Why Portland Was the Perfect Place to Write a Book About Sherlock Holmes

Our co-executive editor went deep on the Great Detective, and found the Rose City’s secret Victorian soul.

By Zach Dundas June 3, 2015

Bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes in front of Baker Street station in London. The statue was commissioned by the Sherlock Holmes Society in 1999.

Through the winter of 2012 and 2013, my days began with chilly bike rides through fog and rain. I would cross the Steel Bridge—brooding in the half-light like an industrial-Gothic temple—and wind through Old Town and downtown, where old-fashioned street lights flickered in the murk. It was totally perfect.

I was in the middle of writing a book about Sherlock Holmes—a nonfiction book about how and why the London detective of the 1880s and '90s survived as a pop culture icon for 130 years. Deep into the 60 original Holmes stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle between 1886 and 1927, I had managed to induce a singular mental atmosphere of antique menace. Portland, it turned out, can be a great place to write a book about Victorian crime.

Benedict Cumberbach filming 'Sherlock' in London

Now, as of June 2, the book is here: The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, published by some very good people at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s strange (great, but strange) to see months of bygone work rematerialize in the form of a solid little hardback, and maybe stranger still to write a biography of a person who did not exist. Not that I lacked material: there’s so much Sherlock Holmes—from books to movies to vast archives of homoerotic fan fiction about Benedict Cumberbatch—that my biggest challenge lay in not packing in too much. I kept the cocktail recipe, however.

I wrote about Sherlock Holmes because of my own boyhood love for the character—what Star Trek might be to another budding nerd, Sherlock was to me—and to delve into some questions about how pop culture works. Why do some imaginary characters thrive, and others disappear? How do we go about reinventing and recycling some works of fiction until they’re almost popular myths, not so much the work of their original creators as huge, crowdsourced collaborations? And what, exactly, is Sherlock Holmes, this chameleon detective who can simultaneously become Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch?

The book offers its answers. The investigation took me many places. On a frigid heath in Dartmoor, I just about turned my wife, son, and unborn daughter into human ice shards as we chased locations for The Hound of the Baskervilles. I had to buy most of a new wardrobe at a random Marks and Spencer in London after my luggage stayed in San Francisco, briefly leaving me facing the worst English winter since Victorian times in a thin jacket and a florid purple scarf borrowed from the missus. On the other side of the world, I stalked Cumberbatch in person in the sunny balm of 80-degrees Los Angeles in January—which I highly recommend, by the way.

Pipefuls of Holmesian insight.

But the somewhat surreal constant was Portland. I found myself examining 125-year-old ink-wash illustrations for The Strand Magazine in a basement near Lake Oswego, and stepping into not one but two recreations of Sherlock’s 221B Baker Street lair, at Artists Rep and OMSI, at different points. And though I consulted dusty archives in New York and London, our own trusty Multnomah County Public Library (and the Interlibrary Loan program, which is one of the most amazing institutions in all of civilization) provided the research linchpin. When I connected with Lyndsay Faye, a mystery novelist and Sherlockian and a key reportorial source for the book, I discovered that she’d spent her formative years haunting Powell’s.

In fact, at its best, Portland is a very Victorian city, in the most positive sense of the term: full of progressive thinking, creativity, intellectual resources, and comfortable places to sit and have a brandy while pouring over sensitive documents.

Sherlock and Watson—never forget Watson; he’s the most important character—would feel right at home here. As did I, as I spent half my working days with them in their own imaginary dimension. (My patient and kind colleagues here at Portland Monthly endured the other half, during which I was often somewhat wild-eyed, I suspect.) And so while The Great Detective roams through space and time from Victorian London to modern-day Hollywood, it’s really, deep down, a Portland book.  

Zach Dundas reads from The Great Detective 
’s City of Books on Monday, June 8 at 7:30 pm

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