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London's in Love With Sherlock Holmes


By Sheila Sobell

If it hadn't been for the American actor William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes more than 1,300 times and collaborated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on a dramatization, Holmes' iconic pipe would never have acquired its distinctive dip. When the world's first consulting detective leaped from the pages of the Strand magazine onto the stage, Gillette discovered that his pipe's conventionally shaped stem needed a different twist so that he could smoke and speak simultaneously.

That's just one of many insights into the complexities of the world's first "consulting detective" that we learned while visiting the Museum of London's "Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die" exhibit. Open until April 12, 2015, it is the largest Holmes exhibit in the United Kingdom in 60 years. With 20,000 words of text, digital content and some 500 items — many seen now for the first time outside private collections — more than 100,000 visitors are expected.

"Sherlock Holmes is the most-filmed fictional character ever with an incredible cinematic history," said lead curator Alex Werner. "The challenge was to construct an exhibition that would work for different audiences — from those who'd only seen some television episodes to those with enormous knowledge in search of something new."

So from its playful sleight- of -hand entrance to the mysteries up for solving inside, the museum really does deliver everything new about its 135-year-old centerpiece.

In a space divided into four main areas, the show answers questions that have long fascinated Holmesian fans — the genesis of Sherlock Holmes, the London of Sherlock Holmes, the many sides of Sherlock Holmes and the immortal Sherlock Holmes.

"Since we are the Museum of London, our idea was to convey the polluted, melancholic atmosphere of the city in the late 19th century and early 20th century," Werner said. "Through photographs, watercolors, prints and even a Turner and Monet, you get a sense of its pace, traffic, how pedestrians looked, and especially how Sherlock 's encyclopedic knowledge of maps, railroads, bus routes, government buildings and advertisements helped him get around."

What of Doyle himself? His elementary school teacher would have been enormously proud of his meticulous handwriting. In a scrap of paper from 1886 that Werner "extracted" from Doyle's family on which he sat down the characters of Holmes and Dr. Watson for the first time (naming them Sherrinford Holmes and Ormond Sacker), there are hardly any cross-outs.

Once the popularity of the stories exploded, Doyle was more than a little tempted to cross out the series altogether. In a 1927 filmed interview, probably the only one recorded, the author grumbles about the first consulting detective's success. Thinking he'd make his reputation as a serious historical novelist, he admits "This monstrous growth has come out from what was comparatively a really small seed."

Disgusted with detective writers who solved the plot by fluke, Doyle, then a young doctor, decided to apply scientific method to his fiction. Modeling his protagonist on a professor who was extraordinarily quick at deduction, "I thought of 100 little dodges by which Holmes could build up his conclusions."

The game was on. Readers soon realized that Sherlock operated differently from old-style detectives.

"Sherlock Holmes has come to be identified with something very English in character," Werner said. "He and Dr.

Watson are the quintessential English gentlemen. They are kind to people, and they help them. Sometimes Sherlock is both judge and jury. If he thinks someone should get off, he doesn't pursue them. So he is quite a powerful figure, as is London, then the capital of the empire."

For a man who never lived and will never die, Holmes had quite a fashionable wardrobe, which we learned thanks to another exhibit running concurrently at the museum. Using creations by established and up-and-coming designers to interpret Doyle's observations of period dress, photographer Kasia Wozniak presents a series of stylized Holmes images, aptly titled "He wasn't an easy gentleman to describe."

Not only did the man who never lived and will never die have a made-to-order wardrobe, but he also had a residence that never existed on a street that did. A bus ride from the Museum of London, the Sherlock Holmes Museum 221b Baker Street is a tall Victorian terrace with exactly 17 steps from the ground floor hallway to the first floor sitting room that the gentlemen shared.

The experience begins right on the street. Everyone wants a photo dressed up in the deerstalker hat and standing beneath the world's most famous house number. When it's his turn, a Japanese teenager borrows the hat from the doorman, tucks his chin into his neck and stands ramrod straight, staring at the camera with what he hopes is a very Holmesian expression.

Whereas the Museum of London experience is seriously cultural, 221b is more fantasy — a giant dollhouse filled with wax figures, forensic paraphernalia, letters, period newspapers, costumes and an impressive shop. Unless you've never been inside a Victorian townhouse, the whole effect is a bit cheesy.

But visitors love it. Maria and Troy Pashak of Muskegon, Michigan, visited to commemorate their 25th wedding anniversary. Dedicated fans, they thought the residence very authentic.

"Here is a made-up character," Troy said, "but all around you is all his stuff, making you think the character was actually real."

Having spent a raw autumnal day pursuing the master of disguises, we craved something more up-market than a 19th-century gas-fire bedsit. We bedded down at a property built 200 B.S.H. (before Sherlock Holmes) with an aristocratic pedigree and a position across from Kensington Palace. The five-star Milestone Hotel, part of the Red Carnation Hotel Collection, did not disappoint. Each of its 57 suites and bedrooms has its own unique style. Ours, the Mistinguett junior suite, paid art-deco homage to Mlle. Mistinguett, a French turn-of-the-century Moulin Rouge chanteuse, film star and Maurice Chevalier's love interest, which we surmised by translating a beautifully illustrated book. It's sumptuously decorated in red, black, silver, and white and has a large furnished balcony.

Dining would have been impossible - even for breakfast - without a reservation. The signature dishes served in the Cheneston's restaurant include whimsical gourmet takes on comfort food such as chicken pot pie as well as bestsellers like Kobe steak. Three different types of salt and five types of butter allow diners to season each dish to taste. From Jan. 2 until April 30 the hotel offers a "babymoon" package to coincide with Kate Middleton's second pregnancy. It includes spa treatments, entertainment, shopping, royal afternoon tea , breakfast, dinner and — of course — a tour of the palace.


Sheila Sobell is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



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