How the great detective Sherlock Holmes captured the imagination of a little boy in a small town in Central Kerala.

Every summer holiday from 1972 onwards, when my school would close for almost a month and a half, I would come down with my mother and little pest (sorry sister) to my mother’s ancestral home in Irinjalakuda, Thrissur. The massive old house would always have around 20 odd people in residence, at the very least, at that point in time including my grandparents, sundry uncles, aunties, and cousins.

Unfortunately for me, all the cousins who were around my age were girls. They had no interest in playing cricket or coming fishing in the pond at the bottom of the sprawling one-acre compound. They were more interested in playing their girly games in a temporary hut made of coconut fronds spliced together that one of the household helps had set up behind the house for their benefit.

They would pretend to be grand ladies, cooking their make-believe meals and pretending to sip tea out of makeshift cups made of coconut shells.  Since most of my cousins were slightly older (and bigger) than me I always got the short end of the stick. I was the designated servant of the house, being ordered about by the grand dames.  Fed up of these demeaning games I rebelled and decided to go fishing by myself or curl up in a corner and give in to my favourite hobby, reading.

The house was full of books. My grandfather, who was founder-editor of the rationalist magazine ‘ Yukthivadi’ had a floor-to-ceiling shelf in his room, about 14 feet by 8 feet , which was crammed to the gills with books. Unfortunately, these were mostly books on theology, politics and several other topics I had no interest in. There were also about 10 years worth of copies of a digest magazine called ‘ Bhavans Journal’  and sundry other magazines including ‘ Caravan’ and ‘Span’. 

My uncle, a lawyer, was a secret pulp fiction fan and his room on the first floor had a cupboard filled with books that were more my style. He had loads of Mickey Spillane, John Creasey, Erle Stanley Gardner, Max Brand, and Edgar Wallace. His son, my cousin, who was seven years older than me, had a huge collection of James Hadley Chase and lots of Dell, Gold Key, Harvey, and Indrajal comics. By the time I was eleven I had read all of these, most of them more than once.  Now I was pacing through the house like a restless and hungry tiger, looking for my next reading fix. 

Encountering Sherlock Holmes

In a bookshelf placed at the end of the verandah on the first floor, I found a huge stack of books. To my disappointment, these turned out to be old school and college textbooks used by my cousins. In those days these books were carefully preserved to be handed down to the next generation.

Flipping through these books in the hope of finding something interesting I came across a slim volume of English Prose meant for 1st Year Pre-Degree students of Calicut University.  Beggars can’t be choosers and I decided to read this selection of essays and stories. A couple of essays by some guys called G.K.Chesterton and Jonathan Swift were quickly rushed through. 

Then I came across something that looked more promising. This was a story called ‘The Speckled Band’ by someone called Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The title before the author’s name did put me off. These titled English gentlemen bored me and I was pretty sure this was going to be some dusty old tale expounding the triumphs of the British Raj. The author’s middle name did produce a fit of the giggles and my Malayali friends will guess why.

The story started off in a very slow way with some old coot narrating an incident in the life of his friend who was a consulting detective. Ah, a detective. That sounded more promising. Hopefully, there’d be lots of bullet-riddled bodies and shootouts. While this was not the case, the story began to cast an insidious spell and a few pages in it had firmly grabbed me by the throat.

While I loved stories of derring-do and adventure, I was cursed with an overactive imagination and was timid by nature. The things that scared me most, other than vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghouls, were snakes. I hated the slimy creepy crawlies and, as a resident of a State which had more than its fair share, I had had quite a few encounters with the blighters. They held a fearful fascination for me and I loved reading stories involving snakes just as I loved stories with vampires, werewolves, and demons of every ilk.

I would not like to spoil the plot for anyone who has not read this small masterpiece but I will reveal that a snake plays a major part in it.

The story itself was beautifully written and atmospheric. I was transported to that grim Manor in Stoke Moran, Surrey in the year 1883 and the terrible goings-on there. The story is still one of my favourites featuring that prince among detectives, Sherlock Holmes.  Absolutely enthralled, I decided to search for more books by this author with the funny name.

More of Sherlock Holmes

Back in Trivandrum once the holidays were over, I made a beeline for the Trivandrum Public Library. I politely asked the elderly librarian whether any books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were available. He gave me a suspicious stare, probably because I had unduly emphasised the ‘Conan’ part of the name, and directed me to the catalogue.

On going through the catalogue I discovered they had a number of books by Doyle (we will call him that here onwards. Conan always makes me laugh). I checked out the location of the shelf and rushed to find the relevant shelf in the Stack Room. There, to my delight, I found a huge Omnibus volume containing three of the short story collections and a novel called ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

The Omnibus was called ‘The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes’ and it contained facsimile reproductions of the tales as they first appeared in ‘The Strand’ magazine from 1891 onwards. The book contained the brilliant illustrations done by Sidney Paget for the Strand magazine and these brought the stories and characters to life.

