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Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy: The Footprints of a Giant Mind

(Open Court Publishing; US: Oct 2011)

“I’m in love with Sherlock Holmes.”


This is the opening line of Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy: The Footprints of a Gigantic Mind, edited by Josef Steiff and part of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series that includes such titles as Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant and The Red Socks and Philosophy: Green Monster Meditations.


Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy includes 33 chapters (many of which are quite short) epitomizing, mimicking, analyzing, and adoring all that is Sherlock Holmes. Take the opening line as a call to arms or a warning: these writers are serious about Sherlock Holmes. 


However, most of the time the authors don’t appear to take themselves too seriously. Certainly some articles include more than a passing reference to Jacques Derrida, René Descartes, Frederick Jameson, Baruck Spinoza and the like, but with section headings such as “A Dog Reflects the Family Life” and chapter titles that include “Watson’s a Liar!” and “Why Sherlock Holmes Is My Favorite Drug Dealer” it’s easy to tell that the “game is still afoot” and that it’s time to have a little fun.


With articles that debate and analyze everything from who is a better friend (Watson or Holmes), talking detective dogs on Japanese television, why Holmes uses drugs, and Oscar Wilde’s influence on Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s definitely an eclectic mix of essays. In fact, an introduction to orientate might have been helpful.


And, of course, with so many different topics, some chapters will appeal to audiences more than others. My favs include the whimsical “The Adventure of the Candle and the Dumbbell” by Fiona Tomkinson. Primarily told as a story, it examines the question of objects versus things: “Is a thing natural and an object manufactured? Is thing a popular term and object a scientific one? Is it a question of value? Is a beryl coronet or a golden pince-nez an object, but a missing three-quarter merely a thing?”


Another top pick is “The Mystery of the Horrible Hound” by Rafe McGregor, who asks the question “How do I convince you that The Hound [of the Baskervilles] isn’t a mystery?” It is, according to McGregor, horror.


It seems fitting that a book dedicated to Sherlock Holmes should focus on questions, or perhaps a better way of looking at it: many chapters solve their own mini-mysteries.


Other chapters examine adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes’s character. “How Marriage Changes Sherlock Holmes” by Amy Kind investigates Holmes’s relationship with Mary Russell in Laurie R. King’s books and concludes: “Marriage to Mary Russell does indeed change Sherlock Holmes, but just as he does not sacrifice his identity to their pairing, neither does she sacrifice hers. And it’s for precisely this reason that their partnership, however surprising and unconventional it may be, is a successful one. It’s even—dare I say?—elementary.” 


“Out of House and Holmes” by Julia Round draws comparisons between television character Dr. Gregory House and Sherlock Holmes and notes: “Both characters are eccentric and arrogant personalities, both are drug addicts… Both solve their cases through inductive reasoning and logical thought—dismissing all the incorrect solutions until only the correct one remains”.


Sherlock Holmes isn’t restricted to human form anymore, either, as Jonathan Clements’s chapter “The Curious Case of the Dog in Prime Time” indicates. He discusses the Japanese series Meitantei Holmes (in English it’s referred to as Sherlock Hound), an animated children’s series where all the characters—Holmes, Watson, Moriarty—are talking dogs.
 
Sherlock Holmes is, apparently, almost everywhere today, but more modern versions are not always completely successful. Tom Dowd opens his chapter “The Game Has Virtually Stumbled” with the lines “I can’t be Sherlock Holmes. And I’m somewhat annoyed by that.” This is true, Dowd notes, even in the virtual world: “I can’t ever satisfactorily play Sherlock Holmes because my brain doesn’t work like his does, and video games provide no mechanisms to assist me”.


Whether the adaptations work or not, Sherlock Holmes seems to be thriving in the 21st century, and some of the most successful chapters in Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy address why the world is still obsessed with Sherlock Holmes and why the characters of Sherlock Holmes (and even Dr. Watson) still work for today’s audiences.


Perhaps no chapter does this better than Rachel Michaels’ s “Why Sherlock Is Like a Good Hip-Hop Song”. Using the BBC television series Sherlock as her primary focus, she notes that “One hundred and twenty years after the first stories were published, we still need Holmes’s unique abilities. Though the times have changed, the essential characters of Holmes and Watson have not.” The characters stay the same—perhaps amped up a little—but now, as Michaels relates, their stories are told in comics, in televisions shows, in linear and nonlinear fashions. These characters moved from the Victorian periodical to the e-reader and video games. 


Who knows how the next generation of Sherlockians will interact with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but “One thing’s for sure, though—no matter what the era, Sherlock Holmes can solve the most improbable cases. His unerring powers of observation and deduction illustrate an apparently timeless faith in the applicability of empirical reason. And that, my dear, is elementary.”

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