In 1893, it was decided that the Victorian master sleuth Sherlock Holmes must die, not by some grand villain or shadowy criminal cabal but by his own creator Arthur Conan Doyle. Tired of the creation overshadowing his “serious work” of historical fiction and spiritualism, Conan Doyle wrote The Final Problem in which the detective plunged to his supposed death, battling his nemesis ‘the Napoleon of Crime’ Professor Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. And yet, even given the mild inconvenience of being dead, Sherlock Holmes has remained, as recent film and television adaptations have proved, one of the most popular characters in modern fiction. What is it about the character, an emotionless arcane throwback, which continues to enthral?
So deeply has the iconography of Sherlock Holmes settled into popular culture, we could all conceivably identify the detective from his mere silhouette: his pipe, deerstalker hat, magnifying glass and Inverness Cape. Given that he has been portrayed in more television and film incarnations than any other fictional figure, we feel we know him. And yet when we return to the original books, we find that he is a much more elusive, troubled and intriguing character than his ubiquity would suggest. It is this ambiguity that is at the heart of why we return. He is a hero without traditional heroic qualities, appearing at times so detached as to be barely human. We love Sherlock Holmes because we cannot fully understand him. He is manifestly not one of us.
The character is, of course, not without his charms, which explains along with his deductive skills, our initial attraction. He is modest even in the face of his own brilliance remarking in A Study in Scarlet, “You know a conjurer gets no credit when once he has explained his trick; and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.” His ingenious uncoverings are “mere trifles.” In The Adventure of the Three Gables, he insists, “I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go.” At times he is self-deprecating to the point of hilarity, “I am the most incurably lazy devil that ever stood in shoe leather.” He is superior but also an underdog in a sense, allowing the eminent mediocrities of Scotland Yard to steal his glory, preferring his private amateur status.
Yet Holmes is a considerably darker character than many have depicted him. He is a morphine and cocaine user (Would you care to try it?” he asks his assistant Watson in The Sign of Four) though he insists these are for existential rather than recreational reasons, “Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world?” In The Man with the Twisted Lip, Watson finds him languishing in an opium den, though he explain his whereabouts if we are to believe him. In his very first story, he poisons a dog to test a proposition. He displays attraction to only one woman Irene Adler but his reasons are far from romantic as revealed in A Scandal in Bohemia, “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed himself in a false position. He never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer.” In the same story, Watson provides the best snapshot of the man, “…while Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature.”
In his interactions with people, you sense that there is something not quite right with Holmes. He is enigmatic, contrary and melancholic. He has all the social warmth of a Vulcan. He can be magnificently rude, “It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes” he declares in The Red Headed League. It’s clear he is driven solely by the cold logic of reason and has no time for passion or other ‘lesser’ human emotions. His phenomenal intelligence, revealed in the brilliance of his solutions, seems to be his undoing as a human being. His “love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum routine of everyday life” seems to have led him to interesting discoveries but he never quite found his way back. He exists somewhere remote above the rest of humanity, gazing at them with casual disdain even misanthropy, viewing the world with a mix of wonder and exasperation. Watson, on the other hand, is one of us, whose loyalty (and mediocrity), he patronizes in His Last Bow, “Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age.” Such is his expertise coupled with his jaded view of mankind in general, there appears little to distinguish Holmes from his arch-enemy Moriarty and in a way they are one in the same, figures shadow-boxing with each requiring the other to exist to define himself against. When they die (in suitably epic fashion), they die together, wrestling as they fall over the waterfall to their mutual doom.
Perhaps Holmes was right about people and their idiocies. From the beginning of his immensely popular serialised cases, Conan Doyle would be contacted by readers wanting to hire the investigator, believing him to be real. When he finally killed him off, Conan Doyle received vast quantities of hate mail (his favourite began, “You brute, how could you do such a thing?”). The Strand, in which the stories had featured, lost 20,000 subscribers and it became briefly fashionable for men to wear black armbands, mourning his passing.
As fascinating as Holmes is as a character, the stories are more than just the study of one man. Atmosphere is a crucial component of its enduring appeal. They are an evocative time capsule of a lost era, close enough to us to relate to but immeasurably different given the pace and scale of technological and societal change between then and now. So pervasive and successful were his books that when we think of Victorian London now, we do so through the prism of Doyle’s imagination as much as Dickens and perhaps more than actual photographs and first-hand accounts. The atmosphere permeates the stories from the language (“Come, Watson, come!” he cried. “The game is afoot.”) to the surroundings from the bustling streets of the metropolis to the moors in The Hound of the Baskervilles, “so vast, and so barren, and so mysterious.” All of this is done to the vision of Holmes creator, a man who in many ways was his polar opposite.
Born in Edinburgh (a city whose gothic atmosphere haunts the stories though they were ostensibly transposed onto London) to Irish emigrants, Arthur Conan Doyle had a colourful early life. His father Charles was a talented artist who was blighted by a drink problem to the extent that on occasion, having spent all the family’s money, he’d resort to drinking furniture polish. Arthur received a Jesuit education, providing him with a flair for reasoning as well as an interest in the supernatural before studying medicine (one of his tutors Dr Joseph Bell would become the archetype for Holmes in appearance and intellect). He spent time as a ships surgeon on an African steamship narrowly escaping death when it caught fire and threatened to explode in the Atlantic and came perilously close to being eaten by a shark whilst larking about in the sea. Having picked up valuable insights and experiences of foreign lands, he resolved never to do anything as crazed again and set up a General Practise in the sailor-town of Portsmouth. Famously no-one came and he was forced to find patients by chasing car crashes. Bored with long empty hours in the surgery, Conan Doyle’s mind turned to writing and Holmes was created almost by accident. Whereas his creation is a character of total Reason and scepticism (“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact” he argues in The Boscombe Valley Mystery), Conan Doyle was much given to superstition, to the extent many of his public declarations became a laughing-stock. He was fooled by the Cottingley Fairy photos which he believed were genuine. He became a devout spiritualist attending séances and communicating with the dead, falling out with his friend Houdini who was determined to unmask such charlatans. He wrote pioneering science fiction on the Hollow Earth theory, Egyptian archaeology and flying machine tales of terror. Though his beliefs now look foolish, we judge them with the benefit of hindsight, the limits of knowledge and boundaries between the scientific and esoteric were not as well defined as they are today (even inventors like Edison, Tesla and Graham Bell thought the afterlife could be contacted through means of X-rays or electricity for example).
In a sense, Conan Doyle’s openness to belief, however naive it now seems, was a critical element of Sherlock Holmes. Both had a crucial unshakeable openness to the world. “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Holmes states in A Case of Identity. Perhaps his most famous line demonstrates this best, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” There is an aversion to cliché, to “theorise before you have all the evidence” and an attraction to the new and exotic. For Conan Doyle, this meant levitating tables and pseudo-scientific mysticism. For Holmes it meant mastering the Japanese martial art of Baritsu or a thousand types of tobacco residue. “My name is Sherlock Holmes,” he declared, “It is my business to know what other people don’t know.” It is not London but the world that these stories survey and a way of seeing the world that has influenced not just story-telling but police forensics, film-making and education. “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” Italo Calvino wrote. So it is with these stories which have survived not only the death of their main protagonist but their creator, remaining endlessly unfinished, endlessly unsolved.