Sherlock Holmes and the 21st Century
[Three-part series published in The Pipe Smoker's Ephemeris in
Being a Reprint from the Reminiscences of
Henry Zecher, through the courtesy of John H. Watson, M.D., late of the Army
Medical Department, through the kind auspices of Dr. Watson's literary agent,
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, M.D., who gave to the world the two most famous
characters in all literature.
* * * * *
"Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes."
With these words, on New Year's Day 1881, in the chemical laboratory
at St. Bartholomew’s, the oldest hospital in England, young Stamford
introduced the two most famous characters in fiction. A bronze plaque on the
laboratory wall now commemorates the occasion.
Sherlock Holmes! The very name fires the imagination: Gas-lit London!
Fog rolling in off the Thames! The clip-clip-clop of horses' hoofs on
The Red-Headed League! The Hound of the Baskervilles! The Six
Napoleons! The Valley of Fear! The Speckled Band!
Irene Adler, The Woman! Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of
Crime! Scotland yard! Inspectors Gregson, Jones, MacDonald and Lestrade! Mrs.
Hudson! Watson! Baker Street!
The deerstalker cap! The Inverness cape! The magnifying lens! The
These images, and many more, are as much a part of the Holmes mystique
as his deductions and his triumphs. They are, in fact, the very accoutrements
of what Vincent Starrett called "that little chamber of the heart: that
nostalgic country of the mind: where it is always 1895."
And yet it would seem today that Sherlock Holmes has become a thing of
the past. Holmes films do not go over well with modern theater goers because
audiences today have more perverse tastes and shorter attention spans.
Hollywood caters to this in a variety of ways, from the flesh, flash and
gadgetry of James Bond to the graphic violence and vulgar language of the
Die Hard and Lethal Weapon films. Unlike Double-O-Seven, Holmes is
not a ladies man; and, even though Watson most certainly is, Watson's
consorts are fully clothed. Holmes stories rely on skill and intellect, subtle
reasoning, non-too-obvious clues, and slow plot and character development, for
which modern audiences have little patience.
How well Holmes appears to fit into our modern world was reflected
rather pessimistically by Basil Rathbone (right) in his 1962 memoirs, In
and Out of Character: With the development in talking pictures of a mass
production of murder-mystery-sleuth-horror movies our audiences have been
delighted and amused by the extravagant shock technique employed...
In the early years of the present century theater audiences were
chilled to the marrow by William Gillette’s famous portrayal of Sherlock
Holmes, in a play I have read and been invited to revive. This play, believe
me, is so ludicrously funny today that the only possible way to present it in
the sixties would be to play it like The Drunkard, with Groucho Marx as
Sherlock Holmes. Time marches on!... Modern audiences would laugh this play
off the stage. Even the witticisms of Oscar Wilde are already somewhat dated,
and Mr. Shaw, despite his protestations, stands trembling on the brink! Only
Mr. Shakespeare remains as modern to us as he was to audiences in the year
1600. ‘Dated,’ that’s the word. The Sherlock Holmes stories are dated and
their pattern and style, generally speaking, unacceptable to an age where
science has proven that science fiction is another outdated joke (and turning
out to be a most unpleasant one). The only possible medium still available to
an acceptable present-day presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories
would be a full-length Disney cartoon.
The Holmes stories were first written in an age when literature was
both fully developed and a major form of entertainment. Books relied on the
reader's imagination to conjure up mental images of the scenes and the actions
of the characters. They required the reader to think. Radio would do
this to some degree once the electronic age came along, but radio was
nevertheless a more passive form of entertainment. We simply sat there and let
it perform. Of course, we had to imagine the scenes and characters; but plot,
dialogue and the sounds of action were all provided for us with no effort on
our part. It was television which became the ultimate catalyst in our
transformation from an active to a passive audience. It was the ultimate total
entertainment package, providing both sight and sound. In the process it also
anesthetized our imaginations and stunted our ability to think.
Rather than take part in the reasoning process, rather than being
mentally absorbed in the gradually evolving story with slowly developing
characters, we just sit back and let the tube entertain us. Life's plots and
problems are all resolved within a half-hour or an hour. And this
dysfunctional passivity has spilled over into such areas as our churches,
where a younger generation comes to church on Sunday morning, demands to be
entertained, and then goes home to remain uninvolved until the following
Sunday. It has also crippled many members of the young work force because they
lack the ability to reason forward and to act upon their reasoning. Told by a
supervisor to proceed through steps A and B, steps which will automatically
lead to step C, the thinking employee might well proceed and accomplish step C
and thus conclude the project; but too many young workers will do steps A and
B precisely as instructed, but will leave step C undone because they were not
specifically told to proceed.
