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Thursday, 26 April 2018

Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes edited by Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranfield

This review also appears on the International Crime Fiction Association blog.

Intellect describes its series Fan Phenomena as being ‘prompted by a growing appetite for books that tap into the fascination we have with what constitutes an iconic or cultish phenomenon’. The series started in 2013 and has continued steadily, with topics including Star Trek (2013), The Lord of the Rings (2015), and Game of Thrones (2017), among others. Sherlock Holmes, who needs no introduction, is such an iconic figure in fandom and popular culture that it is no wonder the character himself has inspired a volume under the Fan Phenomena banner.

In Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes, editors Tom Ue and Jonathan Cranfield bring together thirteen chapters, consisting of eight chapters and five ‘Fan Appreciation’ interviews. Since ‘the figure of Holmes has been constantly refreshed and renewed, adapted […] to new cultural moments’ (6), the editors’ stated aim is to ‘attest […] to the popularity of the characters and fictional world that [Arthur] Conan Doyle created’ (5). It is such a vast aim that no 153-page book could fully do it justice, but Ue and Cranfield have succeeded in providing a comprehensive and attractive introduction to some of the key themes in Holmes fandom.

The volume is beautifully laid out and illustrated. Intellect Books are designed to appeal to students and well-informed enthusiasts as well as scholars and researchers, so it is not surprising that Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes is visually appealing. The front and back inside covers are filled with Sidney Paget’s illustration of Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, tumbling down the Reichenbach Falls. The pages are well-spaced and easy to read, with a variety of images, and each contribution is prefaced with what some would call a Conanical quotation: a remark from Conan Doyle’s original texts concerning Holmes.

Particularly strong are the opening and closing essays. Tom Ue’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and Shakespeare’ (8-27) looks at ‘the numerous ways in which Shakespeare’s writing affected Conan Doyle in his creation and writing of Sherlock Holmes and his stories’, and Ue insists that ‘Conan Doyle’s reading of Shakespeare [lies] at the heart of his own writing’ (10). Both authors are authoritative voices in their respective historical contexts, but Ue points out a tradition of adaptation and allusion that positions the Holmes canon itself as a kind of fan fiction. Benjamin Poore, in closing the collection, offers a perspective on presentations of Moriarty on-screen in the twenty-first century (134-147).  From Moriarty’s creation in 1893, ‘as a narrative tool with which to kill of Holmes’, which Poore says ‘backfired spectacularly’ (135), the character and his relationship to Holmes have gripped the public imagination, with a significance both on and off the page that cannot be easily separated. As such, Poore argues, ‘Holmes and Moriarty’s activities suit the porous boundary-crossing tenor of the times, where the Internet has increased the ways in which we commingle reality and fiction’ (142).

While some of the interviews with authors veer into promotional, rather than informative, territory, it is fascinating to see the variety of approaches to often similar concepts: for example, two of the interviews are with co-authors of distinct ‘Young Sherlock Holmes’ graphic novels (80-89; 100-108). The final interview is with Robert Ryan, author of Dead Man’s Land, a 2013 novel set during the First World War and featuring Dr Watson (124-133). The novel is not a conventional Holmesian pastiche, and Ryan is open about not being ‘a Holmesian’, although he admits that ‘nobody who writes crime thrillers […] can escape the long arm of Baker Street’ (128). Ryan’s perspective offers points of contrast to the others, and nicely rounds the overall tone of the volume. The interviews intersperse the essays, two of which are written by authors – Jonathan Barnes (110-117) and Shane Peacock (118-123) – outlining the process of writing new Holmes adventures. This creates something of a slant towards authors-talking-about-their work. Some other essays are written by fans, and some by academics, which creates a welcome sense of variety. The different contributors’ styles may not rest in easy harmony, but the result is a volume with something to suit most tastes.

Jonathan Cranfield’s ‘Sherlock Holmes: Fan Culture and Fan Letters’ (66-79) is a fascinating study of ‘the writing of [real] fan letters to [the fictional] Sherlock Holmes – which has occurred continuously from the 1890s until the present day’, exploring how early letters ‘herald the coming multiverse of Sherlockian fan phenomena’ (67). Cranfield attests that ‘early Sherlock Holmes fan culture […] established a basic pattern for the ways in which later phenomena [such as online fan fiction] would function’ (75), which, as with Ue’s contribution, establishes Conanical links and presages to twenty-first century Sherlockiana. However, the delights of this chapter bring to mind the book’s one notable omission. While several contributors mention fan fiction, which is hugely important in the world of Sherlockiana, and a burgeoning field of study in its own right, no contributor has chosen to focus on it. A chapter on fan fiction would have made this already exciting volume stronger still.

Sherlock Holmes is as important a populist figure today as he was in the late nineteenth century. Fan Phenomena: Sherlock Holmes testifies to this significance, with real-life implications playing out in its contributors’ varied backgrounds. It is undoubtedly a useful resource as studies of fan fiction and of fan phenomena continue to gather momentum. Conan Doyle’s creation continues to provide fertile ground for individuals within and far beyond scholarship. As Holmes himself declares, in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, ‘What one man can create, another can discover.’ 

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