The Many Resurrections of Sherlock Holmes

Why the Great Detective is always in fashion


Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the upcoming Sherlock special
Courtesy of BBC/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECE

On a recent trip to London, I stood outside the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221B Baker Street for three and a half hours in the rain. (I do understand the concept of opportunity cost, I swear. The wait wasn't just worth it; it turned out to be part of the fun. And this from someone who usually approaches long lines with all the zen of a Chihuahua on its third espresso.) Just ahead of me, a Japanese mother and teenage daughter adjusted their deerstalker caps and stood their ground with firm determination while the rest of their party appeared periodically to try to tempt them away to other sightseeing. Just behind me, a family from the North of England served as a patient audience while their youngest member, a tween boy, deconstructed every scene featuring Moriarty in the BBC's hit series Sherlock as compared to the character's appearances in Arthur Conan Doyle's canonical writings.

Even the heterogeneity and perseverance of my fellow Sherlockians didn't prepare me for the most compelling item in the museum, however: a simple cork bulletin board where visitors had posted handwritten personal messages and drawings for the Great Detective by the dozens, layers deep, in many different languages. The docents had their hands full clearing away the loving tributes to make room for more.

Guinness World Records announced in 2012 that Sherlock Holmes holds the distinction of being the "most portrayed literary human character" in television and film worldwide. And it's true, we enjoy an embarrassment of riches in the Holmes department these days: Ian McKellen in the movie Mr. Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. in the Guy Ritchie film franchise, Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary in the United States, Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC's Sherlock, and even Vidar Magnussen from the Norwegian sketch comedy show Underholdningsavdelingen's parodies of Sherlock.

In fact, 21st century Holmesian multimedia storytelling is in full swing, from anime to pastiche novels to interactive games. Holmes and Watson have been uploaded to computers and upgraded to cyborgs, queered and genderswapped, sent to alternate universes and shot into space. The Great Detective may never have been so popular on a global scale as he is this minute.

Why do we continue to resurrect and reinterpret Sherlock Holmes? Why do we stand in line for hours at a time at Baker Street in the rain? Surely there must be a reason. Or perhaps four.

Reason 1: Because We Are the New Victorians

Scottish physician Arthur Conan Doyle brought life to Sherlock Holmes in 1887's A Study in Scarlet. Over the course of four novels and 56 short stories, Holmes became a symbol of the London in which he thrived. From our vantage point, his gas-lit, fog-bound haunts may appear cozy and quaint, but in reality Holmes' setting represented a world buffeted by rapid change.

Victorian Brits faced issues that are easily recognizable to us today, from fears of economic recession and unemployment to political debates over the immigration of populations speaking different languages and worshipping different gods than the mainstream. The specter of Russian anarchists and Irish nationalists brought about a domestic war on terror as well. And as the era drew to a close, older generations publicly bemoaned the dumbing down of mass culture and degeneration of personal morality they perceived all around them.

As Michael L. Paterson ably reminds us in A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain: A Social History of Queen Victoria's Reign, the Victorian era also saw the handwritten letter give way to the telegram and the telegram to the telephone call. In Paterson's words, "Like the Victorians we are constantly in thrall to innovation and to new technology, taking for granted things that only a decade ago seemed like scientific fantasy." Invention meant advancement, of course, but in the short term it also spelled future shock for many. Sound familiar?

For that matter, revolutions in transportation and production and other aspects of daily life yielded free time and disposable income for the middle class. Good things, to be sure, but as Paterson explains, "The more people could do, the more they sought to do, and thus the greater the stress they put on themselves—a notion that is considered equally true of our own time."

In short, the Victorians lived (as we do) through one game-changing moment after another. They craved (as we do) someone who did not fear the future but instead embraced and embodied progress. They wanted (as we do) a voice to remind them that what looked to be overwhelming chaos and incomprehensible change was actually a discoverable, understandable, and exciting world, one in which an individual could make a difference.

And make a difference he did. In the novels and stories, Holmes makes a difference to those who seek his assistance, many of whom reflect the era's most powerless and disenfranchised groups. In real life he made a difference as well. E.J. Wagner's The Science of Sherlock Holmes discusses how the Great Detective inspired a generation of forensic scientists in the same way Star Trek later would inspire a generation of engineers and astronauts. Holmes anticipated and helped to introduce many developments in the field that we take for granted today, such as the preservation and examination of crime scenes.

"You know my methods. Apply them," Holmes exhorts in The Sign of the Four. And here lies one of the keys to Holmes' longevity. His genius may set him apart, but Holmes' methods are available to us all. No wand waving or superhuman powers are needed. Conan Doyle's primary model for Holmes—Dr. Joseph Bell, a famed lecturer at the medical university in Edinburgh, Scotland—impressed his students with his significant powers of observation and skills in deduction. In an essay called "Mr. Holmes," Bell notes that the Great Detective's methods, based on his own, "are at once so obvious, when explained, and so easy, once you know them, that the ingenious reader at once feels, and says to himself, I also could do this…I will keep my eyes open, and find out things." How reassuring, not to mention empowering. It's no wonder the Victorians responded to this message or that we do today.

