In 1887, a relatively unsuccessful English physician published his first novel, "A Study in Scarlet," whose protagonist was a private detective with astonishing deductive powers. Arthur Conan Doyle's book had already been rejected by several publishers and was eventually sold for little money. But it was an instant success, and its hero, Sherlock Holmes, went on to star in four novels and 56 short stories.

Along the way, he also became the most famous character in English literature. The Holmes stories have never gone out of print and have been translated into numerous languages, including Sinhalese and Urdu. Holmes has also popped up in more than 220 movies and TV shows - including nine Russian TV features - and has been portrayed by more than 70 actors. The latest adventure of the Baker Street sleuth, simply titled "Sherlock Holmes," opens Friday, and stars Robert Downey Jr. as the great detective and Jude Law as his loyal collaborator, Dr. John Watson.

The ongoing popularity of Conan Doyle's creation is based on several factors. "It's clear that the cases all get solved; life's not like that, and that's comforting," says Susan Rice, a New York-based member of the Baker Street Irregulars, an international group of Holmes devotees. "There's also the assurance of Holmes, his competence in so many areas; we all aspire to that."

Holmes attracts because he "can be a cool logician, a figure of action, an ally of the police or their antagonist, an eccentric artist, a scientist, a spy," says Chris Redmond, author of "The Sherlock Holmes Handbook," and editor of the Sherlockian.net Web site. "Literary scholars find that Sherlock Holmes meets most of the criteria for a mythological hero or god," he adds. "What we would currently call a superhero."

And, Redmond says, "for some of us, the greatest appeal of Holmes is his era, the 1890s at the height of the empire, a period of middle-class comfort, scientific optimism and national pride. And as the stories present it, it was also a time when crime could expect to be punished and security restored in time for a cozy breakfast at Baker Street!"

Not that Holmes doesn't have his quirks - the cocaine usage, the prickliness, the mood swings, the ultimate disdain for humanity except as pieces of a puzzle that must be solved. Yet there is one human factor that continues to resonate: his relationship with Dr. Watson.

"The friendship of the two men is the single most appealing thing about the [Holmes] canon," Rice says, "and it's one of the things that has made it last - the portrayal of a genuine friendship."

The friendship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and the character of Holmes himself, have not always made a successful transition to the visual media.

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SHERLOCK HOLMES AT HIS BEST AND WORST

BY LEWIS BEALE

Special to Newsday

Wondering what some of the best and worst Holmeses are? Try these on for size:

THE BEST

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) features the most familiar cinema Holmes, Basil Rathbone, investigating a dreaded family curse. Also starring Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, whose portrayal of the character tends to be a bit dimmer than the literary Watson. The 1959 remake, with Peter Cushing as Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville, is also hard to beat.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) - Billy Wilder ("Some Like It Hot") directed this offbeat, melancholy look at the great detective, with Robert Stephens and Colin Blakeley a fine pairing as Holmes and Watson.

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976). Holmes (Nicol Williamson) meets Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin). Robert Duvall, with plummy British accent, plays Watson.

Murder by Decree (1979) - Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper murders. Christopher Plummer (Holmes) and James Mason (Watson) are top-notch as the dynamic duo.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes (more than 40 TV episodes and movies between 1984 and 1994) - Considered by many Holmesians to be the definitive Sherlock, Brett (who died in 1995) was the complete package - a terrific actor with a real feel for the character, in all his peculiarities.

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THE WORST

Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942) - Someone decided that Holmes had to join the war effort, so beginning with this film he was "updated" and fought for the Allies in several pictures that would have caused Conan Doyle to start spinning in his grave. Holmes without foggy Victorian streets? Not elementary at all, my dear Watson!

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1978) - Not that Holmes can't be made fun of, but this dreadful spoof, starring Peter Cook (as Holmes) and Dudley Moore (as both Watson and Holmes' mother!) is dreary from beginning to end. Let's hope Sacha Baron Cohen, who has been developing his own Holmes parody, can do a better job.

WHAT'S AFOOT IN THE NEW 'SHERLOCK HOLMES?'

BY LEWIS BEALE

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Special to Newsday

In "Sherlock Holmes," the detective (Robert Downey Jr.) and his loyal friend Watson (Jude Law) head out to stop a conspiracy that aims to destroy Britain. The heinous villain this time around is Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a cult leader who, as he is being led to the gallows, promises he will return from the grave and wreak his revenge.

Also involved in the mix is Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), a New Jersey opera singer who first appeared in the Arthur Conan Doyle story "A Scandal in Bohemia." She's the only female who has ever bested the great detective, and according to this film, the duo have had a tempestuous relationship ever since. And doing his best to be part of the action is Scotland Yard Inspector G. Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), who first pops up in "A Study in Scarlet," and then appears in several other Holmesian adventures.

Directed by Guy Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Rocknrolla"), this "Holmes" promises to be more muscular, action-packed and romantic than previous incarnations. Holmes fights bare knuckle style! Holmes fires weaponry! Holmes pays attention to women! Whether die-hard Baker Street fans will accept this 21st century version will be determined very soon.

TCM IS ON THE CASE

Those fabulous Baker Street boys, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, return to the screen in Guy Ritchie's new movie opening Christmas Day. TCM celebrates with a six-film salute to Arthur Conan Doyle's famous sleuth starting Friday at 8 p.m. Here's the lineup:

The 1939 version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (8 p.m.)

"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" (9:30 p.m.)

"The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (11 p.m.)

"Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour" (1:15 a.m.)

The 1959 remake of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (2:30 a.m.)

"A Study in Terror" (4 a.m.)