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ZACH DUNDAS - THE GREAT DETECTIVE: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes

Wednesday, August 12th: Biography. Zach Dundas reads from his new book The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes. 7 pm.

A Conversation with Zach Dundas

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2 2015

Q: Why a non-fiction book about Sherlock Holmes? What did you hope to discover about the “immortal life” of someone who never lived?

A: Easy on the “never lived” business—you could really provoke certain people. I’ve always been a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, dating back to my days as a geeky 1980s Montana kid fascinated by Conan Doyle’s version of 1880s London. Before teen angst and the desire to impress girls got to me, I was active in the big, vibrant, venerable world of Sherlockian fan culture, and I maintained my love for the character and Conan Doyle’s writing as an adult.

In about 2010, when Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch were just starting to reintroduce Holmes to pop culture, it hit me: this character keeps coming back. And coming back. And coming back. Every generation since 1887 has reinvented Sherlock Holmes to suit its own needs. And now, suddenly, in the early 21st Century, Sherlock was certifiably cool. Sexy, even. I decided to investigate how and why that’s possible.

Q: How did you “investigate” a non-existent world?

A: I’m a journalist by training, which means I usually only write about people I’ve talked to, places I’ve been, and things I’ve seen. And of course, Sherlock Holmes is imaginary. (Right?) But Holmes has been popular so long that his world—the glamorous, fog-draped imaginary London created by Conan Doyle—has merged with our real world here and there. I visited four different recreations of 221B Baker Street, for example. And thousands of people devote much of their spare time to Sherlockian scholarship, or Benedict Cumberbatch GIFs, or what have you. There’s a Sherlock-themed cafe in Shanghai and a Sherlockian society in Kyrgyzstan. As  a reporter, I had plenty of places to go and people to meet.

Q: Where did the trail lead?

A: I was lucky enough to report this epic story on two continents and on both coasts of this country. I went to London, of course, and to Dartmoor, the eerie landscape of The Hound of the Baskervilles, the most famous Sherlock Holmes story of them all. But I also spent a raucous, frigid January week in New York City with the Baker Street Irregulars, and a balmy weekend chasing Benedict Cumberbatch around a luxury hotel in Los Angeles. And, perhaps surprisingly, I found plenty to investigate right in my home city of Portland, which seems far away from the stereotypical Sherlockian world. I discovered that while Sherlock Holmes and John Watson are definitely of their time and place—London in the Victorian and Edwardian eras—they’re not only of that time and place. They’ve become universal.

Meanwhile, I talked to everyone from a self-trained “mentalist”—a professional mind-reader, essentially—to a cutting-edge playwright to some of the finest mystery novelists working today. Once you delve into the world of the Great Detective, it never stops.

Q: What was your most surprising discovery?

A: Arthur Conan Doyle was a storytelling genius, full stop. But as I delved into the 130-year history of Sherlock Holmes, I was struck by how much of the character other people invented. The deerstalker hat? Someone else. The huge pipe? Someone else. “Elementary, my dear Watson”? Someone else. The popular image of a hyper-verbal, caustic genius? Crafted by the likes of Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and Benedict Cumberbatch—but not exactly the character Conan Doyle sketched. And today, fan fiction writers working in English, Chinese, Russian, Japanese—just about every major language, really—are making strange new Sherlocks of their own.

That led me to a question: what is Sherlock Holmes? A mass hallucination? A long-running literary game? A kind of fictional creature we don’t quite have the terminology to describe? Whatever it is, here’s a fascinating state of affairs: one person originated the character, well over a century ago, but the rest of us aren’t finished creating it yet.

Q: What’s Sherlock’s secret? Why do people like this character so much?

A: Because Sherlock Holmes is fun and weird and wild, and is always—no matter which author or actor is working with him at a given moment—at the center of intrigue and adventure.

But if you want to know the real secret, here it is: Watson. It’s really all about Watson. Bold. Brave. Loyal. A bit of a ladies’ man, to be honest. Without John Watson on the scene, no one would care about Sherlock Holmes. We couldn’t know the Great Detective, in all his brilliance, without someone to tell us the tales. Watson is like dark matter: the force that holds everything together without anyone noticing.

Q: What was your favorite part of the project?

A: London is great, New York is always fun, and Benedict Cumberbatch—I mean, I got to stand near him! But in all honesty, the best part was rereading all 60 Sherlock Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle. They are so incredibly, unfairly good—even the bad ones are good. And despite all the movies, TV shows, Tumblrs, fanfics, GIFs, Broadway musicals, Sesame Street skits, classic comic books, pastiches, etc. etc. etc., you can’t truly get Sherlock Holmes without reading those Conan Doyle stories. They are Sherlock Holmes: colored by weirdness and glamour and intrigue, but also slyly funny, sometimes desperately sad, and full of indelible characters and stunningly great storytelling.

If nothing else, if The Great Detective inspires a few new readers to go discover Conan Doyle, I declare the case closed.

ZACH DUNDAS is coexecutive editor of Portland Monthly, a longtime journalist, and the author of The Renegade Sportsman. He is a member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Diogenes Club.

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