Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is almost as well-known in crime fiction as his sleuthing character, Sherlock Holmes. More than a century after the publication of A Study in Scarlet, where the detective and his companion Dr. John H. Watson make their first appearance, Sherlock Holmes continues to be a celebrated figure—inspiring a slew of adaptations. Despite not being the first fictional sleuth, Sherlock is perhaps the best known: He currently holds the Guinness World Record for the most portrayed movie character in history!
Conan Doyle used his professor at the University of Edinburgh Medical School,Dr. Joseph Bell, as the model for much of Holmes’ mannerisms and skills. Holmes is characterized by his uncanny abilities of observation and deductive reasoning, which was similar to Bell’s ability to diagnose patients’ diseases. While Sherlock solved cases, Watson recounted the investigations they pursued together—describing the complex and moody detective who possessed extraordinary capacities and vicious tenacity while serving as the narrator of most Sherlock stories.
Though his Sherlock stories were successful, Conan Doyle felt like his famous character was holding him back from producing serious work. In 1893, the author killed off Sherlock in “The Final Problem.” The outcry against Conan Doyle’s decision was immense. An estimated 20,000 Strand Magazine readers cancelled their subscription, British men wore black to mourn Holmes’ death, and outraged readers wrote letters of protest. Years later, the question still remains: Why was there so much frenzy around a fictional character?
In The Great Detective, Zach Dundas dissects all the elements that make this fictional character immortal. As a lifelong Sherlock fan and journalist himself, Dundas begins to unearth how and why this peculiar character captivated readers in the 19th century and continues to enchant audiences so many years later.
Read on for an excerpt from The Great Detective, and then download the book.
Sherlock Holmes does cut a magnetic figure, coiled in his armchair, wreathed in smoke: a gray-eyed whipcord of skinny muscle wrapped in a dressing gown. He’s an exotic orchid of the imagination, delicately veined with different tones and shades. Conan Doyle sketched him in A Study in Scarlet and began fleshing him out in The Sign of the Four. Soon, in the two dozen stories that raced through the Strand from ’91 to ’93, he would carve Holmes into the popular consciousness. Those stories, bound together as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, combine with the two early novels to form the core of Sherlockiana and establish a character that proved so durable, charismatic, and malleable.
So who is Holmes? Conan Doyle’s original stories give us many alternate Sherlocks, from melancholic improv violin player to high-class drug fiend to top-tier amateur boxer to bizarre home economist—he bundles one day’s tobacco remnants into a nasty wad and smokes them the next morning before breakfast. Anyone who watches Basil Rathbone or Benedict Cumberbatch may carry a particular image of an overdriven, hyperprecise mind expressed in staccato verbal bursts. Or our minds may harbor cartoonish stereotypes of a man with a big nose, weird hat, and magnifying glass leading a befuddled and often chubby companion. These impressions are fine as far as they go, but each merely glosses aspects of the prismatic figure Conan Doyle created. They all omit some essential element. Almost every stage or screen portrayal of Holmes, for example, ignores two qualities that Conan Doyle himself took pains to emphasize.
First—and maybe most surprisingly given his reputation as a caustic übermensch with no patience for mortal humans—Sherlock Holmes is basically a nice person. Again and again in the short stories of the Adventures and Memoirs, Conan Doyle describes the detective as genial, suave, friendly. Holmes possesses terrific manners and an “easy, soothing” way with people. In “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet,” a client arrives half mad with anxiety over a damaged royal treasure—the fellow begins pounding his head against the wall. Holmes calms him with smooth, low-key kindness: “You have come to tell me your story, have you not? You are fatigued with your haste . . . Pray compose yourself . . . and let me have a clear account
Unconsciously, Conan Doyle built Holmes into an idealized version of a distinct, emerging human type: the independent urban brainworker, essentially different from the foppish noble, the office drone, the capitalist baron, the small shopkeeper, the industrial laborer, or the farmer. In the online Jewish cultural magazine Tablet, the writer Liel Liebovitz (with nods to Isaac Deutscher and the historian Yuri Slezkine) has argued that Holmes fits in with the likes of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to embody “a radical new way of being in the world that ushered in the age of cosmopolitan globalism.” Citing Slezkine’s book The Jewish Century, Liebovitz argues that some of Sherlock’s salient characteristics—“urban, mobile, literate, articulate, intellectually intricate . . . and occupationally flexible”—make him a “non-Jewish Jew.” Several stories hinge on Holmes’s status as the consummate cosmopolitan and man-about-town; for instance, in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,” a mystery’s solution presents itself because Sherlock instantly recognizes how much a fancy hotel charges for sherry.
