Sherlock Holmes: The Hero with a Thousand Faces ambitiously takes on the task of explaining the continued popularity of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective over the course of three centuries. In plays, films, TV shows, and other media, one generation after another has reimagined Holmes as a romantic hero, action hero, gentleman hero, recovering drug addict, weeping social crusader, high-functioning sociopath, and so on. In essence, Sherlock Holmes has become the blank slate upon which we write the heroic formula that best suits our time and place.
Volume One looks at the social and cultural environment in which Sherlock Holmes came to fame. Victorian novelists like Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray had pointedly written "novels without a hero," because in their minds any well-ordered and well-mannered society would have no need for heroes or heroic behaviour. Unfortunately, this was at odds with a reality in which criminals like Jack the Ripper stalked the streets and people didn't trust the police, who were generally regarded as corrupt and incompetent.
Into this gap stepped the world's first consulting detective, an amateur reasoner of some repute by the name of Sherlock Holmes, who shot to fame in the pages of The Strand Magazine in 1891. When Conan Doyle proceeded to kill Holmes off in 1893, it was American playwright, director, and actor William Gillette who brought the character back to life in his 1899 play Sherlock Holmes, creating a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic with his romantic version of Holmes, and cementing his place as the definitive Sherlock Holmes until the late 1930s.
By that point, Sherlock Holmes had developed a cult following who facetiously maintained that Holmes was a real person, formed clubs like The Baker Street Irregulars, and introduced the idea of cosplay to the embryonic world of fandom. These well-educated fanboys subsequently became the self-assigned protectors of Sherlock Holmes, anxious that their version of the character not be besmirched or defamed in any way.
In spite of this, there was considerable besmirching and defaming to be seen in the early silent films featuring Sherlock Holmes, which effectively turned him into an action hero due to the lack of sound. When sound films took the industry by storm in the late 1920s, there were a numbers of pretenders who reached for the Sherlock Holmes crown, including Clive Brook, Reginald Owen, and Raymond Massey, but it took more than a decade before a new definitive Sherlock Holmes would be crowned in 1939 in the person of Basil Rathbone.
Volume Two picks up the trail with the incredibly influential films of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, then goes on to explore the antiheroic Sherlock Holmes films of the 1970s, and then the somewhat rocky journey of Holmes into the medium of television (actors Alan Wheatley, Douglas Wilmer, and Peter Cushing all declared their respective Sherlock Holmes TV series as the worst experience of their professional careers).
Television finally found its "definitive" Holmes in Jeremy Brett's portrayal for Granada Television, and then the BBC's Sherlock flashed brilliantly across the cultural sky before crashing and burning in spectacular fashion. Still, despite its ignominious end, Benedict Cumberbatch's version of Sherlock Holmes quite literally changed the face of Sherlockian fandom overnight, as studious middle-aged white men now found themselves sharing uneasy ground with a younger and much more diverse audience.
Now a full-fledged transmedia phenomenon, Sherlock Holmes can be any gender, ethnicity, or species, and is celebrated in fan fiction and fanvids, as well as conventions that are far more inclusive than Sherlock Holmes societies of the past. Vincent Starrett's poetic notion that Sherlock Holmes is a character "who never lived and so can never die" has never been more true, and the Digital Age promises any number of new versions of Sherlock Holmes to come.
The old proverb says "Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan." Who then is responsible for the creation of Sherlock Holmes? Certainly Arthur Conan Doyle, from whose pen he sprang. But there were thousands of other influences as well, from real-life professionals to characters in literature, societal forces, and of course the men who played him on stage and screen. David MacGregor does a comprehensive job of identifying many of the thousands of faces that brought Sherlock Holmes to life in this two-volume set that every Sherlockian must have."
--Scott Monty, executive editor and co-host, I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere
"It's an extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary character. When John Reith became the first Director-General of the BBC in 1927 he laid down three aims for the Corporation: to educate, to inform, to entertain. Sherlock Holmes: The Hero With a Thousand Faces fulfills all three of those criteria; it's a welcome addition to my rather select list of the really important books about Sherlock Holmes."
--Roger Johnson, BSI, ASH, Editor: The Sherlock Holmes Journal, Co-author of The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany
“Sherlock Holmes: The Hero With a Thousand Faces” is in a league with "From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon" by Mattias Boström, which was Winner of the Agatha Award for best nonfiction work. As a lifelong Sherlockian and compiler of the “Sherlock Holmes Cyclopædia; Holmes on Screens,” I can attest to how extremely well researched and accurate this work is. I highly recommend it for beginner to advanced Sherlockians.
--Howard Ostrom – Author of the "Sherlock Holmes Cyclopædia; Holmes on Screens" series