Free Minds & Free Markets

The Many Resurrections of Sherlock Holmes

Why the Great Detective is always in fashion

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the upcoming Sherlock specialCourtesy of BBC/Hartswood Films for MASTERPIECEOn 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.

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  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    My personal fascination with Sherlock Holmes has been that I have always felt that if, when reading his stories when young, if only I had paused a bit and thought about them, I could swear I could have figured half of them out. Agatha Christie and her ilk always made everyone a plausible suspect, all equally likely, and it was only in the last page or two that the crucial clue was dumped in our laps. Never Sherlock -- the clues were always there in front of us early on, whether the final clue itself, or the ones which dictated the next move. Nothing false about Sherlock.

    I sometimes listen to SiriusXM old radio shows, and just like the fake Sherlock movies, I could tell the real A Conan Doyle stories from the modern ones even if I didn't practically memorize all the stories as a kid. They are preposterous plots, full of non-sequitor surprises. The authors didn't understand that basic A Conan Doyle method, that the clues were solid and reliable, not just weird crap thrown into a blender.

  • JeremyR||

    August Derleth's Solar Pons stories are pretty good, pretty much the best Sherlock Holmes pastiche

  • Robert||

    I've known some reviewers to say Derleth's were as good as Doyle's, and the rest say they're almost as good.

    Lately, however, I've been into Doyle's other stuff—his stories & novels that don't involve Holmes. Professor Challenger is hilarious, but I read Tales of Terror and Mystery and Round the Fire Stories 1st. Does anybody pastiche those, other than very slyly as in the form of the TV serial Lost?

  • lap83||

    "Agatha Christie and her ilk"

    How dare you! But seriously, she created the modern mystery. Lumping her together with people who were influenced by her would be like equating Tolkien with the fantasy writers who followed him.

  • lap83||

    Also, while I do like Sherlock, Agatha Christie has written some novels that are the best in the genre.

  • John Galt||

    Maybe we should contact Arthur Conan Doyle's spirit to see what he thinks about it.

  • Scarecrow & WoodChipper Repair||

    Whiskey? Scotch?

    (j/k; I know he was into seances and stuff)

  • John Galt||


  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Is he a millennial?

  • DenverJ||

    What does he think about Trump?

  • DenverJ||

    Also, you know who else wanted to "visit" England?

  • Mindyourbusiness||

    William the Conqueror?

  • Harold Falcon||

    I always get a little emotional with Holmes stories. My dad read the books to me before bed when I was a youth. One of my favourite memories of him.

  • phandaal||

    I have an image of Japanese women in deerstalker caps now, and that's all I need from this article. Thank you, I shall take my leave now.

  • CatoTheYounger||

    "In fact, 21st century Holmesian multimedia storytelling is in full swing, from anime to pastiche novels to interactive games."

    Wait...there is anime?

  • Bill Dalasio||

    For me, at least, the appeal of Holmes is simple. He was one of the first characters whose mantra could best be summed up as "Think". Don't just hold opinions, but analyze them, examine your premises, observe reality and assess how well it comports with your opinions.

  • Robert||

    August Derleth's Solar Pons Adventures are on my list of stuff I need to get to, if for no other reason than to see if any particulars of his pastiche of Doyle's "The Lost Special", "The Lost Locomotive", made it into the TV serial Lost, as all the other adaptations of it that I know of have.

  • toolkien||

  • DarrenM||

    Only 18 comments? Maybe a post about Kim Kardashian would get better results.

  • ||

    The remake shit is just absolutely dreadful. The canon was perfect and complete.

    Jeremy Brett did it all when it comes to acted versions of the story. Want to do a black detective and a Hispanic lesbian for a sidekick? Great, have fun- try to be a little creative, come up with new names and settings, and don't sully the Holmes brand.

  • blcartwright||

    We had Patrick Jane, Bobby Goren and Dr. House, all very good characters in their own right, based on Holmes - but I can also enjoy the modern incarnations of both Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch.

  • BPiper||

    Nice article, but I have a small quibble. The Sherlock Holmes Museum is not at 221 Baker Street -- that address is across the street. The Museum put up a sign/plaque with the 221B address, and were ordered to remove it. They have not complied with the order, but that doesn't make their address 221B. In any event, the Museum got a great deal of criticism when it first opened for being something of a rip-off. I hope it has improved.

  • Eman||

    i can dance like sherlock holmes, and i can sing like sherlock holmes, but i can't be sherlock holmes


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