Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes / Annotated by Leslie S. Klinger
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Tuesday, 11 July 2006
Classic texts often appear in annotated editions. These editions are often written by, and targeted at, scholars who study the text or related works. For most anyone else, they are mostly boring.

There are, however, exceptions. Perhaps the best-known one is Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice, a tour-de-force of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books. But while The Annotated Alice was fun, the three volumes of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes are a pure joyride.

It's called the new annotated Sherlock Holmes because there already was an earlier annotated edition, published in 1968 by William S. Baring-Gould and now considered a classic in its own right. But Baring-Gould's work suffers from a strange deficiency, in that the annotator assumes, for some reason, that Holmes and Watson are mere fictional characters. It also focuses mostly on the sources used by the author, and the question of dating the various stories (a nearly impossible task, as it turns out). Leslie S. Klinger, author of the new edition, is clearly much more realistic in realizing that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely the literary agent of Dr. Watson, the real author of the accounts of Holmes's adventures. Thus, for example, the stories are hard to date not because Doyle was a careless and incosistent author, but rather because Watson took measures to conceal information about clients.

This playful point of view is what makes these books so enjoyable. There are basically three kinds of annotation comments: first, explanation of difficult, obscure or outdated words. After all, most of us are no longer familiar with the terms used for different kinds of horse carriages, for example. Second, notes regarding the daily life of Londoners in the nineteenth century. When Holmes talks about “the last mail”, few of us realize there were as many as a dozen mail deliveries per day at the time. These notes shed much light on the stories and help explain things that would seem mundane to readers at the time of the original publication.

(From the book) It is, of course, a trifle, but there is nothing so important as trifles.

Sherlock Holmes, in The Man with the Twisted Lip

But it is the third kind of notes that makes this work so enjoyable. Here, Klinger brings us into the world of “Sherlockians”, fans of Sherlock Holmes that research and analyze the works under the assumption that everything written is in fact historical truth, except for details that Watson had to obscure in order to protect the privacy of the master detective's clientele. And while there are many controversies among Sherlockians, Klinger is fair enough to present a wide range of views rather than merely his own.

And so, we find about Holmes's unpublished relationships with his many clients of the fairer sex; the opportunities he had to make fortunes by betting on the right horse, after horse-owners spread out their problems to him; where his analytical power clearly failed him; where he contradicts himself, and where he lies to his clients; and so on. One question of great interest is what Holmes really did during the Great Hiatus --- the years between his faked death at the hands of Professor Moriarty (in The Adventure of the Final Problem, dated 1891), and his sudden return (in The Adventure of the Empty House, dated 1894). Did he really travel to Tibet, Persia, Mecca, Egypt and France, as he told Watson? Or perhaps it is Watson that lies, and Holmes never left London in the first place --- he remained under cover, tracking down members of Moriarty's gang. Other alternatives include a secret marriage (to Irene Adler, “the woman”), working as a secret agent for the British government, and being a patient of Sigmund Freud in Vienna, treating Holmes's cocaine addiction.

One cannot write on these three volumes without mentioning their beautiful layout. While hefty, they are easy to read, and decorated with the stories' original artwork as well as other images from the era, where relevant. Just as the scholarly yet tongue-in-cheek tone of the annotations only enhances the enjoyment from the stories themselves, so their layout allows for an easy read with little distraction. One word of advice, though: when reading it for the first time, skip the introduction and dive directly into the stories themselves. There will be plenty of time to read about historical background later on, after you truly enter the atmosphere of Baker Street.

The Complete Short Stories (two volumes)The Novels
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