thinking about some of my favorite books and stories about the great detective and what reading I would recommend in preparation for the release of Mr. Holmes. So here it is, my Sherlock Holmes reading list. While some I feel like are enlightening, others perhaps may be more like guilty pleasures. Don’t let that stop you from enjoying a silly adventure with the greatest of detectives.
A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This serves mostly as a starting point for reading the entirety of Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. As with anything, the beginning is a very good place to start, and the best sense of Holmes is the one you will get from his creator. If you want to get to know Holmes, Conan Doyle’s fifty-six short stories and four novels are brilliant reading indeed. And while they may seem simple reading at first – and they are, if nothing else, greatly amusing reading – they greatly benefit from deep and multiple readings.
The Final Solution – Michael Chabon
This is the book to which I referred in my introduction, what amounts to a novella about a detective experiencing the mortal fears of old age. The detective in question is never named, but Chabon makes it fairly obvious that the man is Sherlock Holmes. The novel is beautiful, and fun, and exciting, and sad all at the same time. One never considers Holmes in old age and what physical and mental infirmity would mean to one of the most capable men in the world. His fear in such moments of weakness is palpable, and speaks to our own innate fears about the coming of old age.
The Seven Percent Solution – Nicholas Meyer
This novel, about the true story of Holmes’ battle with Moriarty at Reichenbach and his three year hiatus, was written by Nicholas Meyer. If the name sounds familiar, he was the writer of three Star Trek movies and the director of two of those. He recently wrote the screenplay for the Houdini mini-series. He wrote this novel about Sherlock Holmes, his childhood traumas, his cocaine addiction, and his subsequent treatment under Sigmund Freud – and then went on to direct the film adaptation of his own novel. Both the book and the movie are required viewing if you are any kind of Holmesian, giving a unique perspective on the enigmatic character and an alternate history sort of version of famous events in the character’s timeline. Having Holmes and Freud come together is as necessary a musing as having Holmes and Jack the Ripper battle wits, or to have Holmes come up against Dracula, or to have Holmes and Oscar Wilde trade aphorisms (all of which have literary renditions, if you’re interested).
The Bee-Keeper’s Apprentice – Laurie R. King
This is another book that serves as an introduction to an entire series of novels written about a woman named Mary Russell and her association with Sherlock Holmes. Russell is a unique woman, an orphan girl who meets Sherlock Holmes while living with her aunt in Sussex and eventually becomes first his apprentice and then later his wife. She is a highly skilled and independent woman, one who is a capable and trustworthy partner, and whose competence is never questioned simply because of her sex. It is incredibly difficult to write romance for Sherlock Holmes without making him seem completely out of character. According to Conan Doyle, he was intensely distrustful of women and denounced romance as a deadly distraction. In fact, that’s why some of the best Holmesian romances are those that pair up Holmes and Watson. King, however, manages not only to write a convincing and affecting love story, but keeps Holmes perfectly in character at all times. Theirs is a love story wrapped in an equal partnership, which is probably the most romantic thing about their relationship.
Sherlock in Love – Sena Jeter Naslund
Speaking of love stories, this is another excellent and insightful read that tells the tragic story of Holmes’ lost love. It is perhaps not fair to reveal exactly the reason he and his soulmate cannot be together, or why the knowledge of their love eventually drives the woman in question insane – it is a revelation best read in the course of the book. This storyline aims to explain Holmes’ occasional melancholy, those fits of depression that sometimes seize him, and his cocaine habit as described in Conan Doyle’s stories. It is a beautiful, romantic, and tragic story coupled with a good old-fashioned mystery.
Time For Sherlock Holmes – David Dvorkin
This book is so ridiculous, but it is so much fun. As you might have guessed by the title and by the science fiction author, this book involves Sherlock Holmes and time travel. The basic plot is that an aging Watson visits Holmes for what he believes will be the last time he sees his friend before death. It turns out that Holmes has discovered the secret to immortality and shares his innovation with Watson. Together they, along with their housekeeper Mrs. Hudson and eventually Watson’s new wife, live together and solve mysteries through the ages. By the time human-kind has colonized the moon and space travel is the norm, the obsessed Moriarty has developed a form of time travel to dog Holmes through time. If that isn’t weird enough, Watson’s wife turns out to be her own grandmother.