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Sherlock Holmes' appeal is elementary, even after more than a century

British actor Ian McKellen on the first day

British actor Ian McKellen on the first day of filming for "Mr. Homes", in which he portrays a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes, London. Credit: AP / Agatha A Nitecka

One hundred and twenty-eight years after he first appeared on the printed page, Sherlock Holmes is hotter than ever. And "Mr. Holmes," a movie opening July 17, which stars Ian McKellen as the aging detective battling dementia and the sad reminders of a case that ended his career, is only one example of contemporary Holmes-mania:

* "Sherlock," the successful PBS series starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the sleuth and Martin Freeman as John Watson, has been renewed for a fourth season.

* "Elementary," the CBS show featuring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, will also return for a fourth outing.

* A third Sherlock Holmes feature film, with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead and Jude Law as his trusty sidekick, is currently in development.

* There's even "Sherlock: Interactive Adventure," an app (available from unreal- based on the 1891 Holmes story "The Adventures of the Redheaded League."

"Holmes is the prototypical detective, the one on which all others are based," says "Elementary" executive producer Rob Doherty, explaining this current fascination with the character. "[Arthur] Conan Doyle just got it so right with Holmes. The other reason he exists in the popular culture as he does, is he resides in the public domain. Many people have been able to lay their hands on him and tell their own stories."

"We like watching people who are smarter than everyone else," adds "Mr. Holmes" director Bill Condon. "And that Asperger's quality, which Benedict Cumberbatch does so well, he cuts to the truth of everything, and doesn't care about social niceties. I think we'd all like to be like that."

Yet Holmes seems to be particularly hot right now, as ubiquitous as a major pop star -- which, in a sense, he is. "I thought he was hot a few years ago, when the Downey films and Cumberbatch series came out, and now this is the beginning of the next wave," says Condon. "Because he's so mildly sociopathic, that makes him feel modern. There are all these facets you can reveal about him. There are a lot of re-thinkings of him. It comes out of being so anti-social; he can thrive and be misanthropic at the same time."

Doyle's legendary creation was, in fact, a huge hit from the beginning. So big that when Doyle tried to kill him off in the 1893 story "The Adventure of the Final Problem," the negative response was so huge -- 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions to the magazine the story appeared in -- he was forced to bring Holmes back eight years later in the novel "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

This appeal stems from the fact that "Holmes' reasoning may, in Watson's view, be 'close and intense,' but he's human at heart," says Tom Ue, a professor at University College, London who has written extensively about Holmes. "Holmes recognizes that reason alone is insufficient to govern all the forces of the universe."

And the idea that Holmes can live in the contemporary world is really nothing new. The Holmes films of the 1930s and '40s, starring Basil Rathbone as the pipe-smoking sleuth, featured him fighting Nazis in "Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon" and "Sherlock Holmes in Washington." Condon's film places Holmes in the post-World War II era, and actually has him traveling to Hiroshima just two short years after the A-bomb was dropped.

Sherlock Holmes, in his various forms

Sherlock Holmes first appeared on film in a 1900 short titled "Sherlock Holmes Baffled." Since then, the character has popped up in more than 200 movies, and been portrayed by 70 actors. He is arguably the most filmed literary character ever. Here are a few of the more offbeat works.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) From the great director Billy Wilder comes this tale of Holmes (Robert Stephens) being seduced by a Russian ballerina, then heading to Loch Ness to search for a missing husband.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) The great detective is only a minor character in this Gene Wilder spoof, in which Sigerson Holmes (Wilder) tries to solve a case aided by a Scotland Yard detective (Marty Feldman) and an alluring actress (Madeline Kahn).

The Seven Percent Solution (1976) Worried about his buddy's cocaine addiction, Watson (Robert Duvall) lures Holmes (Nicol Williamson) to see a doctor, the one and only Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin).

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) Barry Levinson directed this film, in which a teenage Holmes (Nicholas Rowe) meets his future sidekick, John Watson (Alan Cox).

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (2013) Believe it -- a Russian miniseries based on classic tales like "The Hound of the Baskervilles. Subtitled in English, and available from

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