The Immortality of Sherlock Holmes

by Nancy Jane Moore

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock HolmesWhat is it about Sherlock Holmes?

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?

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The Immortality of Sherlock Holmes — 18 Comments

  1. You’re only speculating about the slash fic? Lol. Though the fact that there is Sherlock/Harry Potter crossovers out there is a bit more hilarious. (What if Sherlock was a squib? Think about it.)

    In the same line as Nero Wolfe, there’s Miss Madelyn Mack, by Hugh Cosgro Weir. With a rather eccentric lady detective, and her lady journalist sidekick, responsible, as her Watson, for writing all the stories up.

    • Perhaps the creators of “Sherlock” are aware of the slash and that’s one of several reasons why John Watson finds it necessary to keep explaining that he and Sherlock aren’t lovers.

      But while I am aware of slash, have read Joanna Russ’s excellent work on the subject, and am quite capable of recognizing where it might exist, I don’t really want to know any more about it 😉

      • I suspect that the slash – or at least the speculation about it – has been around for more than a century (people speculating about it and people imagining it are two different things. Also it’s a comment on how that relationship would be perceived today. Mrs. Hudson’s role is also (hilarious) and a comment on how we translate certain social practices through time (such as – what a landlady does for you.)).

        Once I went to an amazing talk about the history of fandom, and apparently one of the most vexed issues in contemporary (to publication) Sherlock Holmes fanzines was how many wives Watson had. There were flamewars even then.

  2. Stout probably knew of the speculation, but he was smart enough to never comfirm anything one way or the other, leaving rich fields for speculation. The need for an assistant, for the brilliant detective to talk to, seems to be dictated by plot necessities. Otherwise you just have your silent genius barrelling around the story doing incomprehensible things. Also a Watson or a Robin allows for humor, humanization, and conflict with Holmes or Batman — all core to good fiction.

  3. The modern explanation for his behavior — “Aspergers” — is thrown around with regularity, but I don’t buy it.

    I’ve only seen the first season of BBC’s wonderful new interp, not currently having access to a television, but I got the impression that this was smoke and mirrors on the part of those who accept Holmes as he is. There’s nothing clumsy about Holmes. The Asperger’s part is that he doesn’t seem to get emotional relationships, and rarely wants to understand them. When someone matters to him, like his friendship with Watson is starting to matter, he is trying to make an effort. As when he figures out he’s crossed a line in “Baskerville” and must find a way to apologize to Watson, to keep it vague for those who have missed the series so far.

    Wikipedia is useless for a lot of things, but for general lists, it can be handy — I’d call Holmes a sociopath who has an outlet for his obsessions and is a low violence risk.

    To quote:

    a) Callous unconcern for the feelings of others.
    b) Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.
    c) Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.

    The really intriguing thing is, why does Holmes of all modern characters endure? I propose that part of it is that he is Justice for the average man. He is interested in the mystery, the question, the challenge, but the people who come to him rarely see that he’s a computer in a man’s body – they see a potential savior; they see Justice. Occasionally, they see Nemesis. When the Law fails them, Holmes will solve the mystery and get them Justice.

    Sherlock doesn’t care about what the law actually is in the matter – he may or may not tell the police about what he finds out. I think readers like the idea that somewhere on Earth, there is a man who might be convinced to take their case. Otherwise, they either have nothing, or the hope of divine retribution in the afterlife.

  4. The tragic part is that Doyle considered Holmes to be hackwork, unworthy of him. The work he did for love never achieved the same level.

  5. Katherine has it right — the Doyle/BBC Holmes is a sociopath who has managed to use the attribute for a general good. It’s all abstract to him and he is in a position to be able to indulge in it as a passionate hobby or game. A woman behaving like Holmes would be involuntarily committed after about a day or so and shot full of Thorazine (see: Camille Claudel).

    I had/have a very different reaction to the series (and the books):

    Gender Essentialism? Elementary, My Dear Watson!

    • I haven’t seen Elementary, so I’m not attempting a comparison. And the misogyny you talk about is obviously there (though I don’t think it’s any stronger than the misogyny in the original). I’m having to overlook that to appreciate the series. But given that I find it harder to overlook misogyny these days, the fact that I’m enjoying the show means they’re doing something compelling.

      • As I said in my article, both the original and the BBC series are awash in misogyny. However, Doyle wrote during the Victorian & Edwardian era, when women were de facto furniture. It’s far less excusable to have the BBC Sherlock show Irene Adler as a dominatrix who wears only furs and stiletto heels and sheds the furs several times during the episode for reasons that are integral to neither plot nor character.

          • Their handling of Adler was disappointing – unless she turns out to be a really deep cover spy for the British, and she does these things to keep men thinking with the little brain instead of the main one.

            I could buy her cover story at that point, because it would be very effective in certain corridors of power.

            Sadly.

      • As to what they’re doing that’s compelling, it’s relatively simple: they invite you to be “magical” by proxy identifying with Holmes, who is as untouchable as any superhero (male, rich, unencumbered, above the law, himself a dispenser of justice), while the rest are poor Muggles.

        • Actually, I’m identifying with Watson. I want to throttle Sherlock on a regular basis. I think that’s why I like it so much — it emphasizes what an annoying man he is. But that’s probably my own perversity and not something that would work for anyone else.

          • No, I like Watson, too. Watson has his own many reasons for working with Holmes, but I enjoyed what I’ve seen as much for Watson as seeing what Holmes will do next.

            Holmes and Moriarty are really disagreeable people, though! And we desperately need a few brilliant, interesting women in here.

            Writer Carole Nelson Douglas’s Irene Adler is a lot of fun, and the character worked in period – at least in the first five of the books. I’m behind in that series.

  6. I have a feeling that Rex Stout enjoyed the theory that Nero Wolfe was the child of Holmes and Adler. After all, Stout was the one who delivered a hilarious speech to the Baker Street Irregulars called “Watson was a Woman” (http://www.hwslash.net/stout.html) which reputedly outraged the other members so much they ousted him from the organization.