Cable television has broadened our entertainment reach by providing us
access to things we would ordinarily leave our homes to see: concerts,
theater, sports and other activities. Through the magic of C-Span we can watch
our government in action and even watch our armies being sent into battle.
Said one college student on the first night of Desert Storm, "I'm going to pop
some popcorn and go watch the war."
We’ve lost our ability to communicate. Families gather in front of the
television set after dinner (or even during dinner), and never have to
actually converse. One of the big trends of the last 15 years has been what
the Washington Post Magazine once called "cocooning," the tendency of
couples to order fast food, rent a video, and stay at home each night instead
of becoming involved with their neighbors. Ours is an age of convenience and
seclusion from the most important elements of life: friendships, community
involvement, and the ability (not to mention the one-time necessity) of
reaching out beyond ourselves.
Finally, morals and ethics are disintegrating rapidly. From the idea
of we and striving for the common good, we are now in the age of me and the
gratification of our own petty complaints and selfish personal desires, no
matter at whose expense the gratification comes. War and white-collar crime
have grown and spread as fast as the technology that makes them possible.
Politicians, businessmen, and leaders at all levels of society are blatantly
serving their own or supportive special interests rather than working for the
overall common good.
Therefore, for many of us, Holmes is a breath of fresh air, a
throw-back to a simpler age when standards and morals were black and white,
and rarely gray; when good was right and evil was plainly evil; when people
actually communicated and reached out to each other; and when country and
honor meant something more than mere entries in the history books which too
many students never read anyway.
Fortunately, there are more than just the stories to fill the void.
Holmes’ life has been chronicled, and his world recreated, for all to enjoy.
The sitting room Holmes and Watson shared at 221B Baker Street (history's most
famous address, never truly identified) has been reassembled in a number of
places, most notably the Sherlock Holmes Pub (right), once the Northumberland
Hotel, where one of Sir Henry Baskerville's boots disappeared. There is also a
Sherlock Holmes Hotel on Baker Street, and the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which
recreates at 221 Baker Street the entire suite Holmes and Watson would have
lived in had they really lived.
The detective's image, picture, or silhouette is everywhere. And
London itself still retains some of the old flavor because many shops serve a
conservative clientele and shopkeepers are therefore not willing to modernize
their store-fronts, which appear much as they did before the Great War. So
many of Holmes' old haunts are still there, many of them unchanged from a
century ago when the master sleuth walked the streets of London with Watson at
Mall, where he and brother Mycroft lounged at the Diogenes Club;
* Simpson's on
the Strand, where Holmes and Watson dined;
* The British Museum, where Holmes studied;
Garden, where Holmes visited a dealer in geese searching for the man who
stole the Blue Carbuncle;
* Pope's Court, off Fleet Street, site of the headquarters of the
* Charing Cross, from which station Irene Adler made her escape,
and to which hospital Holmes was taken after he was brutally assaulted
outside the Royal Cafe;
* Bow Street,
where the man with the twisted lip begged;
theaters he attended: the Lyceum, the Haymarket, Covent Garden, Albert
* The railroad stations: Baker Street, Victoria, Charing Cross,
* The river Thames, up which Holmes and Watson chased Jonathan
Small in pursuit of the Agra treasure;
* Lloyd's Bank at Pall Mall, with Cox & Company still printed on
the door, keepers of that battered old tin dispatch box with John H.
Watson, M.D., printed on the lid, in which Watson told us he left so many
as yet unrecounted adventures for which the world was not yet prepared;
* And, finally, Baker Street, once at the outskirts but now near
the very center of London, and still the most famous and romantic
thoroughfare in the world.
London is more than Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Thames; and it
is more than simply the old capital of history's greatest empire on which the
sun never set. It is the capital of the realm of our imagination, of a
romantic era long since past. There are many famous boulevards around the
world: Broadway in New York City, the Champs Elysees in Paris, the Street of
David in Jerusalem, the Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai, the Ghat of the Ganges
in Benares; but none receive the number of visitors, or are known so
intimately around the world, as London's Baker Street, the home of Sherlock
Anyone wishing to go there can trace Holmes' steps with the help of
Michael Harrison’s wonderful views of Holmes' London, and the places he went,
in The London of Sherlock Holmes and In the Footsteps of Sherlock
Tsukasa Kobayashi, Akane Higashiyama and Masaharu Uemura published
"then and now" photographs of these sites, as well as other valuable
information, in Sherlock Holmes's London.