Reason 2: Because Max Weber Would Approve

The upheavals and changes experienced by the Victorians signaled that big-m Modernity was here to stay. The German philosopher, sociologist, and political economist Max Weber famously noted that this modernity brought with it the two-edged sword of rationalism: On the one hand, it freed people from the confines of pointless traditions, but on the other, it restricted individual freedom, trapping people like cogs in a dehumanizing machine. This ultrarational, secular, bureaucratic, controlling modernity, in Weber's view, produced disenchantment—the loss of meaning and wonder and creativity.

Enter one Sherlock Holmes.

Michael Saler, in his study of early fan communities (beginning with the innovative and unprecedented fandom surrounding the Great Detective) titled As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, observes that Sherlock Holmes represents an older, more liberating concept of rationality, one that can be traced to the concept of cognition discussed by figures such as the Scottish Enlightenment's David Hume. This concept blends reason with imagination, unites science with art, and, Saler argues, possesses the power to re-enchant the disenchanted.

Saler calls this marriage of reason and imagination "animistic reason." Edgar Allan Poe called it ratiocination, and he used it to fuel literature's first star detective, C. Auguste Dupin of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842), and "The Purloined Letter" (1844) fame. Conan Doyle was a wholehearted Poe fanboy and viewed Holmes as Dupin's intellectual heir. That is why Dr. Watson tells Holmes in their very first adventure, A Study in Scarlet, "You remind me of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin." (Holmes, of course, claims that he is superior. He would.) That is also why, over a century later, a portrait of Edgar Allan Poe hangs in Sherlock's Baker Street bedroom in the BBC's Sherlock (see "A Scandal in Belgravia"). And that is why Conan Doyle used Sherlock Holmes to personify Poe's idea of ratiocination.

Through ratiocination, Holmes reinfuses meaning into everyday experience in a way that is harmonious with modern secularism and reason—or, as Saler explains, "Holmes demonstrated how the modern world could be re-enchanted through means entirely consistent with modernity." Holmes teaches us that we must see and observe. The mundane is important. The fact that "the dog did nothing in the night-time" is in truth "a curious incident" (as readers discover in "Silver Blaze"). Or, as Holmes says in "A Case of Identity," "Depend on it, there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace."

The narrow, instrumental rationality employed by those enemies of freedom, modern bureaucrats, misses what is important in the same way that the Scotland Yarders of Conan Doyle's tales, diligent but devoid of imagination, miss the clues that solve each case. Holmes, on the other hand, uses his imagination and, in doing so, liberates us. We are not cogs in a machine but actors with agency in a world of fascination. In his essay "Sherlock Holmes vs. the Bureaucrat," Sherlockian Marshall McLuhan asserts that the "ordinary man finds a hero in Holmes and in his numerous descendants because the bureaucrat is always putting a finger on each of us in a way which makes us feel like Kafka characters."

In place of such dehumanization and disenchantment, Holmes challenges us to examine our assumptions, question prevailing narratives, and find marvels in the ordinary. A physician and Holmes fan put it this way in a letter to the magazine Tit-Bits in 1894: The stories of the Great Detective "make many a fellow who before felt little interest in his life and daily surroundings, think that after all there may be much more in life, if he keeps his eyes open, than he has ever dreamed of in his philosophy." Here is some of the meaning and wonder and creativity that Weber feared modernity had lost.

Reason 3: Because We Grok Spock

Sherlock Holmes was a sexy nerd before sexy nerds were cool. Modern science fiction had been around nearly 70 years (going back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) when Holmes came onto the literary scene, but he instantly became a poster boy for the science-fictional sensibility. This is not surprising. Conan Doyle wrote science fiction works before, during, and after writing his Holmesian canon, and several of the Holmes tales themselves ("The Devil's Foot" and "The Creeping Man," for example) are straight-up science fiction stories.

Our (and Dr. Watson's) first introduction to Holmes in A Study in Scarlet sets the tone. Holmes is in a lab at St. Bart's Hospital surrounded by Bunsen burners. "'I've found it! I've found it,' he shouted to my companion, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand," Watson recounts. "I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by hoemoglobin [yes, this is the original spelling], and by nothing else.' Had he discovered a gold mine, greater delight could not have shone upon his features." Here is Holmes in the setting of the scientist displaying the zeal of the scientist. He is one of the first and best cerebral heroes; his goal isn't to conquer the planet or thwart the villain or get the girl—it is simply to know.

Ryan Britt in "Sherlock Holmes and the Science Fiction of Deduction" (from the November 2010 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine) explains it this way: "Like a science fiction writer, Doyle seemed to start with the premise of 'what if?' Instead of a detective who arrived at the answers through intuition or moxy, Doyle asserted a different premise with the Holmes stories—what if the detective discovers the answers scientifically? What kind of adventures might he have?" Holmes certainly has had many adventures, in part because as science fiction grows more mainstream and ubiquitous, so too does Holmes.

