As the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and The Baker Street Irregulars prepared to celebrate Sherlock Holmes’ birthday, they received news that a federal judge had written a 22-page opinion that liberated their favorite character.
Holmes first appeared in "A Study in Scarlet," a story about a young girl named Lucy who lived in Utah and was coerced to marry into polygamy. Lucy died shortly after this shotgun marriage, and her lover tracked down the men responsible and killed them in London.
Sherlock solved the murders with the help of Dr. Watson, who Arthur Conan Doyle used to narrate most of Holmes’ other 59 adventures, and the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of young boys who he paid a shilling a piece to help him discover information during his investigations.
Although "A Study in Scarlet" and 49 of the 59 other stories are out of copyright, the estate of Conan Doyle had long taken the position that the Holmes character and other elements in the "canon" remain protected.
Leslie Klinger, a well-known Sherlockian scholar, filed an action in federal court to challenge the estate’s "novel legal argument" and convinced the judge that he and others should be entitled to use "story elements" from the 50 stories which are no longer under copyright without seeking a license. This ruling has possible implications for "Sherlock," the popular BBC series, CBS’s "Elementary" and even Warner Brothers’ Sherlock Holmes movie franchise.
The lawsuit highlighted the fact that most of the story elements in the Holmes canon were introduced in "A Study in Scarlet." Doyle used Utah as a backdrop because British newspapers, magazines and travel narratives had published numerous sensational accounts concerning the controversial practice of polygamy.
But even Holmes’ use of "the Baker Street Division of the detective police force" had a Utah provenance. Watson recorded that the Irregulars consisted of a "half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs" who watched suspects and provided Holmes with intelligence. Holmes observed "There’s more work to be got out of one of those beggars than out of a dozen of the force … The mere sign of an official-looking person seals men’s lips. These youngsters, however, go everywhere and hear everything. They are as sharp as needles."
After meetings at Baker Street they "scampered downstairs like so many rats" and disappeared in the street.
Ironically, a French traveler named Jules Remy who visited Utah and wrote a travelogue, inspired Doyle to create the Irregulars. Remy recalled that he encountered young boys in Lehi who were sent out to investigate his movements. He and his traveling companion were "literally besieged by a crowd of boys" who "seemed determined to get at our secrets."
"All of our movements were watched," Remy wrote, "it was impossible for us to utter a word without being overheard, or without hearing comments on our own remarks; neither could we move a dozen places without being followed." Remy recommended that "all governments which find the maintenance of a police force too costly, to commit its functions to the impudence of young street scamps. They will be sure to find in them very zealous if not very clearheaded agents."
It is now recognized that much of Sherlock’s character, his methods and story elements, first developed during his investigation of events that began in Salt Lake City, "are free for public use." Since his first appearance Holmes has become much more famous than his creator, who was a spiritualist missionary when he finally visited Utah in 1923.
While Doyle may have gone to his grave caring little for Holmes, and much more about his next home, his descendants were surely not pleased when Klinger noted after the decision that "Sherlock belongs to the world" and can now be celebrated "without fear."
Michael W. Homer is a Salt Lake City attorney.
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