The world’s most famous detective almost didn’t survive the 19th century! Thanks to fans, Sherlock Holmes inspired a rich universe of retellings and spin-offs. Start here to understand the Sherlock Holmes canon and fandom.
More than a century before we could clamor online for the next Stephen King or George R. R. Martin novel, Arthur Conan Doyle found himself beset by legions of readers who loved Sherlock Holmes, the fictional detective who first appeared in print in 1887’s “A Study in Scarlet.” By 1891, The Strand literary magazinein London had begun publishing and promoting stories about Sherlock Holmes, whose passions included Victorian-era forensic science, deductive reasoning, and cocaine, and whose exploits were (mostly) narrated by Holmes’s polar opposite comrade-in-arms, Dr. Watson. By 1893 Conan Doyle wanted to extricate himself from the demands of a huge, devoted, and ravenous readership, and so he wrote a short story aptly named “The Final Problem.” Holmes revealed to Watson the existence of uber-villain Professor Moriarty, and while fighting said nemesis, Holmes plunged from Reichenbach Falls into “that dreadful cauldron of swirling water and seething foam.” Problem solved, or so thought the author…
Reichenbach Falls is a real place in Switzerland, known to Conan Doyle’s audience as a death drop. Even though the term “cliffhanger” had come into existence only in 1892 (I Google so you don’t have to!), my personal opinion is that Conan Doyle was aware of the term, and definitively penned a scene where, from the cliff, there was no hanging! Unfortunately, the author seemed to have been surprised by the existence of “fans,” which was a shortened version of “fanatics,” coined in 1892 (thanks again, Google!) for devotees of American football. Sherlock Holmes fans stunned Conan Doyle with their outrage over their favorite character’s demise; TheStrand almost went under from the volume of canceled subscriptions, and one letter written to Conan Doyle saluted him as “You Brute!”
He eventually caved to the audience demand, first with a “flashback” to when Holmes was still alive in the timeline, the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles—serialized in 1901 and 1902 in the long-suffering Strand—and then eventually with a short story that restored Sherlock Holmes to life: “The Adventure of the Empty House.” In that story, Holmes explains to Watson that he faked his death to confound his enemies, but doesn’t explain the gap in the timeline between 1891 and 1894, a period known by Holmesologists as “The Great Hiatus.” Today Guinness World Records lists Sherlock Holmes as the most portrayed literary human character in film and television history, an achievement due in no small part to what we now call “the fandom.” The 56 short stories and four novels (all available in audio if you click through the list below) set in Victorian and Edwardian Europe, written between 1887 and 1927, constitute the cradle of that fandom, the Holmes original canon.
If you have ever lain awake at night wondering about “the dog who didn’t bark,” as a metaphor for something you may have missed, you’ve internalized Holmes-world and I salute you. (Also? I recommend the version of “Silver Blaze” included in the incomparable Sherlock Holmes audio introduced by Stephen Fry. Sometimes we all need to unwind a
bit before bedtime with a nice book.) A lot of us fans come to spin-offs because of film and TV; Holmes has been portrayed by Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, and Rupert Everett. (I’m going to include Hugh Laurie in this list because of the TV show House. It might not be canon technically, but his deeply satisfying portrayal of deductive reasoning as a Holmesian superpower wins me over every time.) More recently, the trio of Robert Downey Jr. (who played an action-hero Holmes in the 2009 steampunk-inflected film), Benedict Cumberbatch (as the internet age detective in Sherlock), and Henry Cavill (who shows emotional intelligence in Enola Holmes) have each renewed Holmes by bringing out new facets of who the world’s best and most flawed private detective can be.
As richly as the shows above plumb the depths of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most fascinating protagonist, fanfic about his friends and family often furnishes the jumping-off point to an entirely new and expanded context for Holmes. The canon limits Sherlock’s family to an older brother: the supposedly more intelligent Mycroft, who works by day as a civil servant and retires to the Diogenes club each evening. Fan fiction, however, endows Mycroft and Sherlock with an entire affinity! Nancy Springer gave them a sister, the incomparable Enola Holmes. Laurie King’s Mary Russell novels show how an older Holmes might react to a post-Edwardian (dare we say feminist?!) partner-in-crime-solving. And Neil Gaiman expanded the Holmes universe geographically (to China!) in his short story “Case of Death and Honey.” When Gaiman read the story at World Fantasy Con in 2011, a moment of complete, awed silence punctuated his inspired and inspiring performance before the applause broke out. (Happily, anyone can enjoy his narration of the story in the audio version of Trigger Warning.)
In our shared joy of finding a new corner of the Sherlock Holmes universe together at WFC, Holmes fandom appeared inextricable from the universe it helped to build. Fans encouraged the author to keep the Holmes narrative alive in the 19th century; fan devotion fueled the Sherlock Holmes universe of book, film, TV, streaming, comics, audio, and games. In the 21st century, the game has never been more afoot!