Before there was CSI, NCIS, or any other series with an abbreviation for a title, and long before forensic investigation had become a term in common usage (or, indeed, a term used at all), there was one criminal investigator who did it all with the power of his mind.
Reason and logic were his only ally, and he managed to captivate readers for over a century without ever cracking even a single joke (cue barfing noise brought on by the nauseatingly cute and quippy banter between every hot detective who’s destined to hook up with the other hot detective on the show).
I’m speaking, of course, of Sherlock Holmes.
Also, long before Batman and Robin made crime-fighting duos popular, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought us the team of Holmes and Watson, which brought readers to the edge of their seats, while simultaneously educating the reader in methods of crime detection in a way the Dynamic Duo never really did.
And, of course, no hero would be complete without a nemesis, and it could be easily argued that Professor James Moriarty has served as the archetype for many naughty geniuses, from Lex Luthor to Keyser Soze. And one would be remiss if one didn’t mention the only person to ever beat Sherlock Holmes, the one that he would one day refer to only as “the woman,” Irene Adler.
And then there is the cast of characters around Holmes. What I said before about logic and reason being Holmes’ only ally was really a distortion: they weren’t his only ally. There have been a few allies along the way, and every single one of them could be said to be as indispensible as the main character himself.
There have been many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, and we will discuss some of those, and what makes him such a strong and lasting character.
Way To Go, Sherlock!
Sherlock Holmes himself has become such a powerful, resonating character that today his name is either used to congratulate someone on figuring out a complex problem, or to toss his name out sarcastically at someone who just did something extremely stupid. (SIDE NOTE: Did you know that “nimrod” is used the same way, and though Biblically Nimrod was a mighty hunter, it has since been misused to call people “idiot” ever since Bugs Bunny first called Elmer Fudd by that name? One has to wonder if someday “sherlock” might be used exclusively in this sense, but I digress.)
Sherlock is an endlessly fascinating character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle designed him from a great many inspirations. He said that he originally based Holmes off of Dr. Joseph Bell, for whom Doyle had worked as a clerk and was known for his careful observations. But the character really gets a lot of his color from key decisions that Doyle made in development.
Writers and fans take note: you cannot have a character that makes a lasting impression if you only describe them as being perfect. No matter how hot the actor playing the character is, that character will not – I repeat, will not – stand the test of time, unless that character is written well from the get-go. You cannot have a safer bet than that.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made some key decisions early on about Holmes, and here are just a few that have made him timeless:
For one, there’s the fact that, strangely enough, Holmes is addicted to cocaine (in various other incarnations, it may be cigarettes or alcohol), he has allowed himself only the one hobby of playing the violin (he finds too many other skills “clutter the mind” and weaken his focus), and, of course, he doesn’t know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
That’s right, even in modern incarnations such as the BBC series Sherlock, where he lives in modern times with cellphones and computers at his disposal, Sherlock Holmes is completely ignorant of the fact that the Sun sits at the center of our solar system and that the Earth revolves around it, and he is supremely unapologetic about not wanting to have this information inside his head. This is because Doyle decided to make a key decision in the creation of his character: Sherlock Holmes isn’t all-knowing. Indeed, he’s far from it. His powers of observation and crime-scene analysis are his greatest assets, while he finds information such as Copernican heliocentrism to be not worth knowing, since it cannot help him solve a crime in even the slightest way.
This is important and should be noted by future writers or any modern fans of fiction. Holmes is a delectable character not because he is ultra badass like Riddick in Chronicles of Riddick, and not because he has the ability to outsmart everyone, but because he chooses to deny himself certain pleasures in life so that he can remain consistently good at one thing. All characters should have something unique that makes them stand out, especially your main characters, and Doyle certainly achieved this by creating such a calculating, and understatedly tragic, detective.
Tragic, because he many times shows a fondness for the friends around him, yet is never able to relate to them in any way that is meaningful for most of them.
Throughout his many incarnations, Holmes has described his mind as being like an attic, and that there’s only so much space one has up there, and so one must not fill it with useless clutter if one wishes to be good at any one thing. In Sherlock, this analogy is updated, and Holmes compares his mind to a computer with only so much space on its hard drive.