The Sherlock Holmes Society of London, provides valuable information
as well, including a brochure on Holmesian London.
Several guide books are helpful, but Oscar Wilde's London is
particularly so because it divides the city into 10 sections for walking
tours, with descriptions of the sites to be seen there. Of course, pipe shops
are an obvious place to search for Holmes memorabilia, as well as capturing
the true flavor of the man, and Michael Butler of The Pipesmokers' Council in
London provides a most helpful directory of London tobacco shops, along with
directions. Other guide books cover Holmes sites in London, around the British
Isles and on continental Europe, and articles covering tours and tour sites
have appeared over the years in The Sherlock Holmes Journal.
The Creation of Sherlock Holmes
We know of Holmes, of course, because of his biographer (his
"Boswell," he called him): John H. Watson, M.D., who had already seen all the
adventure he would ever want to see, and was quite prepared for the sedentary
life of a medical practitioner when he chanced upon young Stamford at the
Criterion Bar that New Year's Day in 1881. Watson was subsequently introduced
to the man he would serve as biographer, helper, companion and friend for more
than two decades, and whose accounts of Holmes' cases would make the London
detective renowned around the world.
Holmes' career as the world's first consultive detective lasted from
1877 until 1903. In that time he would have encountered most of the famous
characters of the era: from Theodore Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud, George Bernard
Shaw, Alfred Dreyfus, Aleister Crowley and Jack the Ripper, to Count Dracula,
Dr. Fu Manchu, Lord Greystoke (Tarzan), Mr. Hyde and the Phantom of the Opera.
In one book or another, he has met these and many more.
The Ripper murders of five prostitutes in Whitechapel have
particularly beguiled our imaginations because of their savagery and because
the Ripper was never identified, in spite of Holmes' efforts to catch him in
several novels and two feature films. You may take the "Jack the Ripper Tour"
of Whitechapel, where all five victims were butchered. It is given at night,
and is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart.
Yet, ironically, Jack the Ripper ~ who was very real ~ was greatly
responsible for the fictional Holmes' early popularity. The first Holmes
adventure, A Study In Scarlet, appeared in book form in 1888 just as
the Whitechapel murders were terrorizing Britain, and Holmes represented an
unheard-of high degree of detective sophistication which Scotland Yard had not
yet attained. Charles Higham revealed in The Adventures of Conan Doyle,
"Magazine after magazine, newspaper after newspaper, cried out for just the
kind of deductive genius which Holmes, in fiction, embodied. The failure of
the police to solve the puzzle of the Ripper murders only accentuated a
psychological need for a Holmesian hero. If the public could not find him in
life, they would find him in books, and find him they did."
The creation of Sherlock Holmes must rank as one of the truly great
accomplishments of all time. To begin with, he was a composite character.
Putting pen to paper in 1885, Doyle (right) recalled his Edinburgh professor,
Joseph Bell, M.D., F.R.C.S., consulting surgeon to the Royal Infirmary and
Royal Hospital for Sick Children, and Member of University Court, Edinburgh
University. Dr. Bell could deduce a man's habits, his trade, his nationality,
his mere appearance and his place of origin, by subtle observations. "Use your
eyes, sir!" he would tell a student observing a patient. "Use your ears, use
your brain, your bump of perception, and use your powers of deduction."
When a soldier entered his room, Bell observed, "Ah, you are a
soldier, and a non-commissioned officer at that. You have served in Bermuda.
Now how do I know that, gentlemen? Because he came into the room without even
taking his hat off, as he would go into an orderly room. He was a soldier. A
slight, authoritative air, combined with his age, shows that he was a
non-commissioned officer. A rash on his forehead tells me he was in Bermuda
and subject to a certain rash known only there."
Does this recall the retired Sergeant of Marines whom Holmes and
Watson saw approaching their door in A Study in Scarlet?
However, Bell's genius began and ended in the classroom, for he could
never use his powers to solve a single crime.