You can pit Sherlock Holmes against invading Martians (as has been done) and he remains Sherlock Holmes. But no matter how many times the character reappears on stage, screen, or radio, in comic book or video game (Minecraft players build some amazing Sherlockian mini-worlds), the complete Holmes resides only in Conan Doyle’s original stories. The author built Holmes out of chunks of experience, impressions of his time, and components of his own complex personality. Conan Doyle channeled and amplified these influences, like a message resonating on a frequency only he could hear.
One recent day in London, the Internet-enabled quest for affordable accommodation led my family to a generic but serviceable chain hotel at the edge of Hyde Park. The building shared its ground floor with a gas station and convenience store—if that tells you anything. The view from our fifth-floor window, however, suitably impressed: the park, stripped and wintry but vast, deep green, and glimmering here and there with water. As I meditated on the vista (actually, ignored my five-year-old as he jumped from one twin bed to the other—long day), I suddenly fixed on a small gate separating the park from the sidewalk.
By God, it was Hattie Doran’s escape route.
Our hotel, unprepossessing as it was, stood about a hundred yards from the scene of “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor,”* a fizzy high-society comedy that entered the Sherlockian annals in the spring of 1892. “Noble Bachelor” does not quite enjoy classic status among its fifty-nine siblings, and contains none of the key mythos-of-Sherlock scenes—no cocaine, no nighttime chases on the Thames, no silent dogs in the night, no street urchin operatives. But it comes off with a distinctive metropolitan flourish and provides an excellent look at Conan Doyle’s toolkit of tricks and stratagems. The story opens a window into the effervescent world of Holmes—and, not coincidentally, practically demands that the reader drink a cocktail (the characters drink plenty).
Watson has been reading the papers. Holmes receives a fancy letter, which, as noted, he regards with little enthusiasm—he prefers the correspondence of fishmongers. But the contents prove interesting: one Lord St. Simon has lost his wife, an American heiress named Hattie Doran, when she bolted from the wedding reception in Lancaster Gate (my temporary neighborhood by Hyde Park). Watson, the press coverage fresh in mind, briefs the detective. Not only did the wife vanish, but a dancing girl from the Allegro showed up at the party to cause trouble—a former “friend” of the groom. Meanwhile, the marriage itself has a Downton Abbey–style financial basis. St. Simon’s father has been selling off the family pictures, but Hattie Doran’s daddy struck it rich in the California goldfields. Everybody wins, or so it would seem.
St. Simon himself arrives—Holmes abuses the aristocrat subtly but deliciously—and describes the vanished Hattie as something of a sexy Wild West hellion. He shows a picture to Watson, and that old dog approves, but St. Simon bemoans the woman’s free and easy republican manners. She was happy before the ceremony, but bumped into a strange man on the way to the altar, became distracted, then pulled her disappearing act, last seen walking through the park in the company of the distressed Allegro party girl. The nobleman’s account leaves Holmes in need of an immediate midday whiskey and soda.
Before long, Inspector Lestrade shows up at 221B, in memorably goofy nautical garb, fresh from dredging the Serpentine, Hyde Park’s long, crooked pond, in search of the girl’s corpse. He grabs a tumbler of his own and reports that he found only the soaked remains of Hattie’s wedding dress and a note, addressed by an unknown party, scribbled on the back of a hotel receipt. Holmes tells him the receipt itself is the important thing, at which point Lestrade gets huffy and takes his pea coat elsewhere.
Related: 12 Books for Sherlock Holmes Fans
Holmes sets off into London, leaving Watson in command at Baker Street. Before long, to the good doctor’s astonishment, a catering service shows up and lays out a feast: cold woodcock, pheasant, cobwebbed wine bottles. Holmes returns, as does Lord St. Simon—but then they are joined by surprise guests: Hattie, the missing wife, and her real husband, gold miner Francis Hay Moulton! The two married in secret years before! But then Frank was reported killed in an Apache raid! But now he’s back! So Hattie and St. Simon were never really married! See? (Holmes, as noted earlier, tracked down the absconding pair by analyzing cocktail price structure reflected on that stray hotel receipt.)
