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Holmes’ appeal is no mystery

Special to The Times

The first thing you notice are the artifacts. Nearly every inch of wall space is covered with movie posters: “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” “Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” On the desk is a magnifying glass with a horn handle; behind it, a small, exaggerated figurine of Sherlock Holmes. A bookcase holds a concise but well-selected library of Sherlockiana, with collections of the stories, annotations, critical works. On the computer, a clock marks the quarter hour with the sonorous tolling of Big Ben.

Welcome to the law office of Leslie S. Klinger, a Westwood tax attorney with a not-so-secret other life. At 58, gray-haired and effusive, Klinger is a leading Sherlockian, a member of an at times obsessive subculture devoted to the study of Sherlock Holmes. For Klinger, this is both a private and a public fascination; he first became interested in the subject while at law school in the late 1960s, when someone gave him a copy of William S. Baring-Gould’s “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes.”

Thirty-five years later -- and after having put out several specialized Holmes annotations -- he has brought his preoccupation full circle with the release of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” a two-volume boxed set that gathers all 56 short stories featuring the detective, as well as copious illustrations and notes. (A third volume, collecting the four Holmes novels, is due next year.) Compiled and edited by Klinger, with an expansive introduction, “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” is a generous work, scholarly yet utterly accessible, a remarkable showcase of the detective’s continuing allure.

Although intended to mark Holmes’ 150th birthday, the chronology is uncertain. “While no specific date is given in the stories,” Klinger writes, “Jan. 6 (the traditional Twelfth Night of Christmas), 1854, is traditionally celebrated as Holmes’ birthday, based on the flimsy evidence of a description of Holmes as ‘a man of 60' in 1914 (though Holmes is only in disguise at the time as a man of 60) and Holmes’ supposed fondness for Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night.’ ”

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“It is tenuous,” Klinger admits with a chuckle, “but it seemed like a good hook. We didn’t have the anniversary of the publication of a book this year. So I sat down and asked myself what in 2004 we could tie this to.”

Klinger’s offhand approach to Holmes’ age is emblematic of Sherlockian scholarship, which is a conjectural enterprise at best. Partly, that’s because all the evidence is in the stories, which were considered little more than entertainments by their author, Arthur Conan Doyle. “During his lifetime,” Klinger explains, “Conan Doyle regarded the Holmes stories as commercial output, and something of a cross to bear. He wanted to be remembered for his historical novels, and eventually for his contributions to the spiritualist cause.”

By 1893, six years after introducing Holmes, Conan Doyle had grown so tired of the character that he killed him off in “The Final Problem,” which ends with Holmes and his nemesis Professor Moriarty plunging together, locked in struggle, over the Reichenbach Falls. Later, Conan Doyle would write, “I have been much blamed for doing that gentleman to death, but I hold that it was not murder, but justifiable homicide in self-defence, since, if I had not killed him, he would certainly have killed me.”

Yet, Klinger suggests, “Conan Doyle misjudged his own work, and didn’t realize the immortality of Sherlock Holmes.” Young Londoners literally went into mourning in the wake of the character’s death and 20,000 people reportedly canceled their subscriptions to the magazine that had carried the stories.

In a way, it was the first pop culture event, a blurring of imaginary and actual worlds. Nearly a decade after Holmes’ demise, demand was so overwhelming that Conan Doyle brought back the detective, and wrote about him for another 25 years.

In part, Klinger admits, Conan Doyle went back to writing about Holmes for mercenary reasons: “They were throwing a lot of money at him. A tremendous amount of money. And he was good at it. So why not?”

More complex, perhaps, is the appeal of his detective, which has endured for better than 100 years. “I think there are a number of reasons,” Klinger explains. “One is that it’s the Victorian era, which we think we can understand because it looks on the surface very much like our own. With Camelot or the Roman Empire, we can’t possibly understand the culture. Here, we can.”

Equally important are the characters, who in many ways are exemplars for how we want to live.

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“Holmes, it’s been said, is the person we all want to be,” Klinger notes. “I’m not sure about that; he can be cold and unfeeling, and always rational. But I do think we want to be the individualistic person he is. His most outstanding characteristic is that he does the right thing. And it’s his right thing.”

Still, even Holmes, self-possessed and confident, remains incomplete without Watson, who is as approachable as Holmes is distant, a figure to whom we can relate. “If we look at the stories as literary models,” says Klinger, “the great invention is Dr. Watson. Not Sherlock Holmes.

