11/11/2014 07:36 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

Solving The Mystery Of Sherlock Holmes


The following excerpt, which explores the mystery of Sherlock Holmes's character and how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories came to stay permanently in the public domain, is an excerpt from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon:

So who is this Holmes fellow, anyway? The world’s most perfect observing and reasoning machine, yet his method seems to depend heavily on nicotine-fuelled flights of imagination. A bare-knuckle and martial-arts fighter, who also claims to be the laziest thing in shoe leather. A lethargic amateur actor with a drug problem, yet a man capable of extreme physical exertions. A solitary misanthrope -- who has two friends (doctor and housekeeper) so devoted they would lay down their lives for him.

A solver of mysteries, who is a mystery himself.

Holmes as an archetype -- the word means "original model" -- is of one of the defining images of the past 150 years, a variation on Jung’s “artist-scientist” figure. The world did not know what it lacked until Conan Doyle showed us -- but then, stand back, for when an archetype comes to life, he is, in the terminology of the new millennium, a meme.

The meme is a contagious artifact -- image, idea, phrase, behavior -- that spreads like a virus. And like any other virus, be it biological or computer-based, it grows, reproduces, mutates—and above all, affects its host. And as a virus holds a world of genetic information in its DNA, a viral meme can carry a lot of meaning on its narrow shoulders.
Variations on the theme of Holmes have been played ever since the man first saw print. Some have been whimsical, others deadly serious; some have even taught us something about ourselves. For Sherlock Holmes is both us, and a super-hero, armed not with greater-than-human powers, but with wits, experience, a small community of dependable friends, and the occasional singlestick or riding crop. Like the artist-scientist, Holmes takes a mass of cold, unrelated, and inert fact, shapes it between his narrow, nicotine-stained hands, and then electrifies it -- and us -- with a bolt of inspiration.

Come to think of it, perhaps we should envision him, not as an archetype, but as a golem, a mud figure brought to life by human need.

In any event, Sherlock Holmes shows no sign of flagging in this new era. A century and a quarter after the world was greeted by his gleeful cry at a laboratory discovery, men and women still find Holmes the ideal vessel to carry a variety of stories, aspirations, reflections.

The current volume finds another group of those restless minds, men and women who look for companionship on the road, and gleefully find themselves.... in the company of Sherlock Holmes.

This book took an amazing journey to end up in your hands. It began when Les was asked to assemble a panel on Sherlock Holmes (no surprise there) for Left Coast Crime, a conference held in 2010 in Los Angeles. He agreed, chose Laurie King for the panel, and then asked for Jan Burke, Lee Child, and Michael Connelly. “But those are the guests of honor!” he was told. He knew that, but he also knew that they were all fans of the Sherlock Holmes canon. Our panel was a great hit. Jan, Lee, and Michael all chimed with erudite commentary on topics Sherlockian (usually after a preface of, “Well, I don’t really know much about Sherlock Holmes...").

From this panel sprang the idea of a book. We put it together in 2011 -- A Study in Sherlock -- and were delighted at how many friends wanted to play “The Game,” creating stories inspired by the canon. Others said they’d love to but had other deadlines, and so the idea of a second volume was conceived before the first was published.

During the preparation of that first volume, the Conan Doyle Estate -- collateral relatives of Sir Arthur, who own the U.S. copyrights to the ten Sherlock Holmes stories published after 1922 -- asserted that we had to obtain their permission to use the characters of Holmes and Watson in new stories. We disagreed, but the publisher chose to simplify matters by paying for permission.

Meanwhile, the world of Sherlock Holmes got bigger. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" broke all box-office records for a film about Sherlock Holmes. (Les, a technical advisor, takes full credit for its success.) Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, set records in England and America for viewing audiences and brought a new generation of readers into the Sherlock Holmes fold. Almost simultaneously, Elementary, with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, gave its leads the distinction of having appeared on-screen as Holmes and Watson more than any other actors in history.

In 2012, as we readied this volume for publication, the Conan Doyle Estate notified the publisher that if we did not obtain a license for the use of the characters of Holmes and Watson, the Estate would block distribution of the book. At that, the long-simmering dispute came to a head.

“Leslie Klinger v. The Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd” was filed in federal courts, and the Free Sherlock movement was born, seeking definitive judgment that the characters of Holmes and Watson were no longer protected by U.S. copyright law. The argument was: since fifty of the original Doyle stories were in the public domain (that is, free of copyright protection), the remaining ten -- although retaining their copyright to original characters and situations -- did not redefine the central characters of the stories, and thus, Holmes, Watson, and the others were free to be used in new ways.

The District Court agreed, as did the Seventh Circuit court of appeals. We made history, and Sherlock Holmes is “free.” Hardly Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, although the case felt like that at times.

Excerpted from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. Copyright © 2014 by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger. Reprinted by arrangement with Pegasus Books. All rights reserved.