He’s also been known to express this same attitude towards the people in his circle – if he knows too many people, then he might lose focus on those that are truly valuable, the ones he can really trust, and (we can only speculate) the ones that will not judge him or force him to change, make him “open up” in a way that he would find uncomfortable, meddlesome, or distracting.
Allowing himself only the violin, which he plays lonesomely, Sherlock Holmes becomes a character that we all want to reach out to, maybe give him a hug, and let a little bit of sunlight into his life. However, if we did that, we might ruin his ability to save us all from doom.
That’s our tragedy, and his.
Crime Scene Analysis
It wouldn’t be a Sherlock Holmes story without a puzzling crime scene and a step-by-step logical breakdown of the scene by the detective himself. Long before it was something even considered by the layperson, Doyle was giving us a detective who demonstrated keen skill at analyzing trace evidence, including fingerprints, wheel impressions, ballistics, and handwriting analysis. He also understands a great deal about toxicology, chemistry, and other complex sciences, while fitting the pieces together in a way that wouldn’t have been as obvious to the other investigators around him.
There isn’t one fan who doesn’t get giddy when Holmes starts running through precisely how he knows that, not only has the killer not fled the country, but he’s still in the house, under the floorboards, has a gun with two rounds left, and is wearing a green-and-white striped shirt with two buttons undone.
This is something else that only a few detective story writers ever do well, and that’s the “revelation sequences,” when everything finally snaps into place and the overall picture of what really happened becomes so apparent. This is done with one very key writing technique, and that is the expounding of Sherlock Holmes to one Dr. John Watson. Which brings us to…
Elementary, My Dear Watson
Though it isn’t fair to say that he’s the original fiction detective (for he was also partially inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Gaboriau’s Lecoq), Sherlock Holmes is probably the most relatable, and for one very important reason: his biographer Dr. John Watson.
Watson is a real, breathing, feeling human being, and his nature stands in contrast to Holmes’s stoic own. A doctor formerly of the British Army, he is almost always portrayed (subtly) as a man freshly returned from something that disenchanted him from his time in the military, and is just looking to get reacquainted with society when a friend recommends him to Sherlock Holmes, who lives alone at 221B Baker Street and is interested in finding a new flatmate.
Though Holmes is certainly the focus of most fans’ attention, it must be remembered that Doyle did something else important here by creating a character like Watson to follow Holmes around. What he did was introduce some heart, because, if we were only looking through Holmes’s cold, calculating eyes, then even the most mind-bending crime-scene analysis could get boring quickly. We need someone to ask the questions that we the audience wish to ask, the least of which is, “How do you know that, Holmes? Tell us!” And it’s a key point in the story that, quite often, Holmes withholds that information until the very end … and sometimes never reveals it.
What’s more, Doyle allowed the mystery and power of the story to deepen by having Watson state so much for us about Holmes’s character. This reminds me of the scene in The Dark Knight where Alfred is talking to Bruce Wayne in the underground lair, and the butler explains to Bruce that the Joker is perhaps someone who “can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with,” and that “some men just want to watch the world burn.” By doing this, the writers had another character build suspense for us about who, and what, the Joker really was. Something unknowable, which is so troubling and provocative.
This is a writing technique to build anticipation, by having one character say something about another character that either deepens the mystery by way of speculation, or reveals something at a key moment when they discover some new truth. Conversely, whenever a character mentions something about himself/herself, it just doesn’t have the punch of having someone else say it about them.
Dr. Watson is probably the main reason for Sherlock Holmes’s success, and not the crime-analysis portions that we all remember. He’s the invisible force that holds it all together. Without him, there can never be a decent Sherlock Holmes story.
Other Pals Around 221B Baker Street
Of course, Holmes’s world is also peppered by other friends who come and go. The three most notable besides Watson himself are Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and Mycroft Holmes. Lestrade is often depicted as the man who, sometimes unhappily, must go to Sherlock Holmes with an unsolvable case and humbly ask for his help. This leads to a sometimes shaky relationship between the brusque Holmes and the investigators of Scotland Yard, which only adds more intrigue. In recent years, this tense relationship between Holmes and Scotland Yard has been developed more, and rightly so, because this allows the writers to make Inspector Lestrade an even stronger character since he must balance the two forces out: his respect for Holmes’s techniques, and his duty to his job. (Did somebody say Commissioner Gordon? I would certainly argue that this is where at least the spark for Gordon came from when Bob Kane was first developing the Caped Crusader.)
