Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Sherlock Holmes is back! Or is he! When did he leave? Or did he ever live . . . or ever die? Even Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t make up his mind if Holmes was real or not—if he lived or died—since he first killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls in the publication in 1893 of “The Final Problem” and then “resurrected” him eight years later in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Painting of Arthur Conan Doyle by John C. Tibbetts
Meanwhile Dr. John Watson kept cranking out Holmes’s adventures. . . and many distinguished actors have continued to bring him to stage and screen. (See below a selection of the “Immortal Five”.)

Painting by John C. Tibbetts

And now, here’s Ian McKellen’s 93-year old version, doddering about the Sussex countryside, trying to remember what happened to his last case, which seems to have gone unsolved.

So, is McKellen’s screen Holmes a real person, living apart from Watson? (I can’t seem to remember if Conan Doyle is referenced at all!) Actually, the controversy over Holmes’s existence began almost immediately upon his first appearance in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Annual in 1887.

By the time the great American bookman Vincent Starrett published his seminal The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1933, the case for Holmes’s “reality” seemed to be confirmed. Or not.

Photo of Vincent Starrett

I have had several chances to investigate for myself: As a longtime member of the “Great Alkali Plainsmen” scion society in Kansas City, I have met frequently with those Good Companions John Lellenberg, Milt Perry, John Altman, Bob Willer, Stan Carmack, Lenore Carroll, Dick and Ann Brown, Michael Sull, etc., to debate the issues. . . And when I went to London in 1988, I widened my search by interviewing three participants in ongoing Holmesian matters: actor Jeremy Brett, whose PBS telecasts were currently all the rage. . . Michael Caine, then appearing on screen as Sherlock in WITHOUT A CLUE. . . and, mustering up my courage, spent an afternoon over tea with Lady Bromet, i.e., Jean Conan Doyle, daughter of The Man, in her home in Cadogan Square. (Dame Jean signed for her father—see below)

Painting by John C. Tibbetts

Dame Jean spoke with obvious authority about her father and shared childhood memories of his working with Dr. Watson on Sherlock’s adventures. Here she is, standing before a painting of her father.

Photo of Lady Bromet (Dame Jean Conan Doyle), 1988, by John C. Tibbetts
I have come away from it all blissful in my state of ambivalence. That is as it should be. Let’s recall those lines from Vincent Starrett’s poem, “221B”:
But still the game's afoot for those with ears
Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:
England is England yet, for all our fears--
Only those things the heart believes are true.
Pen-and-Ink drawing by John C. Tibbetts