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Book excerpt: 'The Great Detective' by Zach Dundas

"The Great Detective" by Zach Dundas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2015) Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


I climbed a narrow staircase in an old house in London, trying to count the steps. Eleven, twelve, thirteen -- but I was amid a large and constricted crowd, and its jostling interrupted my humble attempt at observation. We started and stopped as we climbed toward our shared destination, a small and dimly lit room furnished in a style out of time.

This chamber's walls bore florid, red-flocked paper, punctuated by shelves overflowing with dusty and battered books. A pair of fusty old chairs flanked the hearth. And everywhere, everywhere, clutter in its most elaborate form: old chemical instruments, exotic mementos, a violin, a curved pipe of intimidating size, a funny hat with brims on either side, a Persian slipper. Why just one Persian slipper?

I navigated a gigantic children's science museum, a place of glaring light and thousands of very young, very loud voices, in my adopted city, Portland, Oregon. The noise faded as I made my way into a series of vast half-darkened rooms. At last I entered a much smaller space -- again, lined with ancient tomes and strange apparatuses, once more centered on a fire's hearth and mantel and two empty old armchairs, obviously placed for the cozy convenience of two intimates. Above the fire, a jackknife -- a jackknife? -- impaled a pile of disheveled papers to the mantelpiece.

In a far corner stood a life-size bust rendered (or so it appeared) in pale wax, depicting a tall man of aquiline features and commanding presence, his high forehead punctured by what looked -- with just a little imagination -- like a bullet wound.

On another day, I ducked out of the rainy streets of a neighborhood not far from my place of employment in Portland's city center, a sleepy pocket of old Masonic halls, dowager hotels, throwback cocktail lounges, and brick apartment blocks, almost all built before the Great War. I entered an empty theater. The stage had a familiar look to it. Flocked wallpaper. Fireplace. Jackknife. Persian slipper. Violin.

I climbed the stage and crossed an imaginary line into 221B Baker Street, Marylebone, London, the home of Sherlock Holmes, the world's only consulting detective, and John H. Watson, his companion and chronicler. This theatrical set contained an agglomeration of Victorian, pseudo-Victorian, exotic, and just eccentric ephemera, piled and nailed up everywhere to achieve the effect of the legendary bachelors' lair first depicted in the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1880s. A collection of masks and Japanese prints jumbled up against artfully precarious piles of old books and an incongruous stuffed armadillo. A sword stuck randomly from an ornate vase; an abacus perched on the mantelpiece. Seashells, skulls, and statuettes anchored piles of old newspapers, some real, some -- I would learn from talking to the company's set designer -- created on a large-format printer.

A curious sensation, standing in a slightly ersatz reconstruction of a place that never existed. The real nonreal place where I stood was just the latest in an endless series of reconstructions of the 221B sitting room, the starting point for most of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective adventures. In his stories, Holmes and Watson sit by that fireplace, awaiting the clients who come to tell them their peculiar and often deadly problems. Now, well over a century after the world's most famous tales of crime and deduction first appeared in print, a certain compulsion has developed around that room. Versions of 221B Baker Street crop up everywhere, all around the world. The creators often claim that their particular reconstruction is the most "authentic" or "accurate" -- though compared to what, they never say. Not long before I climbed on that stage in Portland, a writer for Smithsonian magazine inventoried the oddity of this imaginary flat that real-life people keep building and rebuilding. He counted not one but two Baker Street sitting rooms in Switzerland, one of which boasts windows custom made in England and shipped over. The University of Minnesota created a 221B in Minneapolis after its library accumulated a large Sherlockian archive. Or, more particularly, UM reassembled the room, originally constructed in a collector's private residence and donated and transported after his death -- in other words, a reconstruction of a reconstruction. The writer also noted the "existence" of a virtual reconstruction of the Baker Street set created for the BBC television series Sherlock, made by a fan within the participatory video game Minecraft. And I knew of others down the years: the now-defunct Sherlock Holmes rooftop bar atop a Holiday Inn in San Francisco, for instance, and the member of a group known as the Baker Street Babes who emulated the BBC's Baker Street by dressing up her front door as "221B." And -- as I would see myself -- a commercial re-creation of Sherlock's home operates in the real Baker Street, in the real London (though in a completely wrong location), and an exhibit centered on a 221B would begin traveling the world's science museums in the improbable year of 2013, almost 130 years after Conan Doyle first portrayed that snug chamber.

The lair of Sherlock Holmes might be a unique phenomenon: the world's only viral room.

As I discreetly fondled the knife that impaled a stack of random papers on the Portland stage set, it seemed that I was not standing in a place so much as briefly inhabiting a revenant corner of Arthur Conan Doyle's mind -- a fragment of a long-dead man's imagination that somehow detached itself from his physical brain. Why? I wondered. What combination of forces impelled so many people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to rebuild, often to obsessive detail, the headquarters of a Victorian detective who never existed? Why did so many people -- people with jobs and families and the usual range of mundane concerns -- feel called to the 221B hearthside? How had Arthur Conan Doyle created an illusory world so potent that it replicated itself in minds, and even actual spaces, all over the planet?

Deep waters. The strange case of 221B, that self-twinning room, seemed to hint at a much bigger mystery around Baker Street's central figure. Human beings tell lots of stories, with many characters. Why have Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and the mysteries Conan Doyle challenged them to solve not only endured, but thrived?

These questions demanded investigation. Considering my immediate surroundings, that only made sense. This particular version of Baker Street, cobbled together from whatever evocative (or just odd) stuff a Portland set designer could find, achieved the desired illusion: that Sherlock Holmes himself could dash through the door at any moment, hot on the trail of some new and abstruse mystery plucked from the fogbound, gaslit streets of an imagined Victorian London. There's always a new problem to solve at 221B Baker Street. That room, above all, is a place where adventures begin.

Excerpted from "The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes" by Zach Dundas. Copyright © 2015 by Zach Dundas. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


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