Also on Doyle's mind were Edgar Allan Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, the
energetic investigator; Emile Gaboriau's Monsieur Lecoq, with his neatly
dovetailing plots; and Wilkie Collins' Sergeant Cuff, the tall, beak-nosed,
cadaverous hunter. But Doyle also infused much of himself into his new
detective, plus one man more. Of all the men he had admired from his youth, he
most wanted to meet a Harvard medical professor and criminal psychologist who
was the author of many medical monographs as well as poetry ("Old Ironsides"
and the "Breakfast-Table" papers), and who would give to Doyle's creation both
his own investigative methods as well as his surname: Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Strangely, Dr. Watson, who was in contrast to Holmes, was also Doyle,
the Doyle the public knew: medical man, family man, British gentleman. Holmes
was that side of Doyle the public never saw: manic-depressive, active at odd
hours, packrat, and creative investigator.
"Holmes and Watson live side by side," Higham wrote, "like a married
couple ~ or the two opposing sides of Conan Doyle's own personality."
In creating his new detective, Doyle wanted more than mere
investigative energy, dove-tailing plots, or a relentless manhunter. Doyle's
detective had to do what no other had ever managed: he must reduce the
detection of crime to an exact science. This was easier said than done,
because at this time scientific crime detection was still in its infancy, as
demonstrated by Alphonse Bertillon's attempts in Paris to identify criminals
by measuring their bones. It was also marred by superstition, as in Cesare
Lombroso's claim in 1864 that some people were born criminals and that he
could identify any man as a criminal, and a specific type of criminal at that,
simply by observing his physical characteristics. France’s François Eugène
Vidocq, chef de la Sûreté in Paris, had made quite a name for himself as a
detective earlier in the century, and is believed to have been the inspiration
for Poe’s Dupin; but Vidocq was an exception to the general rule. Police
detectives by the 1880s were often little more than glorified Bobbies with
neither training in, nor understanding of, scientific crime detection.
Furthermore, Doyle was trying to enlarge upon the concept of the
detective formula put together by Poe: the locked room in which an apparently
impossible crime has been committed, a crime the detective ~ against all odds
~ sets out to solve with superior intellect, perception, and skill. Poe
perfected the detective story and the psychological thriller. Anna Katherine
Green, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Collins, and Gaboriau had followed this formula
with great success; but now Doyle sought to improve on even them. He had to
start with his heroes and then close his eyes to enlarge upon them, imagining
how he would go about it if he was the man capable of doing what he was trying
to do. From that imagination sprang the master sleuth of Baker Street.
How well Doyle succeeded is demonstrated by the fact that it was not
until the appearance of Hans Gross's Criminal Investigation that the
basis for modern crime detection and police systems came into being; yet Doyle
anticipated Gross. Among its many subjects, Gross's book featured a section on
tracing footprints and casting their impressions in plaster of Paris. Holmes
traced footprints in A Study In Scarlet (published in Beeton's
Christmas Annual for 1887) and referred to his monograph on tracing
footprints and casting their impressions in Plaster of Paris in The Sign of
Four (published in the United States in 1890).
"No man lives or has ever lived who has brought the same amount of
study and of natural talent to the detection of crime which I have done,"
Holmes lamented, and what he said was true. Criminal Investigation was
not published until 1891, by which time both England and America knew the name
of Sherlock Holmes.
In 1889 Joseph Marshall Stoddart of the American Lippincott's
Monthly Magazine brought Doyle and Oscar Wilde together for dinner at
London's Langham Hotel in order to commission from each a novel for his
magazine. Following a most charming evening, Wilde wrote The Picture of
Dorian Gray and Doyle produced The Sign of Four, which introduced
Holmes to a most receptive American audience. In 1891 the new and hugely
popular London magazine, The Strand, abandoned novels in favor of short
stories by celebrated authors, and the first of the Holmes short stories, "A
Scandal In Bohemia," appeared in the July issue, followed a month later by
"The Red-Headed League." In only two months, Sherlock Holmes became the most
talked-about figure in London and stood upon a world stage from which he would
In appearance, Holmes was modeled after Walter Paget, brother of
illustrator Sidney Paget, whose illustrations accompanied Doyle's stories in
The Strand. American illustrator Frederic Dorr Steele, who illustrated
29 of the 32 stories which appeared after Holmes returned from the Reichenbach
abyss, modeled Holmes after William Gillette, the great actor who introduced
Holmes to the American stage before the turn of the century.
