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Centenary of a venerable sleuth

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. New York: Bantam Books. Two volumes, 924 pp. and 662 pp. Paper. $4.95 each. Sherlock Holmes Letters, edited by R.L. Green. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press. 266 pp. $19.95. The venerable sleuth of 221B Baker Street, we suspect, would find hidden meanings behind the festive celebrations now under way on both sides of the Atlantic honoring the centenary of perhaps the most famous person in world fiction: Sherlock Holmes.

In the Holmesian view of the well-ordered universe, after all, nothing appears without reason. Yes, Holmes has had his share of successes in uncovering injustice since his first appearance in print in Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887 (in ``A Study in Scarlet''). But as Holmes would himself admit, he was not the first detective of world stature: In France, the real-life Eug`ene Fran,cois Vidocq - a master of disquises - was an ex-criminal who became the first head of the S^uret'e in the early 19th century. Edgar Allan Poe, who had read Vidocq's memoirs, created a literary version of the amateur sleuth with C.Auguste Dupin not too many years later.

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Holmes, however, who came upon the fictionalized crime scene toward the end of the century, was quite different. For Holmes, wrongdoing - a crime - was not just an individual misdeed; it was a rent, a crack, in the very structure of an ordered universe. And civilization itself required its resolution and a restoration to order.

As these new books honoring Holmes underscore - the two-volume Bantam paperback collection as well as the fascinating critical updating of Holmes-related material by R.L. Green - Holmes has meaning for our own age, which seems so splintered by social, economic, and political divisions. Holmes would no doubt be somewhat aghast at the diverse world of the 1980s, with its stark threat of nuclear destruction stemming from superpower rivalry. In Holmes's Victorian world, darkness - evil, if you will - was usually found hidden behind a fa,cade of outward respectability. But an age that has experienced Pearl Harbor and death camps, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a Vietnam war that seemed beyond ending, cannot help looking back to Holmes with a reassurance that there are answers explaining the confusion of events - and there are solutions as well.

But all this is too discursive for a discussion of Holmes. Yes, he was coolly intellectual. But he could appreciate the beauty of life, as witness his so frequently turning to his violin for refreshment. He was also a loner and rebel - another reminder of his links to our own era. It was the good Dr. Watson, be it recalled, who helped pull Holmes away from the latter's unfortunate drug addiction.

There were only four novels about Holmes from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as 56 stories. But that was remarkable enough, coming as they did from a Scots-born physician-turned-novelist. Doyle was as much the intellectual, rebel, and innovator as Holmes. He was a historian of sorts, and an inventor. (It was he who purportedly first pushed for steel helmets for soldiers.)

As the curious book by R.L. Green, a noted Holmesian expert, shows, Holmes's fans are, like their fictional hero, masters of detail. Nothing that has ever been written, suggested, reported, or even hinted at, about Holmes has been left unexplored. So Green notes American crime writer Rex Stout's wry suggestion that Dr. Watson may actually have been a woman. (We can only imagine the good doctor indignantly huff-gruffing his way through that observation!) Green discusses the methodology of Holmes; the history of Holmes; the impact of Holmes on other than Anglo-Saxon cultures.

But it is all good fun, though probably not of much interest for the general reader. The Holmes imprint is now secure in Western society. Look at recent popular culture: In the past year or so, Steven Spielberg, who can spot a trend almost better than anyone in Hollywood, has given us ``Young Sherlock Holmes.'' The Walt Disney Studios, for children, gave us ``The Great Mouse Detective,'' with a decidedly Holmesian rodent. And the most interesting crime/philosophical/theological novel of recent years, Umberto Eco's ``The Name Of The Rose,'' gave us a very Holmesian sleuth with the name of William of Baskerville, who, like his literary role model, also wears a robe - only in William's case, a clerical, rather than dressing, gown.

No doubt about it: Holmes belongs to the 1980s as much as to the 1880s.