Holmes sweet Holmes: The enduring appeal of the greatest fictional detective

With Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows showing in cinemas and the second series of the BBC's adaptation hitting our screens, Society Honorary Fellow Professor John Radford explains Sherlock Holmes’ continuing hold on our imagination.

At the north end of Baker Street in London, you will usually see a queue, sometimes a long one, before a flat-fronted house bearing the prominent number 221B.  It is the Sherlock Holmes Museum, whose website proclaims it is ‘the official residence of Sherlock Holmes’.

This is nonsense, first because there is no authority that could make it ‘official’, second because Holmes, a fictional character, never had a real address, and third because details in the stories show that ‘221B’ must have been much further south (the best estimate is what is now 31).

The popularity of the Museum is just one example of the extraordinary way in which the character of Holmes has far outgrown the original stories – 56 short and four longer ones - published by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle between 1887 and 1917.

Sherlock Holmes has appeared in every possible medium: print, stage, films, television, visual art, ballet, internet, opera, cartoons – just name it.

A ’deerstalker’ hat and a curved pipe mean Sherlock Holmes – despite the fact that they never appear in the originals.  Writings about Holmes, or recounting further adventures, proliferate.
Holmes receives a considerable correspondence, some of it from people who think he is still active as a consulting detective. As early as 1890 a tobacconist in Philadelphia requested a copy of Holmes’s monograph on tobacco ash which is mentioned in two stories. There are several hundred Sherlock Holmes societies around the world.

And there is the Sherlock Holmes game, which assumes that Holmes, Watson and all the rest were real, explores their affairs in minute detail, and seeks to explain the very numerous puzzles in the original stories – partly caused by Conan Doyle’s carelessness over a character who, he felt, distracted attention from his more serious work.

Holmes has assumed a unique, almost mythic, character –  unparalleled, as far as I know, by any other in fiction.

How can we account for this extraordinary semi-reality?   Holmes himself would demand data and reject mere speculation. As it is, one can only suggest some factors that seem to have contributed:

  • The most obvious is simply Conan Doyle’s skill as a writer. The stories are, in most cases, very good stories. The characters are unforgettable.
  • Holmes is a classic hero, complete with faithful companion and remorseless but ultimately beatable enemy.  Like other heroes from Robin Hood to James Bond, he is on the side of good, yet somehow beyond the law. Extremely intelligent, he is also physically strong and fearless.
  • There is nostalgia for an age in which London was the hub of a beneficent Empire on which the sun never set (a dream from which we have not yet woken – the Holmes saga begins with Watson fighting In Afghanistan!)  Impenetrable fogs, hansom cabs, street pianos, take us back instantly to a world destroyed for ever in 1914 – if it ever existed.
  • Simultaneously, however, like other mythic heroes, Holmes is timeless, and easily survives updating, as in the Basil Rathbone films or the BBC ‘Sherlock’.
  • There is what we might call the ‘Mousetrap’ effect.  Agatha Christie’s play runs because it is famous for running (since 1952). Holmes is in orbit and carries on under his own momentum. His remarks are part of our culture even when he never said them – like ‘Elementary, my dear Watson!’
  • Holmes remains a modern figure because he expresses assumptions that were new when he was crated but are now taken for granted. One of these is that much of our behaviour is shaped by early experiences. When Sigmund Freud (Holmes’s exact contemporary) proposed this he was initially howled down, yet it quickly became a commonplace – the world was ready for it. Of Holmes’s 60 recorded cases, no fewer than 39 turn on traumatic events of the long past which eventually surface and which Holmes must unravel, much like a psychoanalyst.It is noteworthy that Conan Doyle’s other great success was The Lost World, in which prehistory survives into the present day.

Much more could be said, and I said a good deal in The Intelligence of Sherlock Holmes and Other Three-Pipe Problems. But setting all this aside, Holmes – and Watson – just remain tremendous fun. ‘The game’s afoot!’