What turned out to be a landmark achievement in mystery fiction (some would say “happy circumstance”) was physician-author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations in 1887 of Sherlock Holmes, “the world’s greatest consulting detective,” and his crime-solving partner and biographer, Dr. John Watson.
The Holmes bibliography is relatively brief – 56 short stories and four novels – but it created an insatiable appetite among the reading public of the day, who were desperate for diversion from their hardscrabble lives. The Strand magazine gets most of the credit for that, serving as Conan Doyle’s main “publisher” from 1891 to 1927. In an unspoken quid pro quo, the Holmes stories likely rescued the Strand from an early demise.
Since then, movies (226 of them), TV series and the ongoing Holmes literary pastiche have kept the legend thriving, as subsequent writers have added their own interpretations, with many twists.
One of the most consistent is Laurie King, with her 22-year-long, 14-title “Mary Russell” series. The premise: Holmes has retired from his Baker Street practice and is tending bees in the Sussex countryside when he meets a precocious young woman who becomes his fellow sleuth and later his wife.
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In the latest entry, “The Murder of Mary Russell,” longtime housekeeper Mrs. Hudson finally reveals a deadly secret (Bantam, $28, 384 pages). As she explains to Mary Russell, “For a lie to become truth, the past need only be rewritten.”
Another veteran Holmes stylist, Sam Siciliano, is author of four of the 15 novels in “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” collection, by various authors. In “The White Worm,” Holmes and his cousin, Dr. Henry Vernier (replacing Watson), take on a client whose possible bride-to-be is said to be under a curse that, well, sometimes transforms her into a gigantic snake (Titan, $10, 336 pages). Siciliano explains in his preface that he was “inspired” by Bram Stoker’s “The Lair of the White Worm.”
It’s said that Conan Doyle wrote “The Final Problem” so he could end the Holmes series and get on with more-serious works. In that story, Holmes presumably battles arch-rival Prof. James Moriarty at the top of Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, and – Watson concludes from the footprints and signs of a “violent struggle – both men fell into the gorge to their deaths. However, pressure by his fans forced Conan Doyle to resurrect Holmes in “The Adventure of the Empty House” and later tales.
The point being that many contemporary Holmes novels imagine what the detective was doing during those lost years between 1891 and 1894. One such is “Sherlock Holmes: The Missing Years: Timbuktu” by Vasudev Murthy (Poisoned Pen, $16, 270 pages). He and Watson go global in their quest to unlock the dark secrets of an ancient medallion.
On the nonfiction list
As we edge closer to what digital natives envision as a paperless world and the end of the multibillion-dollar global paper industry, along comes New York Times best-selling writer Mark Kurlansky (“Cod,” “Salt”) with the entertainingly definite story of the wood-pulp/grasses/rags-derived product, “Paper: Paging Through History” (W.W. Norton, $28, 416 pages). It’s full of fascinating facts (the world’s oldest printed book is a Buddhist prayer book from A.D. 868) and lost trivia (newspaper circulation in 1920 England approached 30 million). The author is a former foreign correspondent for four newspapers.
On the topic of consumption, “Empire of Things” by Frank Trentmann explains “how we became a world of consumers, from the 15th century to the 21st” (Harper, $40, 880 pages). Among the scary tidbits, this amalgamation of history, sociology, economics and world cultures offers this: “In 1965, an average American threw away four times as much as a Western European. Today, it is the Danes, Dutch, Swiss and Germans who generate the most waste.”
Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner know when to get freaky, as shown in their groundbreaking trio of best-selling titles, “Freakonomics,” “Super Freakonomics” and “Think Like a Freak.” Essentially, the authors apply economic theories and data to bizarre propositions and “reveal” the “best way to catch a terrorist,” “the truth about real-estate agents” and the notion of “saving the planet by consuming kangaroos.” In “When To Rob a Bank,” they explore firearms, sports, gambling, paranoia and more and answer the pressing question of why flight attendants don’t get tipped (William Morrow, $16, 400 pages).
One of the more straightforward memoirs of the Vietnam War experience is “Tan Tru” by Sacramento writer Larry Brooks (Larry Brooks, $20, 181 pages). Readers witness the inner workings of military hierarchy and the template that every war brings – the transformation of a naive teenager into a savvy soldier who witnesses the deaths of friends and doesn’t come home unfazed.
Why take a chance? It turns out there are neurological and psychological reasons, as science writer Kayt Sukel sets forth in “The Art of Risk” (National Geographic. $26, 288 pages). The approachable study includes interviews with “professional risk-takers” including a brain surgeon, a gambler and a firefighter. As one scientist puts it, “Unfortunately, you don’t know if you made the right choice when you’re taking the risk. The only real way to know is after you know how everything turned out.”
As our National Park Services turns 100 this year, the Yosemite Conservancy collected 100 feel-good reminiscences by NPS employees and “friends” in “The Wonder of It All” ($19, 320 pages). Inspiration enough to pack the car and head out to any of the 84 million acres that constitute our 411 parks, “monuments, battlefields, historic sites, lake shores, seashores, recreation areas, scenic rivers and trails.”