Sleuthing Out Sherlock Holmes's Curious Past

IN December 1893, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his latest Sherlock Holmes story, ``The Final Problem,'' in which he revealed that the great detective had perished in a fall over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland while struggling with his archnemesis, Prof. James Moriarty in May 1891.

Ten years later, besieged by fans who demanded more stories, Sir Arthur published ``The Adventure of the Empty House,'' in which Holmes's friend and chronicler, Dr. John H. Watson, explained that Holmes had astonishingly reappeared in London in 1894, having wandered around Tibet, the Middle East, and France in the interim disguised as the Norwegian explorer Sigerson.

Thus began the ``Great Hiatus'' debate among Sherlockian scholars. Enthusiasts have pored over the Holmes ``canon,'' looking for clues as to what Holmes was up to during that period. In ``The Annotated Sherlock Holmes'' (1967), William S. Baring-Gould noted several schools of thought: a school of doubters that finds Holmes's story full of holes; a Fundamentalist school that takes Holmes's explanation at face value; and a Sensationalist school that believes Holmes and Moriarty both survived at Reichenbach, or that neither survived, or that only Moriarty survived.

Into this controversy stepped Nicholas Meyer in 1974 with ``The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,'' which purported to be a neglected 1939 Watson manuscript revealing the true story of the Holmes-Moriarty affair. According to the account, Moriarty was actually Holmes's old math teacher; he was being persecuted by Holmes, who was suffering cocaine-induced delusions. Watson, Moriarty, and Holmes's brother, Mycroft, entice Holmes to Vienna, where he is cured by Sigmund Freud, who has launched his career as the father of psychoanalysis. After this, Holmes takes off on a recuperative leave of absence, while Watson returns to London to perpetrate the Reichenbach fiction.

Meyer returned in 1975 with another purported Watson memoir, ``The West End Horror,'' which had Holmes investigating a murder in London's theater district while rubbing elbows with George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.

After taking his own hiatus, during which he wrote several successful screenplays, Meyer has returned with a new Watson memoir, ``The Canary Trainer,'' which he claims was found in the archives of Yale University's Beinecke Library. Here Holmes is supposed to reveal to Watson at least one episode of his life and work during the Great Hiatus.

It is September 1891. After treatment in Vienna and a side trip to Milan, Holmes/Sigerson has made his way to Paris and landed a job as a violinist for the Paris Opera. It doesn't take him long to learn about the ``ghost'' who appears to haunt the place, to the point of being on the payroll and dictating to management which diva will sing on a given night.

If this sounds familiar to many readers, it should: Holmes has stumbled upon the ``Phantom of the Opera,'' who is manipulating the innocent and naive prima donna Christine Daae. Gaston Leroux, author of the novel about the phantom, appears as the exacting conductor of the opera orchestra. It is not long before contralto Irene Adler shows up to add another ghost to Holmes's life: She is the woman who outsmarted him in ``A Scandal in Bohemia.'' After the ghost kills one of Christine's suitors and drops the opera chandelier onto the audience, killing and injuring dozens of spectators, Holmes is caught up trying to rescue Christine and capture the ghost.

Holmes enthusiasts will again find a story that is true to their hero while exploring the implications of some of the various theories about his life. Readers who just enjoy a good mystery thriller will appreciate the terse narrative and fast-moving action.

A very different approach is found in ``Sherlock in Love,'' by Sena Jeter Naslund. Reportedly inspired by Meyer's ``The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,'' this claims to be a manuscript by Watson written in 1922 after Holmes's death. Setting out to write a biography of his friend, Watson suddenly receives threatening notes and is stalked by mysterious figures. The novel consists of several adventures revolving around a Norwegian violinist named (surprise!) Sigerson and the identity of Holmes's one true love.

Most of the text involves an allegedly forgotten Holmes-Watson adventure in which the duo attempts to come to the aid of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, whose uncle and courtesans are plotting to have him declared insane. Naslund presents an interesting and readable tale, but this document does not have the feel of a genuine Holmes piece. But the theories it offers regarding Sigerson and Irene Adler are intriguing, if not provocative.

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