It’s all a blow to His Lordship (and his bank account), but high good times for everyone else. And aside from a general air of bibulous fun—with no real crime at hand, everyone except St. Simon just parties their way through—“The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” shows Conan Doyle at work in his well-stocked storytelling laboratory. Though they’re all ostensibly “mysteries,” the Sherlock Holmes tales eventually sweep through just about every major pop-fiction genre. This one story alone shifts from comedy of manners to social satire (parodies of newspaper gossip columns convey big chunks of narrative) to Western, of all things. Over the sixty stories, Conan Doyle would jump from hardboiled noir to romance to Gothic horror. (I know worldly adults who refuse to reread “The Adventure of the Speckled Band”.) “Silver Blaze” and “The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter” are sporting tales, set within the worlds of horse racing and rugby, respectively. “The ‘Gloria Scott’” and “The Adventure of Black Peter” smack of the sea—Conan Doyle expressed his appreciation for that genre by making Watson a fan of William Clark Russell, one of the era’s preeminent nautical novelists. “The Musgrave Ritual” records a cozy manor-house treasure hunt. “The Crooked Man” provides a social-realist glimpse of garrison-town military life. Crackling espionage tales like “The Adventure of the Second Stain” sit alongside sci-fi experiments like “The Adventure of the Creeping Man,” in which a lust-addled elderly professor becomes addicted to a rejuvenating extract of monkey gland, which transforms him into a human-simian hybrid. The full-hearted melodrama of “The Yellow Face” gives way to the flinty, David Mamet–ish scam caper of “The Stock Broker’s Clerk.” The almost self-parodying “Case of Identity” seems to be mostly about Watson’s fashion sense,* but immediately gives way to the brutal country revenge tale of “The Boscombe Valley Mystery,” which itself threads in another of Conan Doyle’s Wild West sketches, this time set in Australia.
In this expansiveness, the Holmes stories echo Conan Doyle’s larger career. Basically, he could do it all—or at least thought he could, and didn’t mind trying. One of his least remembered novels, A Duet; with an Occasional Chorus, surprised his Sherlock-centric fans of 1899 with a sober, frank (and frankly rather boring) modern love story. Just the year before, he’d published The Tragedy of the Korosko, a ripped-from-the-headlines terrorism thriller featuring radical Islamists on the Nile. Conan Doyle could roam at will because, apart from his almost demonic work ethic, he’d mastered some adaptable tricks of highly efficient storytelling. In nearly every Sherlock Holmes story, he compacts and nests different narrative styles and formats. A long passage written as a newspaper report cues up a breathless all-dialogue update from a street urchin or a cop, which leads to a brief zing of Watson-narrated action, followed by pages of flashback told by a single character, bracketed by Sherlock’s explanation of how he solved the case. Rapido. And Conan Doyle’s skill at interlocking distinctly told, fast-paced mini-stories makes possible his most characteristic trick: he makes you think things are happening when really nothing is happening. Just as he can turn a scene in which Holmes does nothing but stare at the ceiling into a riveting vignette (as in “The Man with the Twisted Lip”), he can concoct a high-velocity narrative out of set pieces and collaged voices, not so much action as an illusion of action. In “Noble Bachelor,” many vivid scenes unfold: a wedding, a disappearance, a police investigation, a dinner party, a gold-rush picaresque, an Apache raid, if you please. You can enjoy this rumpus a half-dozen times without catching the joke: Watson, our narrator, never leaves the Baker Street sitting room. Almost the whole tale is a mirage, conjured by Watson from stories told by other people.
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How can a figure created over a century ago maintain his relevance during the digital age? Dundas becomes the perfect guide into the Sherlockian world. He provides historical scholarship, critical analysis, and refreshing interviews with an array of intriguing people—even a fanfic writer of gay Sherlock erotica! From the U.S. television series Elementary to the BBC’s critically acclaimed Sherlock, the character has been portrayed in countless realms—including on stage and through social media, videos games, and subcultures.
Dundas tackles the Sherlockian phenomenon by providing a thorough history on Arthur Conan Doyle, but also by going over the origins of Sherlock Holmes. From world building to name changes to inspiration for the detective’s characterization, Dundas does not shy away from any information. He recaps the stories of Sherlock and Watson, and details what made them popular. He also chronicles the ways in which the characters have adapted through the passage of time.
Conan Doyle successfully created a realistic character who inhabits the real world: Sherlock’s abilities aren’t superpowers; he learned everything he knows and does. The fact that Sherlock was molded by a real person only makes him the more tangible, and many readers actually have a hard time remembering that Sherlock wasn’t a real person. Because Conan Doyle refused to create a distance between character and audience, Sherlock continues to transcend time. As Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat remarks, “He lives in your world, and you can meet him, and he’s real. He’s not your dad’s hero. He’s your hero.”
Through Dundas’ wittytone—much like Sherlock’s—and bright prose, his research becomes more of an investigation. So what does the future hold for Sherlock Holmes? Only time will tell.
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Featured photo via "The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes," by Arthur Conan Doyle