Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1887. The last of his Holmes adventures came out in 1927.
Yet in this modern world where something published six months ago is considered old news, all of the Sherlock Holmes stories remain in print. The stories have been made into countless movies and TV series and the characters borrowed by innumerable authors (including BVC’s own Vonda N. McIntyre and Brenda W. Clough). Even though Conan Doyle died in 1930, there’s a Literary Estate managing the rights and earning good money for his heirs.
His own author couldn’t kill off Sherlock Holmes and it appears the passage of time won’t do him in either.
I was moved to contemplate this question by the new BBC TV series, Sherlock, which sets the stories in modern London. Despite not being a serious Sherlock Holmes fan — I haven’t seen any of the recent movies or U.S. TV shows and none of Conan Doyle’s books made it onto my list of favorite mysteries — I gave it a watch when I stumbled across it on Netflix.
And got completely hooked. In fact, my only serious objection to the show is that they release only 3 episodes a year. I’ve seen all six available on Netflix and am dying for more.
I think the reason that the series works so well — in addition to the obvious good writing and acting — is that Holmes and Watson (or Sherlock and John, as they are in this series, being modern people) are clearly young. It dawned on me in watching that, at least in the early stories, they were young as well, but they never seemed young to me. That’s partly a result of the ubiquitous Basil Rathbone movies and partly because the mores of Victorian times make all adult characters in stories set then seem old to me.
Giving the stories a modern setting — with a Sherlock who can hack with the best of them — also makes it clear why he was so damn annoying to other people. When I read the original stories — so many aeons ago — I tended to identify with Holmes and get annoyed at the stupidity of others. Watson’s conventional Victorian respectability irritated me and made me dismiss him as a character.
I find it quite easy to identify with John Watson in the new show. He’s a sharp man and clearly a soldier as well as a doctor; he likes adventure. But he’s also compassionate. Sherlock, on the other hand, is clearly brilliant and just as clearly obnoxious. It’s not hard to appreciate the viewpoint of Lestrade’s detective sergeant, who calls Sherlock “Freak” and doesn’t believe in him at all. Even a viewer gets the urge to throttle the man at times.
The modern explanation for his behavior — “Aspergers” — is thrown around with regularity, but I don’t buy it. Sherlock understands enough about decent human behavior to use it when he needs it; he just doesn’t bother otherwise.
So you get the story of the eccentric genius who can’t be bothered to fit into regular society told by a more ordinary bright human being who doesn’t quite fit in himself, especially after his war experiences.That works for me.
So here I am, hooked on a retelling of Sherlock Holmes stories just like millions of other people. So far I haven’t been tempted to write my own version, but I seem to be more the exception than the rule. Vonda’s The Adventure of the Field Theorems originally appeared in an anthology of Sherlock Holmes rewrites called Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, meaning she joined a number of other writers in playing in this universe. Brenda brings Mycroft Holmes into “The Maiden Mechanical,” found in The Shadow Conspiracy II. I just read Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, a delightful novella. And, of course, there’s the series of books by Laurie L. King that begin with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. This list barely scratches the surface.
It also occurred to me that many other fictional detectives owe a lot of their characterization to Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is eccentric himself, though somewhat more polite, and his occasional sidekick Hastings is an insufferable idiot. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is just as brilliant, rude, and misogynistic as Sherlock Holmes. When I mentioned the Wolfe idea to other in BVC, I was told that there is a theory that Wolfe was the child of Holmes and Irene Adler. I don’t know if Rex Stout ever encouraged that speculation.
Others suggested that fan fiction may have gotten its start in the Sherlock Holmes world, which makes me speculate that there might be some slash fiction out there with Holmes and Watson. (If there is, I don’t really want to know about it.)
There’s no question that Sherlock Holmes stories remain incredibly popular. But I’d still like to know why. Yes, many of the original stories were good, but I can name hundreds of better stories. The writing was good, but nothing special; plenty of people can write circles around Conan Doyle (including some of those who borrowed his characters). The characters were interesting, but again, I can think of others I like better, and while most of the detectives I like better are still around (Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlowe), they don’t have the same following as Sherlock.
Poe even gave us the eccentric genius detective before Conan Doyle did, and while Poe is still read today — it becomes clear that creating a compelling mystery and detective is one way for a writer to achieve immortality — Dupin is not as well known as Sherlock.
I acknowledge the reality, but I’m still mystified. What is it about Sherlock Holmes?