It has been claimed that Paget modeled Watson after Doyle himself,
although they had not yet met; and Watson's description ~ thickset, bull-neck,
mustache ~ better fits Doyle's secretary of 40 years, Major Alfred Wood. There
is some confusion over the model for Watson. And, while Doyle had pictured
Holmes as being more like Sergeant Cuff (tall, cadaverous and ugly), Paget
made him sexually attractive and handsome, in other words, the man of the 90s.
"His image of Sherlock Holmes," Higham explained, "had hundreds of
thousands of young women yearn for this fictional character as they might
yearn for a stage actor, and a similar number of men wanted to emulate his
flawless tailoring and various forms of headgear. Sherlock Holmes became a
star before movies were born..." The height of Holmes mania occurred, of all
times, upon his "death" at the Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem,"
published in 1893. No fewer than 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions
to The Strand and tens of thousands more wrote angry letters (one of
which began, "You beast...").
Men wore black bands on their hats and coat sleeves and some women
dressed in mourning. For may readers, it seemed like what one cartoonist
called Life’s darkest hour.
Doyle felt that Holmes kept him from tending to his wife, who was
dying from tuberculosis, and that Holmes interfered with his more worthy
literary efforts. As it turned out, Doyle later admitted that he would not
have written more had he not killed Holmes off, and ten years later he yielded
to the pressure and brought Holmes back, easy to do since "fortunately no
coroner had pronounced upon the remains." He was never to kill him again,
allowing him instead to continue his career and eventually to retire to his
villa at Fulworth, on the southern slope of the Sussex Downs, commanding a
wonderful view of the English Channel.
There, on the wind-swept slopes overlooking the Channel, Holmes kept
bees and wrote his memoirs, with only his old housekeeper to keep him company.
But it is at 221B Baker Street that he and Watson reside in the world of our
dreams, as real to us as we are to each other, these two men who never lived,
at an address that never existed, where, to fans of all ages around the world,
they remain to this day.
Holmes and Real Life Police
In an era before the development of scientific crime detection,
Sherlock Holmes made his presence known in the very precincts where it
He was the original scientific sleuth and, by the time he retired,
entire wings of police departments were devoted to the forensic and
pathological studies he once conducted alone at Baker Street. The stories
became required reading at many police academies; and, well into the 20th
century, Dr. Edmond Locard, head of the police laboratory at Lyons, wrote, "I
hold that a police expert, or an examining magistrate, would not find it a
waste of time to read Doyle's novels... If, in the police laboratory at Lyons,
we are interested in any unusual way in this problem of dust, it is because of
having absorbed ideas found in (Hans) Gross and Conan Doyle."
America's greatest living detective, William J. Burns, traveled to
London in 1912 and told Doyle that Holmes' methods were entirely practical;
and Doyle himself, that paladin of lost causes, flourishing what Robert Louis
Stevenson called "the white plume of Conan Doyle,
used Holmes's methods to solve crimes and undo gross miscarriages of justice.
Doyle, however, was an amateur, and he did such things only on
occasion. New Zealand's Sir Sydney Smith used Holmes's deductive and reasoning
methods for half a century as one of the world's leading experts in forensic
medicine. Smith received his medical training at Doyle's alma mater, Edinburgh
University, where Joseph Bell's colleague, Harvey Littlejohn, was his teacher.
Smith was also lecturer in forensic medicine at Edinburgh and the original
developer of ballistic forensics, which proved that bullets fired by the same
gun will have the same distinctive markings.
They called him the "real-life Sherlock Holmes," and there were
literally hundreds of cases in which he reasoned correctly from a small piece
of evidence. Here is just one: Handed a piece of leather about the size of a
fingernail (the only evidence from a safe-cracking), Smith subjected the
particle to a battery of tests ~ probing, x-rays, microscopic examination, and
chemical analysis. His pronouncement: "The leather is off a man's shoe, size 9
½. It is a black shoe, has been worn for about two years, was made in England
and the wearer had been walking through a lime-sprinkled field recently." They
caught the criminal that very day.
"Today, criminal investigation is a science," Smith recalled after his
retirement. "This was not always so, and the change owes much to the influence
of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had the rare, perhaps unique, distinction of
seeing life become true to his fiction."