“In the 1840s, Poe invented the rationalist detective in his character Dupin. But what we gain with these stories is the perspective of a man like us. He is intelligent, he is compassionate, and most of all he is dependable. We don’t want to be Holmes; we want to be Watson. We want to know a Holmes; we want to be by the side of somebody like Holmes, but we want to be a friend like Watson, or have a friend like Watson.”

There is, of course, another factor that contributes to our ongoing interest, which is what Sherlockians refer to as the Game. This is the “gentle fiction,” perpetuated throughout Klinger’s introduction, that Holmes and Watson really lived, and that the stories are accounts of actual cases. Such a conceit goes back to the 1930s, when H.W. Bell first put the stories in a rough chronology, based not on when they were published but when they supposedly occurred. Baring-Gould used a similar strategy in his “Annotated Sherlock Holmes,” developing what is now the most commonly accepted sequence of events.

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The idea, Klinger explains, is that Watson wrote up these adventures after the fact and gave them to Conan Doyle to publish, and that any gaps in their appearance -- especially the so-called Great Hiatus, which spanned eight years, from “The Final Problem” to Holmes’ return in 1901 with “The Hound of the Baskervilles” -- were intentional, meant to protect the detective’s career.

For Klinger, such an illusion helps eclipse the distance of both time and fiction, making Holmes and Watson three dimensional in a delightful way. To illustrate the concept, he gestures at a professional shingle that hangs on his office wall, featuring the address 221B Baker Street, London W1, and then, beneath it, three names: Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective; John Watson, M.D.; and Leslie S. Klinger, Esq.

“It was a gift from my wife,” he says. “It’s in the style of a Victorian shingle, and since Holmes practiced and Watson practiced, and I’ve practiced, why not?” He laughs. “Look,” he adds, “this is the way I approach the Sherlockian universe. It doesn’t mean I honestly believe it, but it’s a fun approach. I’ve taught courses on Sherlock Holmes. After I roll for an hour, my favorite question is, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Klinger, was Sherlock Holmes real or fictional?’ And the answer to that is: ‘Yes.’ ”

Such an answer takes us right up to the edge of parody, which, Klinger insists, is precisely the point. “Dorothy Sayers,” he exclaims, “who was a great Sherlockian, said, ‘The Game must be played as seriously as a game of cricket at Lord’s.’ And yes, one’s tongue has to be planted firmly in one’s cheek. But like so much good humor, it’s got to be done very seriously. Parody that thinks it’s funny is not very funny.”

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This, in a nutshell, reveals the enigmatic charm of the Sherlockians, who engage in a parody of scholarship, of literary criticism, that is itself scholarship and literary criticism of the highest degree. The first significant study of Holmes, after all, was “a parody of serious biblical scholarship” written by Father Ronald Knox in 1911, and the capital letters with which Sherlockians tend to speak -- the Game, the Great Hiatus, the Canon, the Sacred Writings -- drip with well-intentioned irony. Yet through it all, there is a sense of engagement and commitment, the idea that something is at stake.

“The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” is nothing less than an attempt to reframe the Canon, by stripping away Baring-Gould’s chronology and presenting the stories as they originally appeared. At the same time, Klinger means to bring in more contextual material, more photographs and illustrations, more information about the Victorian age.

“I have nothing but admiration for Baring-Gould’s work,” he says, “but it came out in 1967, and there’s been 37 years of writing that needs to be worked into the notes. That’s really where I started with this project. It’s not about superceding Baring-Gould; it’s about bringing Baring-Gould up to date.”

In the end, Klinger stresses that it all comes back to the stories, without which there is nothing else. In his introduction, he recommends that first-time readers skip the annotations, which are copious -- as many as 70 or 80 to a single story -- and focus on the fiction instead.

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“I think,” he says, “that it’s a revelation for people to go back to these stories and meet Holmes as Conan Doyle intended him. It can be hard to see him now with all the films and iconic presentations, commercials, print advertisements, everything. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Any attention is good attention, in my view.

“But my hope is that readers of the book will discover why we’re celebrating the 150th birthday of Sherlock Holmes, and it will help him live another 150 years.”

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Author discussion

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Where: Diesel Bookstore, 3890 Cross Creek Road, Malibu

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Contact: John Evans, (310) 456-9961


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