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Originally published Saturday, October 30, 2010 at 7:05 PM

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Why is Sherlock Holmes still so popular? It's elementary

The BBC's "Sherlock," a recent blockbuster movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and a play soon to be staged at Seattle's Taproot ("Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol") prove that Sherlock Holmes, now more than a century old, is as popular as ever.

Seattle Times theater critic

On TV

'Sherlock'

Tonight and Nov. 7 on most PBS stations. Check local TV listings for times and details.

On stage

'Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol'

by John Longenbaugh. Previews Nov. 19-20 and 24. Runs Nov. 26-Dec. 30 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $17-$35 (206-781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).

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Tonight in Prime Time

He is more than a century old now (in literary years), but we still can't seem to get enough of Sherlock Holmes. Maybe we never will.

The brilliant and magnetic "consulting detective" (private eye) was first conjured by the Scottish writer and physician Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to unknot a mystery in the 1886 novel, "A Study in Scarlet."

More than 50 additional tales by Conan Doyle followed, featuring the imperious, pipe-smoking sleuth and (thanks to an illustrator) a deerstalker hat.

And among the vast legion of Holmes imitations, parodies, "sequels," films, plays and such that have arrived since, are some new items worthy of note.

The first series of "Sherlock," a rip-roaring, high-tech update of Holmes made by the BBC, airs its last two episodes tonight and next Sunday on the PBS show, "Masterpiece Mystery." An informative History Channel documentary, "The Search for Sherlock Holmes," a tour-guide biography of Conan Doyle and his creation, comes out on DVD next week.

And Seattle dramatist John Longenbaugh raids two iconic Vic-Brit lit works in his new play, "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol," which debuts at Seattle's Taproot Theatre in November.

There are so many spins on the role, there seems to be a Sherlock for every taste. And as Longenbaugh puts it, "You can't ever think you're going to do the definitive Holmes. It's like you can't ever do the definitive Hamlet."

The original Holmes

From the first, the erudite British crime-solver seemed a marvelously original, quirky and flamboyant protagonist.

Holmes was a charismatic misanthrope, with no discernible intimates apart from his sidekick (and chronicler) Dr. Watson, and his brain worked so fast, few could keep up with his lightning contortions of logic and ability to deduce anyone's entire biography from a few negligible clues.

A confirmed bachelor, bunkered in his London flat at 221B Baker Street, Sherlock had passions for playing the violin and shooting up opium. And he swiftly became so popular with the public, so vivid a solver of intricately plotted murder mysteries, Conan Doyle could not easily kill him off.

Eager to move on to other writing projects, he did try. In the 1893 short story "The Final Problem," the author hurled Holmes and his arch-criminal nemesis Professor Moriarty over a waterfall, presumably to their deaths. But the public outrage was so intense, he rescued them from the brink for more adventures.

If Victorian-era devotees of Holmes clung to his every deduction, modern aficionados are just as tenacious — and more industrious. There are at least 350 Sherlock Holmes societies around the world, and scores of websites dedicated to him.

By 1899 there was a hit Sherlock Holmes play. And according to Guinness World Records, since the final Conan Doyle story about Holmes, "His Last Bow," more than 70 actors — from John Barrymore and Basil Rathbone, to Charlton Heston and the great Jeremy Brett — have played the sleuth in films.

But not all Holmes clones are created equal. When a literary icon inspires such fascination and fanaticism, expectations run high, and may well be violated. Our take on current Sherlocks:

Benedict Cumberbatch, "Sherlock"

The mere idea of the quintessential Victorian detective whipping out his cellphone and tracking criminals with his laptop may seem sacrilege to purists. But the writers of the perennial British TV sci-fi series "Dr. Who" have recharged the Sherlock myth with a three-part Holmes series for the cyber-generation, a wickedly clever thrill ride based on several Conan Doyle tales.

In Cumberbatch, they have a note-perfect Holmes. A veteran of other excellent BBC yarns (i.e., "The Last Enemy") the pale, tousle-haired actor cuts quite a chic, patrician, black-clad figure as a sensation-hungry Holmes who admits he's something of a "sociopath."

Dubbed "Freak" by a disapproving copper, this sleuth is the coolest cucumber and most ingenious sleuth in London. And it's fun hitching a ride on the exhilarating roller-coaster of his mind.

"Sherlock" was such a hit in Europe, several more episodes are planned. And Cumberbatch, thank heaven, will still preside over those messy Baker Street digs.

Robert Downey Jr.,

"Sherlock Holmes"

In this 2009 hit feature directed by Guy Ritchie, Downey certainly radiates the edgy, moody personality and smarts of Holmes — and a strong attraction to his Watson (Jude Law), which Downey hinted in interviews may be more than bro-mantic.

But this loud, coarse, relentless mall movie posits Sherlock as a buff gladiator, whose success as a detective has as much (or more) to do with flashy brawn as brains.

Yet isn't the superiority of Holmes' little gray cells the main point? If not, as in this crowd-pleasing but mind-numbing action pic, then Holmes might as well be played by The Rock.

But nope. Downey has re-upped for a sequel now being filmed in England.

Terry Edward Moore, "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol"

Longenbaugh's play has yet to debut. But he wrote it with Moore, a skilled Seattle stage veteran often convincingly cast in British roles, in mind.

"Terry's got the particular aspects you're looking for in Sherlock," the playwright says. "He's got that lean look about him. And the quality of an actor seeming to be the smartest, quickest-thinking man in the room."

Juxtaposing a period-faithful Holmes tale with Charles Dickens' fable of the redemption of a sourpuss skinflint at Yuletide creates two attractive hooks for audiences.

And it gives Moore an array of emotions to mine in what the author terms "a time-traveling adventure." So is Sherlock a stand-in here for Scrooge?

"Well, let's just say Holmes has never been portrayed as the warmest and fuzziest of characters," says Longenbaugh. "And I'll give you one clue. The play starts with a line close to the opening sentence in the Dickens story: 'Moriarty was dead to begin with.' "

Fortunately, Sherlock is still very much alive.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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