It may be elementary to note that fascination with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes thrives today, 128 years after the Great Detective’s first case was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. It doesn’t take a sleuth of Holmes’ order to deduce that this fascination flourished throughout ensuing decades. But it does take a true scholar of the genre, and bibliophile to boot, to present thorough evidence of this, as Otto Penzler does in his hefty, 789-page compendium, “The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories.”
Penzler brings together 82 parodies and pastiches by writers from Doyle’s day (including Doyle) to the present in a book that bills itself as “The Biggest Collection of Sherlock Holmes Stories Ever Assembled.” And that impressive size is far from everything, as Penzler ably shows in his generous introduction and in substantial headnotes for each story. The latter put each writer in context of their times and literary output and will likely inspire aficionados and newbies alike to search out work by famed and lesser-known writers showcased here.
The headnote for Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie’s “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators” exemplifies Penzler’s penchant for packing in curiosities and editorial asides. Here Penzler informs readers that Barrie wrote the story for Doyle on the flyleaves of a book after the two collaborated on an operetta that bombed in theaters. Penzler calls Doyle’s notion that this was the best Holmes parody ever penned “a generous assessment.” He even sets up a Barrie joke — which modern readers would surely otherwise miss — well enough to draw a belly laugh.
A veteran editor of anthologies, Penzler knows selection and organization can make or break a big collection. He chooses work by the famous (P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen King, A.A. Milne) and the forgotten (Roy L. McCardell) or unknown (Anonymous) and has the chutzpah to include, for “historical significance,” some poorly written but “mercifully short” parodies. Overall, Penzler’s picks, which range from short-short to lengthy, are marvelously varied in their “take” on Holmes and Watson, with many earnestly re-creating Holmes’ world and others playing loose with it to plunge headlong into farce.
It is a tall order to organize work that varies in its approach to the Great Detective, spans many decades and includes work by writers of horror, science fiction, westerns, drama, humor, nonfiction and even children’s literature. Admitting that his organizing scheme has “questionable validity” because stories inevitably cross categories, Penzler helpfully explains his grouping of stories by period, familiarity and tone.
Die-hard Holmes fans will recognize more allusions to Doyle’s original writing, but this compendium will entertain new readers, too. The quantity and variety of selections, enhanced with context and curiosities, make this an absolute must-have volume for avid Holmes fans and for public and academic libraries.
Rosemary Herbert is editor in chief of “The Oxford Companion to Crime & Mystery Writing” and co-editor of “A New Omnibus of Crime” and “The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories.”