On the trail of the world's greatest consulting detective

'Discovering Sherlock Holmes' let's you get acquainted (or reacquainted) with the life and times of the famous fictional investigator and his creator.

Stanford University has a New Year's gift for you - and not just some virtual keepsake that disappears as soon as you move on to the next website, but a real, physical collection that can, if you so desire, be delivered to your mailbox and enjoyed in the relaxed solitude of your offline time. The Discovering Sherlock Holmes project wants to acquaint (or reacquaint) you with the life and times of world's greatest consulting detective, and it's making that introduction with the help of a few century-old stories - online and on paper.

A product of the Stanford Library's Special Collections, Discovering Sherlock Holmes is actually the fourth installment in an annual celebration of the great serial literary works of the 19th century. Beginning with Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations" in 2003, Stanford has been posting these historic examples of commercial literature in their original form - as they appeared, piece by piece, in the periodicals of the day. (What Dickens called weekly "teaspoons" of his novels.) Now, after following the inaugural project with "A Tale of Two Cities" in 2004 and "Hard Times" in 2005, the series is moving from Dickens to Arthur Conan Doyle - and will be launching the 2006 season with "A Scandal in Bohemia," followed by "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and "The Final Problem."

As with the Dickens tales, Discovering Sherlock Holmes offers a good deal more than simple reproductions of the original works. After a splash page introduction to the project itself, Stanford introduces visitors to The Time, of Conan Doyle's creation - with background on the Victorian era, and surveys of such period phenomena as the 'London Fog' (read, smog) and the city's thriving criminal element. The late 19th century rise of the popular magazine is also covered, with special attention given to The Strand - the publication that made Holmes one of fiction's most famous characters. Period drawings, photographs, and maps of London also provide a literary, historical, and cultural context for the stories, and all the elements come together in a way that not only helps modern readers put themselves in Holmes's shoes, but in those of his creator and fans as well.

The Author presents the childhood, career, and personal contradictions that combined to actually create the creator. A man of scientific training and architect of literature's most relentlessly logical personage, Conan Doyle was a zealous believer in séances and fairies, and a man who famously hated and eventually killed his most successful creation. (Conan Doyle only brought Holmes back, with great reluctance, after almost a decade of pleas - and threats - from grieving fans.)

The third main section of the site, Sherlock Holmes Adventures is, for the moment, blank, but beginning in early January - and using the previous Dickens installments as a guide - we can expect the first of twelve weekly installments of new material. (Either a short story or a segment of a larger story as it appeared in The Strand, complete with the original 'interpretations' of Holmes by illustrator Sidney Paget.) Again, judging by the Dickens precedent, each installment will also be accompanied by such additional resources as maps, glossaries, and bibliographical and historical contexts. (The archived Dickens works are still available through the Holmes site, in case you want to do a bit of catching up.)

But what about the aforementioned gift? Well, in order to relive the experience of the 19th century 'weekly installment' as fully as possible, visitors can subscribe to have printed facsimiles, scanned directly from the pages of The Strand, delivered to their door - no charge, no obligation, no salesman will call. (But be sure to subscribe before the January 10 deadline.) As the world - theoretically - moves toward e-books and a paperless society, such an option might seem like offering the hits of the 70s in their original 8-track format, but the public response in past years has exceeded even optimistic predictions. When Stanford first presented this opportunity for "Discovering Dickens" in 2003, they expected about 500 visitors to sign up for home delivery. As it turned out, more than 7000 people requested the 'dead tree' editions, and one hopes that the printing presses are well oiled and ready to go for the first Holmes instalment.

Of course, if you don't want to wait for the mail, or live outside the US, the stories will be posted at their weekly intervals onsite, and PDF files of the full Strand pages will also be available. And if you've noticed that the 2006 series ends with the story in which Conan Doyle kills off his greatest character, don't fret. For 2007, Stanford is planning a second Holmes series - beginning with his miraculous return from certain death.

Discovering Sherlock Holmes can be found at http://sherlockholmes.stanford.edu/.

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