Playwright of The Game’s Afoot
Photo by Leslie Cashen

Ken Ludwig

Writers have been “taking the mickey” out of Sherlock Holmes right since the initial appearance in print of the world’s first consulting detective in 1887.

And who can blame them? After all, here’s a character who wears a deer-stalker and an Inverness cape even on city streets, who keeps his pipe tobacco in a Persian slipper and his cigars in a coal scuttle. And does his target practice indoors with live ammunition. The send-ups and spin-offs can be even more arcane when the central character either thinks he is Holmes — like George C. Scott in They Might Be Giants — or has become indelibly associated with Holmes, such as the American actor William Gillette who trod the boards as Holmes for more than three decades, giving more than 1,300 performances until age 90.

The play Sherlock Holmes, which he wrote, made him both famous and wealthy. Gillette established a lasting image of Holmes – smoking a curved pipe so he could speak his lines, telling Watson that a deduction was “Elementary,” defending young women, and foiling a criminal mastermind named Moriarty (who appears in only one story in the Sherlock Holmes “Canon” of 60 stories and is mentioned in just two others.) Yet maybe it’s wrong to look at such productions as primarily poking fun. Instead, in film-makers jargon, many of these writers are actually paying homage to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation by creating new “adventures,” more correctly known as pastiches.

These pastiches seem to appear almost daily; last year a database listed 12,000 in English alone. Many take their starting points from the 111 “unpublished “cases, titles mentioned almost as throw-away lines by Holmes or Watson in the 60 cannonical cases. Some of these titles, such as “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” have become more widely known to the public than many of Conan Doyle’s original stories. Have you honestly heard of “The Three Garridebs” or “The Retired Colourman?”

Adding to the pastiche proliferation was Sir Arthur’s own son. Working with celebrated mystery author John Dickson Carr, Adrian Conan Doyle produced a dozen such pastiches in The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes in 1952-53. Consider some of their titles: The Adventure of the Seven Clocks, The Adventure of the Wax Gambler, The Adventure of the Dark Angels and The Adventure of the Red Widow.

Considered in this context the action in The Game’s Afoot or Holmes for the Holidays may no longer seem quite so far-fetched.

And of course, the beat goes on. A new adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles ran for 15 weeks this summer at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. And on television, the CBS show Elementary has run for 141 episodes. The show is simply a continuing pastiche with many comedic moments, such as bee-keeping on the roof of a Manhattan apartment building.

But as you’ll see in the Ken Ludwig's play all’s fair in the afterlife of Sherlock Holmes and his devotees.

by Peter Calamai, C.M.


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