Sherlock Book Review - Sherlock Holmes Hero With A Thousand Faces Volumes 1 and 2

Posted by Steve Emecz on

Sherlock Holmes Society of London 

This work is a significant achievement and clearly a labour of love. I am impressed at the quality of the research that has gone into it. Volume One, across six chapters, concerns itself with the creation of Holmes through to the films of the early 1930s.

Predictably it begins with the origins of Holmes, covering the initial public reaction to the first novels and the later success of the short stories. Conan Doyle’s love/hate relationship with Holmes is spelt out succinctly, and an admirable job is done of explaining how the public sought a Holmesian ‘fix’ in rip-offs and imitators whenever he dared to lay down his pen.

Then MacGregor takes a wide look at the literature and events before and during Holmes’s time, to see the potential influences on the adventures of the great detective. I’ve not seen any writer attempt it to the same degree of accessible depth. One great observation is that modern audiences have a fixed view, largely underpinned by screen adaptations, of Holmes and Watson as perpetual roommates in 221B Baker Street. However, to their original public, their fame took off when they were living apart. It was only with the short stories, when Watson was married and living away, that fame beckoned. I knew that Watson was not resident at 221B (from a publication perspective) from 1891 until the early years of the 20th century, but it had never been presented to me quite so well.

Roughly at the half-way point, MacGregor moves on to the birth of Sherlockian scholarship, followed by the beginning of leading societies such as the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and the Baker Street Irregulars. Both subjects are handled well with just the right level of detail.

Chapter 5 covers William Gillette’s play Sherlock Holmes in the early 1900s, pointing out that this is when real liberties began to be taken with Holmes. For people today who get hot under the collar about changes made to the stories and characters in modern adaptations it is a timely reminder that changes to Holmes have been going on for over a century, and some were even sanctioned by Conan Doyle himself.

Volume One concludes with a look at Holmes’s initial outings on the silver screen. Barrymore, Brook, Norwood, and Wontner all get examined but we have to wait for the Holmes that everyone remembers from the mid-twentieth century.

Basil Rathbone (for it is he) is covered in the first chapter of Volume Two, which dubs him “the definitive Holmes of film” — indeed, he became identified with the detective, to the extent that in the 1971 movie They Might Be Giants, a New York cop greets Justin Playfair, who believes himself to be Holmes, with the words, “Why, Mr Rathbone. It’s an honour, sir!”

In the 1950s and ’60s, despite faithful adaptations in other media, especially radio, it seemed, says MacGregor, that on film “a ‘straight’ Sherlock Holmes story was simply not viable as a cultural commodity.” Hence the unnecessary tweaks to The Hound of the Baskervilles in Hammer’s 1959 version, and the absurd American promotion that linked the dark and exciting A Study in Terror with the camp comedy of Batman: The Movie. The 1970s brought a different approach, showing and even celebrating the weaknesses in Holmes’s character, flaws largely ignored in the Rathbone films. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and Murder by Decree show how effective such an approach could be, though the three are very different creatures. Hero or antihero, Sherlock Holmes lived on, in comedy as well as drama.

A survey of the detective’s career on television, from 1937 to 1984, precedes a thoughtful appraisal of the Granada TV series, which made Jeremy Brett world-famous and featured some of the best screen dramatisations ever. Despite a few truly regrettable late episodes, the series is unlikely to bettered in my lifetime.

Chapters 11 and 12 bring us up to date. The rare occasional error in Sherlock Holmes: The Hero With a Thousand Faces is far outweighed by the overall excellence of the work.


Paperback and Hardcover versions of Sherlock Holmes Hero With A Thousand Faces can be found on the Sherlockian Author Profile David MacGregor page on this site and through all good bookstores.

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