Some of the luminaries of the genre, in fact, have edited or contributed to collections of Holmes-related science fiction, such as Sherlock Holmes through Space and Time (edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin Greenberg, and Charles Waugh), Sherlock in Orbit (edited by Mike Resnick and Martin Greenberg), and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (edited by John Joseph Adams). For that matter, a whole subgenre has appeared that sets Sherlock Holmes in the eldritch universe created by H.P. Lovecraft, an author of cosmic fiction who refuses to let being dead for almost 80 years get in the way of his ever-expanding popularity. Entire collections focus on the Holmes-Lovecraft mashup. One of the most elegant works in this key-Neil Gaiman's "A Study in Emerald," which imagines how A Study in Scarlet might have unfolded in an alternate "Albion" ruled by Lovecraft's Great Old Ones-won two of science fiction's highest honors, the Hugo and Locus awards.

Science fiction's celebration of Holmes doesn't end with the written word. The animated series Sherlock Holmes in the Twenty-Second Century takes audiences to the future, complete with a returned-through-cellular-rejuvenation Sherlock Holmes, compudroid Watson, and cloned Moriarty. The episodes adapt Conan Doyle's original stories reasonably well—but with more flying cars. Obviously.

What's more, Holmes appears in two of the most long-lived and successful franchises in science fiction media history, thus raising his visibility, relevance, and cool factor even as he bestows credibility, depth, and gravitas. Doctor Who has employed Holmes in several ways. The Fourth Doctor invoked Holmes while pursuing his own investigations, going so far as to don the deerstalker. Holmes and Watson together appear more than once in officially sanctioned Who novels related to the Seventh Doctor. And since 2011, the Who-verse has had its unique answer to Baker Street: the Paternoster Gang, led by the reptilian Silurian Madame Vastra. Holmes may have changed species and genders, but Vastra and her Watson-like human partner, Jenny Flint, have relocated to a very familiar Victorian London to solve mysteries and undertake adventures in classic Sherlockian style.

One of the most iconic sequences from Star Trek: The Next Generation is that of the android Lt. Data seeking to learn what it means to be human by wearing Holmesian costume and, with Lt. Geordi La Forge at his side as Watson, entering a holodeck program to experience Conan Doyle's stories himself. But the most important link between Holmes and the modern epic that is Star Trek came with the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film was directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer, who earlier had authored three well-known Sherlock Holmes novels: The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (which was adapted into a movie of the same name), The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer.

In The Undiscovered Country, the logical Mr. Spock—that contemporary and much-loved symbol of reason and imagination, the character whose post-Star Trek III presence proves that "the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many"—responds to a baffling mystery (who fired the photon torpedoes at the Klingons?) by quoting Holmes from the story "The Beryl Coronet." Standing on the bridge of the Enterprise, Spock intones, "As an ancestor of mine once said, 'Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'" It's canon: Sherlock Holmes is one of Mr. Spock's human ancestors.

"The message of Sherlock Holmes is simple," Meyer points out in Clarkesworld magazine. "Life can be understood." Spock and his fans would agree, of course. To Meyer, connecting those dots was a no-brainer: "The link between Spock and Holmes was obvious to everyone. I just sort of made it official."

"We're all nerds now," Noam Cohen announced in The New York Times on September 13, 2014. If it's true that geek culture is mainstream, then it follows that science fiction is mainstream. Few characters have the old-school science fiction pedigree of Sherlock Holmes, or the well-earned, new-school homages.

Reason 4: Because Holmes Is Now

This is all Arthur Conan Doyle's fault. During his lifetime, he opened his Sherlockian sandbox and let other people play. When asked by American actor William Gillette just what exactly the parameters were for an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle replied, "You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him." We've been doing whatever we like with Holmes ever since. (Some of it involves tentacles.) Truly, 221B Baker Street is a shared universe.

That said, identifying one final key to Holmes's popularity requires going back to Conan Doyle's original intent as shown in his canonical works. American author Vincent Starrett, in his poem "221B", tells us: "Here, though the world explode, these two survive,/And it is always eighteen ninety-five." Indeed, the teaser for an upcoming BBC Sherlock special (which airs on PBS' Masterpiece in the U.S.) shows the typically sharp-suited, nicotine patch-addicted Cumberbatch alighting from a carriage in front of 221B, wearing full Victorian regalia and puffing on a pipe. But Conan Doyle didn't write Holmes and Watson as flies caught in amber, forever the same, shut away in their sitting room. They lived in the readers' present tense, walking the identical streets and visiting the identical buildings as their audience members. Walking tours visit the exact locations where scenes from various stories unfolded. Holmes was a contemporary, a neighbor—so much so that readers mailed him letters and mourned his death as if he were a close friend.

This means that every time Holmes is updated—brought to today's London, or moved to New York, or turned into a medical doctor and renamed House, complete with a Wilson for a Watson—he actually is restored to what Conan Doyle meant for him to be: here with us now. Facing the same chaos, wrestling with the same bureaucracy, witnessing the same crime. Questioning. Shaking off superstition and hysteria and pseudoscientific quackery. Employing his precise methods and challenging us to do likewise. Fighting the same disenchantment with imagination and reason. Reassuring and inspiring and liberating us. Reminding us—yes, even the androids—that we're human.