Vancouver librarian offers clues on ‘Sherlock Holmes’

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Fan of fictional detective looks forward to new film

Actor Robert Downey Jr. might seem an interesting choice to play the seminal fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. He’s not British, and he doesn’t fit the physical description of the protagonist in the Guy Ritchie film opening Dec. 25.

“Sherlock Holmes was tall and thin with a hook nose. Robert Downey Jr. is too good-looking,” said Teresa Torres, a Cascade Park Community librarian and longtime fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the series.

Still, Downey Jr. and Holmes do have one thing in common some might find surprising. The actor famously battled drugs and alcohol for years, and cocaine was among the substances he struggled with. It was a drug Holmes indulged in as well, to the dismay of his sidekick and chronicler, Dr. John Watson.

Torres, a 57-year-old Vancouver resident, has been intrigued by Sherlock Holmes since her teens.

“I love (the stories). I like mysteries, and I love how Sherlock Holmes uses his brain to figure out the crimes. He was always very logical and precise,” she said.

The stories have been adapted for television and film many times before, with actors such as Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone and Vasily Livanov portraying Holmes. Downey Jr. has big shoes to fill, Torres said.

“I think they very much portrayed how people saw Sherlock Holmes, as this person who was mysterious and kind of aloof. You always got the feeling that Sherlock Holmes was looking down his very long nose at you and not quite approving of you. I think Basil Rathbone did a great job with that character.”

Torres looks forward to seeing how Downey Jr. stacks up.

“I am very interested in (the new film). I love Robert Downey Jr. as an actor. I think he’s going to make a great Holmes. I’m curious to see whether he’s going to be as mysterious and erudite as the character is in the books.”

For those who haven’t read Doyle’s stories, some things about Sherlock Holmes and the series — beyond the titular character’s drug use — might be surprising. Torres offers these four tidbits:

Holmes was a violinist

“He was obviously haunted by things, but you never knew what was haunting him and why he was disturbed,” Torres said. “Along with cocaine, playing the violin helped him calm his nerves.”

Holmes comes back from the dead

Holmes supposedly dies in “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” a story published in 1893. Doyle wanted to concentrate on other writing projects, so he tried to kill off Holmes. In the story, Holmes and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, struggle at Reichenbach Falls in Meiringen, Switzerland. Both presumably fall to their deaths.

The public was unsatisfied with this ending. They clamored for more Holmes, so Doyle resurrected him. The 1903 story “The Adventure of the Empty House” explains how Holmes faked his own death to defend against Moriarty’s confederates.

Holmes could be misogynistic

Holmes was not a lover of women. In “The Valley of Fear,” he says to Watson, “‘I am not a whole-souled admirer of womankind.’” In “The Sign of the Four,” also called “The Sign of Four,” Watson quotes Holmes as saying, “‘Women are never to be entirely trusted — not the best of them.’” Holmes never married.

Doyle’s Holmes stories paved the way for other prominent detective fiction authors

Doyle wrote four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since then, many authors have crafted series centered around a recurring detective, including Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, P.D. James’ Adam Dalgliesh, Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey.

Some authors have even borrowed Doyle’s Holmes character. Laurie King, for example, wrote a series of mysteries focused on Mary Russell, Holmes’ protégé and, eventually, wife.

Torres said she likes King’s books even better than Doyle’s because Holmes is more likable and there’s a strong female character.

“I think she did a really good job of capturing Holmes’ character and fleshing it out a little and making him more human,” Torres said.

Nicholas Meyer wrote three Sherlock Holmes novels, the most famous being “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” a reference to the seven-percent solution of cocaine Holmes injected in the Doyle stories.

Meyer’s story takes up where “The Adventure of the Final Problem” leaves off. In “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” Meyer writes that Holmes and Moriarty never struggled at Reichenbach Falls. Rather, the whole battle with Moriarty was a drug-fueled hallucination.

“The Final Problem” and “The Empty House” were written to cover up the real reason for Holmes’ disappearance. The truth, according to Meyer’s novel, was that Holmes entered rehab to deal with his drug addiction.

The novel was adapted into a film in 1976 starring Nicol Williamson as Holmes, Robert Duvall as Watson and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud, with Laurence Olivier as Moriarty.

Mary Ann Albright: maryann.albright@columbian.com, 360-735-4507.