A Study in Sherlock

There can be no doubt – Sherlock Holmes is the most famous literary detective of all time, and one of the most famous literary characters of all time, full stop. So how did, in the space of four novels and 56 short stories, he so firmly establish himself as the definitive fictional detective?

It is important to acknowledge that he is not the first detective in fiction. However, Sherlock Holmes is the first detective who solves crimes with techniques and approaches – forensics, crime scene investigation, character analysis – that we still see in detective fiction and TV crime dramas (think the CSI series) today.

The author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was not impressed how, in detective stories up to this point, the detective seemed to obtain the results by chance, rather than by meticulous scientific observation and analysis. He was heavily influenced by his mentor Dr Joseph Bell, whose superhuman powers of observation and deduction very much formed the basis of Holmes’ super-sleuthing character.

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Dr Joseph Bell

We should emphasise that Holmes is far more of a complex character than an emotionless automaton with superhuman deductive reasoning skills. If that was all there was to him we would not have the fondness for him we do! The seemingly rigid, rational and often conceited figure who uses deductive reasoning in a single-minded manner to solve puzzles actually has human frailties. He takes drugs because he is bored. He plays the violin because he has a sense of beauty and aesthetics. And, though he would be reluctant to admit it, he is very fond of Watson.

Speaking of Watson…great character that Holmes undoubtedly is, the stories simply would not work without Watson to complement him. He is an essential narrative device, as he frames the seemingly superhuman attributes of Holmes with a sense of wonder and astonishment. But he also is the everyman figure that adds warmth to the narrative, and indeed to Holmes himself.

Other significant characters in the Holmes canon are Irene Adler, notable for being a female whose intellect is equal to Holmes and the closest thing he has to a love interest, and, of course, Professor James Moriarty. He symbolises what Holmes could have become had he used his talents for amoral criminality rather than societal justice.

Every bit as brilliant as Holmes, Moriarty actually has Holmes on the run in The Final Problem. Holmes, so often the hunter, becomes the hunted. Moriarty pursues him across France to Switzerland, and they have their final, fateful showdown at Reichanbach Falls in Switzerland. A place I have visited, and this plaque commemorating their final, fateful encounter can be found there:

Doyle resolved to kill off Holmes as he was tired of his creation, for all the mega-success it brought him, and wanted to focus on his other literary endeavours. But overwhelming public pressure – some 20000 people cancelled their subscription to The Strand, the serial in which the Sherlock stories appeared, in protest – forced him to resurrect the Great Detective. We should be grateful for this, as it immediately resulted in the best-known and best-loved Holmes story of them all: The Hound of the Baskervilles.

What makes this story stand out is the Hound itself – a seemingly fantastical and terrifying beast that haunts the wilds of Dartmoor. It represents an invasion of the supernatural on Holmes’ ordered, rational world where everything can be logically explained. It is also, of course, a fantastically exciting tale and mystery in its own right!

There have also, of course, been a slew of film and TV adaptations. The Jeremy Brett TV series is seen by many as the first truly nuanced depiction of Holmes, and also the most faithful too. And then, of course, is the phenomenally popular – and really rather good – 21st Century updating of Holmes with the TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.

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What makes it work so well is that it, in updating Holmes’ ‘science of deduction’ to a contemporary, technologically-enhanced context, really proves that Holmes is for all time. Holmes foibles are given a 21st Century makeover; e.g. ‘I’m a high-functioning sociopath’. There are more narrative changes – for instance, Myecroft Holmes is almost a permanent presence with a greatly enhanced role, whereas he only appears twice in the original books (although he is a vastly intelligent figure with a role of supreme national importance there too). But all these changes enhance rather than diminish the Sherlock legacy.

This series is just one of many instances of the legacy of Holmes living on. As well as statues, museums and a whole Underground station being covered with his likeness, there are legion societies and fan clubs dedicated to Holmes, and Holmes-mania shows no signs of abating. That’s some legacy!