Of course, it’s usually good to know that a character has a family or past, which is why having Mycroft Holmes make the occasional appearance is so important. In the literature, he is described as having deductive powers that dwarf Holmes’s own, but that he rarely elects to do anything with them. Mycroft would much rather sit and read at The Diogenes Club, a fictional club created by Doyle where gentlemen can gather and read in utter silence, and the number one rule is that there is no talking. Mycroft has been used flexibly by different writers; most recently in “Sherlock” he’s a member of a super secret government intelligence agency. Either way, Mycroft is depicted as having a somewhat shaky relationship with his younger brother Holmes, and just knowing that there’s a little sibling rivalry there increases the intrigue.
And then there’s the wonderful Mrs. Hudson. Mrs. Hudson is the landlady at 221B Baker Street, the flat where Holmes and Watson reside. She is often seen as a kindly and helpful woman who sees to the two bachelors, and sometimes worries over their safety as they carry on with their adventures. In recent decades, writers have (quite correctly) expanded her role in the stories, which has lent even more heart to the series. She sees to “her boys” and makes sure they’re healthy and have all that they need. It’s because of her that the duo can focus so much of their time on crime-solving and not worry about their flat falling to pieces. (Alfred Pennyworth, anyone?)
Once, when Watson suggested that Mrs. Hudson go live somewhere else for a time since their enemies had become so dangerous they might target her, Holmes, in a moment that briefly showed his more compassionate side, said harshly, “Mrs. Hudson leave Baker Street? Nonsense! England would fall!”
He might just be been right about that.
And Now For the Baddies
It is said that a hero is only as good as the villains he (or she) goes up against.
Though in his initial run Holmes never had enough recurring villains to have a true rogues gallery, later incarnations certainly expanded on the stories and backgrounds of his enemies, which, over time, gave Holmes one of the most powerful rogues galleries in all of fiction, and an atmosphere of intrigue matched only by a few other series.
There are two villains that are most referenced in Holmes lore. One is Irene Adler, who, in every incarnation, ends up with some scandalous photos of some powerful member of British royalty, and manages to work out a way of duping (though only slightly) the great detective. There has always been the subtext that this was the first woman to ever truly interest Sherlock Holmes, and though they are on opposing sides of the law, there is obvious mutual respect between them. (Catwoman, anyone?)
Adler’s character has always lent that feminine side to Holmes’s otherwise cold, sterile world of deductive reasoning. While Watson provides readers with an anchor to the real world, and Mrs. Hudson shows that Holmes can have great affection for others around him, Irene Adler’s presence causes readers (and TV viewers) to ask, “What would happen if Holmes went with her? Does he want to go with her?” Either answer has powerful implications for Holmes as a character.
And, of course, there’s the man that Holmes describes as “the Napoleon of crime,” Professor James Moriarty himself. Based on real-life criminal mastermind Adam Worth, Moriarty gives Holmes something that every hero needs: an archenemy. Without a reoccurring problem to aggravate our hero, things may tend to get stale.
Moriarty was originally conceived as a simple plot device to allow Doyle to kill off Sherlock Holmes, since Doyle didn’t have very many ideas left for Holmes and was tired of writing the stories. However, in a wonderful twist of fate, fans reacted negatively to Holmes’ death, so much so that Doyle was forced to bring him back, and now, armed with Moriarty as an intellectual peer to match wits with Holmes, the character became more popular than ever!
That’s right, even Moriarty and Doyle himself couldn’t kill Sherlock Holmes. This stands as a testament to the power of the character that Doyle created. It shows that, just because a creator becomes tired with his creation, does not mean that the fans don’t long to see more, and that future writers can’t think of newer, more innovative ways to keep him around.
It’s fascinating that Doyle wanted to kill Holmes off because, well, remember how I said that Doyle based Holmes off of Dr. Joseph Bell? Well, many years after Doyle made that claim, Bell wrote a letter to Doyle that said: “you are yourself Sherlock Holmes, and well you know it.”