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Sherlock Holmes in Context


Edited by Sam Naidu


Crime Files Series

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017

Hardcover. x+195 p. ISBN 978-1137555946. £67


Reviewed by Malcah Effron


Comparative Media Studies/Writing

Massachusetts Institute of Technology





As one of the newest additions to Palgrave Crime Files’ ventures into publishing edited collections, Sam Naidu’s Sherlock Holmes in Context brings together some new assessments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous character’s legacy. Though the title might seem to indicate studies that situate the famous consulting detective within the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, an interest in contextualizing the BBC series Sherlock within the early twenty-first century dominates the collection. The half the chapters—and all of the first four—focus on Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s recontextualization of Doyle’s canon for new audiences. This does not describe all the pieces in the collection, however, and Sherlock Holmes’s legacy in popular culture serves as the collection’s center of gravity around which all the chapters circle. It is therefore a practical collection for anyone studying the cultural (after)life of Sherlock Holmes and its relation to Conan Doyle’s works.

The chapters on the BBC’s Sherlock include the first four and the concluding one, and these chapters examine how the shift in contexts—historical, medial, cultural—affects perceptions of different cultural phenomena. These chapters take a variety of approaches, but most attend to the television adaptation as an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes canon; that is, in relation to Conan Doyle’s stories. For instance, Benedick Turner’s chapter, “Clients Who Disappear and Colleagues Who Cannot Compete : Female Characters in the BBC’s Sherlock” compares female clients in the Conan Doyle and Moffat and Gatiss treatments of Sherlock Holmes to argue that female clients play a much smaller role in the BBC series, particularly in their involvement in the investigations themselves [40]. Charlotte Beyer’s “‘I, Too, Mourn the Loss’: Mrs. Hudson and the Absence of Sherlock Holmes” explores gender and aging by reading adaptations of Mrs. Hudson, noting a power imbalance highlighted by the emergence of Mrs. Hudson’s presence only through Sherlock Holmes’s absence [78]. Moving away from questions of gender, Benjamin Poole’s “The Trickster, Remixed : Sherlock Holmes as Master of Disguise” explores how disguise takes on different implications in twenty-first century televisual “remixes” [84] compared to attitudes in the nineteenth-century canon, and Emily Garside’s “Modernizing Holmes : Location and Bringing Sherlock into the Twenty-First Century” discusses how Sherlock uses physical locations to create connections to the canon. Unfortunately, Ann McClellan’s theoretical look at Sherlock as a test case for Barthesian theories, “‘All that Matters is the Work’ : Text and Adaptation in Sherlock,” does not rise to the level of these other chapters, especially as it relies heavily on blurry screenshot images to make its case. Otherwise, the BBC Sherlock portion of the collection provides insightful arguments based on contextualizing the twenty-first century adaptation in relation to the nineteenth-century canon.

Of the remaining chapters, three continue to consider Sherlock Holmes out of his original context, and recontextualized in (mostly) anachronistic periods. Lynn Duffy presents a sociological study of active appropriations of Holmes in “Holmes and his Boswell in Cosplay and Roleplay,” focusing on the “as if real” [102] nature of such activities raises questions  about lines between fiction and reality. A text-based study of similar themes, Martin Wagner’s “Sherlock Holmes and the Fiction of Agency” addresses the film They Might Be Giants, about a character who imagines himself to be Sherlock Holmes, and this exploration leads to more questions about the line between reality and fictionality, particularly in relation to agency [143]. Sam Naidu’s chapter, “A ‘Horrific Breakdown of Reason’ : Holmes and the Postcolonial Anti-Detective Novel, Lost Ground” also recontextualizes Holmes to an anachronistic period, but it intentionally recontextualizes the detective geographically, as well. Naidu discusses the appropriation of elements of Conan Doyle texts into South African postcolonial crime fiction, relying on the difference in contexts to argue not only for a different sense of reality but also for a different investigative hermeneutics when moving the colonial-era Holmesian detective into a postcolonial context [115-116].

Only two chapters address Sherlock Holmes in his contemporary period. In “The Savage Subtext of The Hound of the Baskervilles,” David Grylls argues that Conan Doyle’s use of the figure of the savage is in keeping with his nineteenth-century contemporaries, and the savage motif undermines the dominance of ratiocination that might prejudice scholars against The Hound’s designation as a gothic masterpiece of the fin de nineteenth siècle [162]. Rather than comparing Conan Doyle to his own contemporaries, Douglas Kerr’s “Holmes into Challenger : The Dark Investigator” compares Conan Doyle to himself, relating the Holmes series to Conan Doyle’s Prof. George Edward Challenger series and highlighting the author’s reaction to the “Victorian knowledge revolution” as reflected in both series [168]. While perhaps the least integrated thematically with the rest of the collection, these texts most carefully adhere to the idea of studying Sherlock Holmes in Context.

Taken together, this collection is best for scholars interested in comparing Sherlock Holmes adaptations in their contexts to Sherlock Holmes in his canonical appearances. It is particularly strong for those studying the BBC’s Sherlock. However, readers will get much more enjoyment from the collection if they do not expect a focus on the nineteenth-century context of the master detective and instead look for an emphasis on his recontextualization in later periods.


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