A four-pipe poseur

Alfred Hickling on Leslie S Klinger's definitive New Annotated Sherlock Holmes

The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes
edited by Leslie S Klinger 1,878pp, Norton, 35

There's a strong body of evidence to suggest that Sherlock Holmes was a Muslim. Perhaps you find that hard to believe? In that case maybe he was Jewish, or Catholic, or possibly a Druid. He was also, according to no less an authority than Franklin D Roosevelt, an American; though others have claimed the great detective as Russian, Canadian or French. And there's a school of thought that maintains Holmes was actually a woman.

Ever since Holmes made his debut in Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet in 1887, there has been no shortage of bizarre theories to explain the perplexing inconsistencies of the detective's career. Did he tumble to his death at the Reichenbach Falls? Where was he educated? Did he know Freud? And just how many wives had Dr Watson?

These are questions that have tickled the imaginations of Holmes addicts since approximately 1911, when the the first piece of Sherlockian scholarship was published by Father Ronald Knox, who proposed to apply the detective's own methods of deduction to the narrative. This entailed scrutinising every aspect of the tales for hidden information, following Holmes's advice to Watson that one should "never trust to general impressions, but concentrate upon the details".

A small army of narrative sleuths has been sifting through the canon ever since, on the basis that there is nothing scholars love more than a giant, contradictory codex in which nothing adds up. The first notable attempt to present an overall digest of Sherlockian suppositions came with the publication of William S Baring-Gould's monumental Annotated Sherlock Holmes in 1967, which is still considered to be the standard work of reference. A more recent milestone was reached with the 1993 publication of the Oxford Sherlock Holmes, the most authoritative modern edition of the texts, though its editor, Owen Dudley Edwards, insists on regarding the stories as fictions created by Conan Doyle, a position that makes him, in the eyes of certain Sherlockians, a bit of a killjoy.

Leslie S Klinger's enormous New Annotated Sherlock Holmes now arrives to remedy that position. It is a handsome, large-format reprint of the 56 short stories as they first appeared in the Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1927, complete with Sidney Paget's original illustrations, as well as a mock-academic treasure trove, filled with copious notes giving due space and consideration to every theory or deduction dreamed up by Sherlockian obsessives to date.

Klinger's two whopping tomes run to almost 2,000 pages in length, weigh in at a hefty 10lb, and come replete with facts aimed at the reader for whom no nugget of Sherlockian minutiae can be minute enough. Klinger's editorial powers cover Holmes's obsessions, his addictions and even his card index system. When Watson is called upon to retrieve Irene Adler's details in A Scandal in Bohemia, he finds her name "sandwiched between a Hebrew rabbi and a staff commander who had written a monograph upon the deep sea fishes". Klinger instantly intervenes to draw attention to a contemporary Danish admiral named Adeler and posits three possible identities for the rabbi.

Of course no reputable editor relies on his theories and researches alone, and Klinger makes ample space to summarise the contributions of others. We are alerted to the academic trainspotting of Roger T Clapp, whose study of Victorian railway timetables leads him to conclude there is only one correct connection given in the entire canon. There are three pages of tables dedicated to the zoological specialists who have endeavoured to identify a single snake that displays all the characteristics assumed by the serpent in The Speckled Band. And for those who suspect such an avid bunch of pin-counters to be a joyless lot, AG Cooper claims in his paper, "Holmesian Humour", to have counted 292 examples of the master's laughter.

The weirdest theories revolve around what really happened at the Reichenbach Falls; no Sherlockian scholar worth their salt accepts the explanation that Conan Doyle was simply sick of devising plots for the detective by 1891, and so contrived to have him tumble to his death locked in combat with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

When Holmes miraculously reappeared in the pages of the Strand after a three-year absence, he explained the hiatus as a necessary period of lying low to avoid reprisals from Moriarty's gang; and claimed to have spent the time travelling through Tibet disguised as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson. Most Sherlock scholars will have none of this, however. T Frederick Foss posits that Holmes was actually on secret secondment to the British government, collecting information on Russian intrigues in India. Harry Halen thinks he underwent a "tantric materialisation ritual" while in Tibet, and travelled to Russia in the guise of a tobacco merchant at the invitation of Anton Chekhov. And in "Sherlock Holmes: A Spectra?" Robert Keller suggests that Holmes did indeed meet his death at the falls, but came back for subsequent adventures as "the world's first consulting ghost".

Perhaps the most persuasive explanation for Holmes's disappearance is put forward in Nicholas Meyer's novel, The Seven Per-Cent Solution, in which Holmes travels to Vienna to be treated for his cocaine addiction by Sigmund Freud. This intriguing idea holds water less because of the conclusion Meyer reaches - that Holmes was traumatised by the discovery that his mother had committed adultery with Professor Moriarty - than the fact that the methods of the father of psychoanalysis and the father of modern detective fiction are so closely allied.

Consider the evidence: both men were concerned with developing systematic observation into a science, believing that mundane appearances concealed clues which the trained eye could reveal. When Watson first arrives in Baker Street, he discovers an article, penned by Holmes, in which "the writer claimed by a momentary expression, a twitch of a muscle or a glance of an eye, to fathom a man's innermost thoughts". If Holmes really did end up on Dr Freud's couch during the years 1891-93, it's intriguing to speculate who learned most from the experience.

As a single reference work designed to bring Baring-Gould's original annotated edition up to date, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes seems unlikely to be superseded for some time. There is no more comprehensive repository of arcane Sherlockiana to be found in one place. Yet the curious situation remains that the more information one stores up about the detective, the less one actually seems to know. No amount of erudite commentary can alter the fact that Holmes remains an unfathomable enigma, as much a product of the information Conan Doyle withheld as the tenuous clues to his character he actually put down.

Sherlock Holmes has been described as one of the three most recognisable western icons alongside Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse. Yet he remains a perplexingly bloodless figure: "an isolated phenomenon, a brain without a heart, as deficient in human sympathy as he was preeminent in intelligence", as Watson puts it in The Greek Interpreter . It is this impenetrable coldness that eventually led to Conan Doyle becoming disaffected with his creation: "If I have sometimes been inclined to weary of him it is because his character admits no light and shade. He is a calculating machine, and anything you add to that simply weakens the effect."