Sherlock Holmes has since been recreated in innumerable books, TV Series, and films but the image evoked in my brain is always Paget’s Holmes, thin but wiry with his ascetic features, pipe, and deerstalker hat. Paget is ‘the’ Holmes illustrator, much in the same way as E.H.Shepard drew the definitive ‘Winnie the Pooh’, C.H. Chapman the definitive ‘Billy Bunter’ and Thomas Henry the definitive ‘William’. 

As was my wont, once I got my teeth into something I didn’t let go. Within a couple of months, I had read all the short story collections and novels. I felt the short story collections were much better than the novels except ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. This was the best of the novels with Doyle excelling at describing another doom-laden house, ‘Baskerville Hall’, set among the desolate moors in Devon.

The monster this time was not a snake but a massive diabolical hound. The sense of creeping dread was again beautifully evoked and I read the book in one sitting with the lights on. The book has been filmed several times and my favourites are the 1939 film with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and the 1968 version with Peter Cushing taking a break from playing Abraham Van Helsing in the Dracula movies and playing Holmes instead in a story that would give the toothy Count a run for his money.

Inspiring many authors

I discovered that Doyle had many other works to his credit including stories of the occult, science fiction , historical fiction and stories about sport.  My favourites among these are the Professor Challenger story ‘The Lost World’ featuring a lost world with dinosaurs and other creatures who had survived the march of time.  This was probably the inspiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Adelbert Kline, and various other writers who churned out a series of books about lost civilizations and fierce prehistoric creatures.

Other favorites are the superb satirical ‘ Brigadier Gerard’ stories about a vain French soldier in the Napoleonic Wars and a cricket story called ‘ Spedegue’s Dropper’ about an asthmatic schoolteacher who is plucked from obscurity to represent England in the deciding test match of an Ashes series. The current lame-duck English team, recently thrashed by Australia, would give anything for a Tom Spedegue in their team.  Anyone who loves cricket or good writing should read this story about Spedegue’s unique talent.

No write-up about the Sherlock Holmes stories is complete without mentioning the numerous stories and novels by other authors featuring the Great Detective. This has almost become an industry in itself with hundreds of such stories, novels and anthologies being published and lapped up by a public that still can’t get enough of the great detective a hundred years after he first appeared.

These range from the brilliant to the average, mediocre, and some that are just plain terrible. In these ‘homages’ or ‘pastiches’ Holmes comes up against everyone from H.G.Wells, Jack The Ripper, Count Dracula to the Lovecraftian Elder Gods. In India, Jaico books has published a huge number of Holmes-themed anthologies. Sherlock Holmes has also appeared in several comic series and graphic novels apart from the plethora of TV series and feature films.

Elementary, my dear Watson

 As mentioned earlier the Basil Rathbone series of films are my favourite films though none of the stories are based on Doyle’s original stories. My favourite TV series is ITV’s series starting in 1984 with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and David Burke and later Edward Hardwicke as Doctor Watson.  Indian viewers in particular will remember this series fondly as it used to be broadcast on Doordarshan every Sunday in the eighties.

I remember awaiting each episode with excitement and expectation.  I still watch the series again every few years and never tire of them. Two modern takes on the character have also become extremely popular.

‘Sherlock’ was produced by the BBC with Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as a very capable Dr. Watson. ‘Elementary’ an American series set mainly in America was produced by CBS and stars Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as his female sidekick Dr. Joan Watson. Both series are extremely well made and highly recommended though they may offend the purists.

A number of quotes from the canon have become part and parcel of the language. ‘Come Watson come, the game is afoot’ is from the ‘Adventure of Abbey Grange’. The line was cribbed by Doyle from Shakespeare’s Henry Vth.  ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’ is another oft-quoted line though Holmes never actually says this in any of the stories.

It became popular because it was first heard in the 1929 movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes.  ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’ appears in The Sign Of Four and sums up Holmes’ theory of deduction in a nutshell.  

Even now, when bored by the mundane and hollow technology-obsessed world we live in, the best escape is to lose ourselves in the world of Sherlock Holmes as the great detective and his partner scramble into a hansom cab in a fog-bound Victorian London, en route another spine-tingling adventure, with the clarion call ‘ Come Watson, come. The game is afoot

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Vineeth Abraham calls himself a “complete, utter and unapologetic bibliophile”. He owns a large personal library and resides in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. In Shelf Life, Abraham writes about reading, books, and beyond.

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