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Sleuthing Sherlock: On the Trail of the Most Filmed Character Ever

Visit Britain

Guinness World Records just did a fine bit of detective work: Sherlock Holmes, it deduced, has more film and TV appearances than any other character.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation has racked up 254 interpretations, from tweedy Basil Rathbone to swashbuckling Robert Downey, Jr. Now, the aloof, uber-modern Benedict Cumberbatch stars on the BBC's hit series "Sherlock," the second season of which recently aired on PBS in the United States. (If you missed it, it's also out on DVD.)

Holmes beat out the nearest competition — Hamlet, with 206 star turns — by a considerable margin. This proves, once and for all, that brains are sexier than family baggage. And also that a deerstalker hat and Inverness cape make better accessories than a freshly excavated human skull.

More than 75 actors have taken up the magnifying glass since the Great Detective's silver-screen debut, a 30-second American silent movie in 1900. The next pipe-loving private eye will be British actor Jonny Lee Miller in CBS's upcoming series. The new incarnation is generating controversy because not only will it set Sherlock in modern-day New York, action heroine Lucy Liu will play Watson.

Visitors to Britain can share their shock (or excitement) over recent developments with the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. Open to all, the group organizes panels, screenings, pub quizzes and field trips, such as a retrace of the Thames River boat chase from "The Hound of the Baskervilles." Every year, the society devotes a whole weekend to "the anniversary of literature's greatest friendship."

Events in 2012 kicked off at London's North Gower Street, where the BBC filmed "Sherlock." Some fans headed to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons for a glimpse into Watson's world of Victorian field medicine (open Tues—Sat, 10 a.m.—5 p.m., free). Others packed off to the world's most famous address — 221b Baker Street — where Doyle housed the dynamic duo from1881 to 1904. Today the government protects it as a site of "special architectural and historical interest." A museum showcases memorabilia and a preserved Victorian-era study (open daily, 9.30 a.m.—6 p.m., £6 adult, £4 child).

But you may need to move as fast as Sherlock's deductions if you want to examine the writer's residence. Fans and developers have squared off over Doyle's home, called Undershaw, near Haslemere in Surrey, 40 miles south of London. Sir Arthur lived there while writing iconic tales like "The Return of Sherlock Holmes." When not composing masterpieces, he entertained guests such as "Dracula" author Bram Stoker and J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan.

A hotel since the 1920s, Undershaw closed its doors in 2005 and has since been uninhabited and crumbling. The developer wants to convert the house into eight apartments. Heritage enthusiasts at the Undershaw Preservation Trust would rather see a study center. The High Court recently ruled in the fans' favor, but opponents objected, sending the case to the Appeals Court. In the meantime, locals will be heading to an "Arthur Conan Doyle Weekend" in Haslemere June 15-17.

Visitors to London can follow in the great detective's footsteps with London Walks (Fridays at 2 p.m., £9, no reservations — meet outside the Embankment Tube station). Wander through gas-lit alleys, between Covent Garden's market stalls and around Charing Cross to places where Watson banked, Holmes caught a spy and both fired off urgent telegrams. Stop in for a pint and a steak-and-mushroom ale pie at The Sherlock Holmes pub, more familiar to readers as "The Northumberland Arms." It also contains a replica study, as well as the stuffed and mounted head of the (alleged) Hound of the Baskervilles.

You can also create your own tour, tailoring it as perfectly as a Savile Row bespoke suit. Visit Britain gives away its British Film Locations app, which features a few incarnations of "the best man who never lived." Aficionados may also like the e-book "The London of Sherlock Holmes" (MX Publishing, 2011) by American author Thomas Bruce Wheeler. GPS coordinates spotlight more than 400 Sherlockian sites, including turn-by-turn directions from the nearest Tube and railroad stations.

No matter how you approach the puzzle, the game is afoot!

by Amanda Castleman

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