In his sonnet "221B," Vincent Starrett describes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson as two men "who never lived and so can never die." Certainly the great sleuth and his chronicler are among the most vividly realized fictional characters of all time.
While Holmes and Watson may not have been actual persons, they are very much alive in the pages of classics like "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Hound of the Baskervilles." A trio of recent book going a long way to maintain their literary incarnations.
"The Devil's Due" (HarperCollins, $26.99) is the third in Bonnie MacBird's ongoing series of Sherlockian mysteries, following hard upon "Art in the Blood" and "Unquiet Spirits." In this latest, Holmes and Watson must discover why some of London's most notable philanthropists are being killed in macabre ways. A shipbuilding magnate named Anson is found drowned — in his bed. A fabric manufacturer named Benjamin hangs himself with a twisted strip from a bolt of cloth. A famous opera baritone, known for his immense lung power, succumbs to an exotic poison that prevents him from breathing.
Early on, Holmes realizes that the victims are being dispatched in alphabetical order and that they all belonged to an exclusive society called the Luminarians, founded by two brothers, the dandiacal James and Andrew Goodwin. Might membership in the Luminarians be the key to the mystery?
Mystery addicts may guess the secret behind the killings even before the story's climax. Still, MacBird's artistry will keep even those readers eagerly turning the pages just to see how she orchestrates the big reveal. "The Devil's Due" is one of the best Sherlock Holmes novels of recent memory, at least as entertaining as Anthony Horowitz's "The House of Silk." Hopefully, in her future books, MacBird will present more of Holmes' female Baker Street Irregular — the street-smart, half-Irish, half-Jewish cockney Hephzibah O'Malley. The teenage Heffie steals every scene she's in.
Back in 1974, Nicholas Meyer's "The Seven Per-Cent Solution" sent Holmes and Watson hurrying to Vienna for a consultation with Dr. Sigmund Freud. That book was tremendously successful and two sequels followed — "The West End Horror" in 1976 and "The Canary Trainer" in 1993. But after scripting the big-screen version of "The Seven Per-Cent Solution," Meyer largely turned his energies to writing and directing films, notably several in the "Star Trek" franchise, starting with 1982's "The Wrath of Khan."
Meyer finally returns with "The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols" (Minotaur, $25.99). Note that otherwise bland title's distinctly ominous last word: In the novel Holmes and Watson must discover the perpetrator of an infamous anti-Semitic screed, the notorious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Initially, readers will feel right at home with this Holmes. When the detective and Watson are dining at a fancy restaurant, Mycroft waddles over and, after quickly surveying the table, declares, "What a pity your waiter's wife has abandoned him and their two children in favor of a groom in the stables of the Life Guards." To which Sherlock immediately counters, "Household Cavalry," then adds, "And she only left after he joined the ranks of Italian anarchists."
Meyer introduces several real-life characters into the story — Russian translator Constance Garnett, chemist and Zionist Chaim Weizmann, writer Israel Zangwill (then famous for his books about London Jewish life but now best known for his locked-room classic "The Big Bow Mystery") and free-spirited Anna Strunsky Walling, one of the co-founders of the NAACP.
The search for the author of the "Protocols" takes Holmes, Watson and Walling on a railway journey into czarist Russia, the land of pogroms and secret police. Apart from some fine Sherlockian flourishes, though, the novel feels talky and perhaps unavoidably somber and portentous, its action slowed by infodumps about Zionism and prejudice, as well as saccharine scenes featuring Watson's wife.
While some purists don't care for Sherlockian pastiches, all readers will find much to enjoy in "The Daily Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Quotes" (University of Chicago Press, $14) selected from Conan Doyle's original stories by Levi Stahl and Stacey Shintani. Appropriately, the passage for a November entry describes a wild, tempestuous evening, when "the wind howled down Baker Street, and the rain beat fiercely against the windows." Could there be any better weather for curling up with an adventure of Sherlock Holmes?