The extended Sherlock Holmes Universe, as we might call it, has grown so vast in the last century (as with other franchises that have universes) that it’s possible to call oneself a fan without ever having read the source material. Depending on one’s persuasion, this is either heresy or the inevitable outcome of so much mediation by Holmesian high priests, none of whom can resist writing Holmes fan fiction of their own. But Sherlockians agree: the true Holmes Canon (yes, it’s capitalized) consists of only 60 works — 56 short stories and four novels, excluding apocrypha. No more, no less. (And they’re in the public domain!)
The Canon safeguards Arthur Conan Doyle’s work against the extra-voluminous flood of pastichists, parodists, and imposters appearing on the scene since Holmes’ first appearance in 1892. (Doyle personally liked Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s Holmes parody, “The Adventure of the Two Collaborators,” so much he included it in his autobiography.) The Holmes Canon remains untouchable for its wit, ingenuity, and the true strangeness of its detective — a portrait of perhaps the most emotionally avoidant protagonist in English literature when we first meet him:
All emotions, and [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for drawing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results. Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his.
How to make such a cold fish compelling? With a host of quirks, an ingenious mind, a “Bohemian soul,” some unsavory qualities, and at least one or two human attachments, if you can call them that. Sherlock’s cold, logical exterior masks considerable passion, inspiring fan theories about an ancestral relationship to Star Trek’s Spock.
But of course, we see Holmes almost entirely through the eyes of his sidekick and amanuensis, James Watson, who has his biases. When Holmes stepped out of the stories and into radio and screen adaptations, he became his own man, so to speak — or a series of leading men: Basil Rathbone, John Gielgud, Ian McKellen, Michael Caine, Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and the late Christopher Lee, who played not one of Doyle’s characters, but four, beginning with his role as Sir Henry Baskerville, with Peter Cushing as Holmes, in a 1959 adaptation.
In 1962, Lee took on the role of Holmes himself in a German-Italian production, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace, an original story based on Doyle’s work. He played Holmes’ smarter but unmotivated older brother, Mycroft, in 1970, then played a much older Holmes twice more in the 90s, pausing along the way for the role of Arnaud, a character in another Doyle adaptation, The Leather Funnel, in 1973 and the narrator of a 1985 Holmes documentary, The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes. In an extraordinary career, Lee became an icon in the worlds of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and Sherlock Holmes, a genre all its own, into which he fit perfectly.
In the videos here, you can hear Lee read four of the last twelve Holmes stories Doyle wrote in the final decade of his life. These were collected in 1927 in The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. We begin, at the top, with the very last of the 56 canonical stories, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place.” Lee may never have played Dr. Watson, but we can imagine him bringing his familiar gravitas to that role, too, as he narrates in his deep mellifluous voice. Find links to 7 more stories from Doyle’s last collection, read by Lee, on Metafilter, and hear him narrate The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes, just below.