Doyle revolutionized the detective story, which Edgar Allan Poe had
essentially created. Dorothy Sayers wrote, "Conan Doyle took up the Poe
formula and galvanized it into life and popularity. He cut out the elaborate
psychological introductions, or restated them in crisp dialogue. He brought
into prominence what Poe had only lightly touched upon ~ the deduction of
staggering conclusions from trifling indications in the Dumas-Cooper-Gaboriau
manner. He was sparkling, surprising, and short. It was the triumph of the
While previous detective stories cast criminals strictly from the
lower classes of society, Doyle represented them as coming from the upper
classes as well, including the professional and the well-educated. "When a
doctor does go wrong, he is the first of criminals, Holmes told Watson in
The Speckled Band. He has nerve and he has knowledge."
One thing Doyle invented outright which few give him credit for is
what John Dickson Carr called "the enigmatic clue." This is a clue given right
up front for us to see and draw deductions from. It is underlined. It is
emphasized. It runs back through the story and regurgitates over and over: the
wedding ring in A Study In Scarlet, the missing dumbbell in The
Valley of Fear, the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime in
Silver Blaze. "The dog did nothing in the nighttime," Inspector Gregory
says, and Holmes responds, "That was the curious incident."
Gregory still doesn't get it; and neither, of course, does Watson.
Poor Watson. We pity him for being so dense. "Dear me, Watson," Holmes says,
"is it possible that you have not penetrated the fact that the case hangs upon
the missing dumbbell?" But we didn't see it either.
"Call this 'Sherlockismus'," Carr suggested, "call it any fancy name;
the fact remains that it is a clue, and a thundering good clue at that. It is
the trick by which the detective ~ while giving you perfectly fair opportunity
to guess ~ nevertheless makes you wonder what in sanity's name he is talking
about. The creator of Sherlock Holmes invented it; and nobody except the great
G. K. Chesterton, whose Father Brown stories were so deeply influenced by the
device, has ever done it half so well."
Page, Stage and Screen
Doyle was a master story-teller with an uncanny knack for writing in a
style which brought both his stories and his characters to life on the printed
page. Holmes thus sprang to life in four novels and 56 short stories ~ known
today as "the canon." Since then, many writers have given us pastiches,
serious novels and short stories in which Holmes has solved one mystery after
another, outwitted villains and arch-fiends, and saved western civilization
Others have gone into Sherlockian scholarship, producing studies of
elements from the stories and thereby enriching our knowledge and
understanding of Holmes and the world in which he lived. Among the foremost of
these scholars have been Chicago Tribune columnist Vincent Starrett,
whose book, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1933), was the first
great study of the entire Holmes phenomenon; Christopher Morley, founder of
the Baker Street Irregulars, who conducted many illustrative studies and wrote
introductions to many volumes of Holmes stories, including The Complete
Sherlock Holmes; and William S. Baring-Gould, whose chronological studies
greatly aided and enriched our study of the canon.
There are, of course, outrageous liberties taken. Some have gone too
far astray in their lust for the ever-fresh approach. For example, some have
suggested that Holmes was gay, and that he and Watson enjoyed a homosexual
relationship. A favorite avenue many take is to cast his "drug addiction" as
the cause of, say, an obsession with his boyhood mathematics professor as an
imaginary "Napoleon of Crime, the approach put forth in Nicholas Meyer's
The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which was also made into a movie. Or his drug
addiction was made the source of his becoming Jack the Ripper (again, with no
real Moriarty) in Michael Dibdin's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story.
Theorizing where Doyle never went (i.e., explaining his misogyny by way of an
adulterous mother) is one thing; distorting basic facts is something else
entirely. Writers from Dorothy Sayers to Vincent Starrett warned against such
aberrant sensationalism, obviously to no avail.
Scholarship within the bounds of the canon, however, goes on. For
example, the evidence is strong that Holmes was either born or raised, or
spent much time, in America. This fueled the theory of the 32nd President of
the United States, himself a member of the Baker Street Irregulars. Franklin
D. Roosevelt suggested that Holmes had been American-born, a foundling raised
in the criminal underworld. "At an early age he felt the urge to do something
for mankind," FDR wrote. "He was too well known in top circles in this country
and, therefore, chose to operate in England. His attributes were primarily
American, not English." One can only wonder what Winston Churchill thought of
Baring-Gould, as well as others, saw much evidence of a young adult
Holmes traveling through the United States before embarking on his
Throughout the canon Holmes displays a keen knowledge of America, and
Baring-Gould speculated that Holmes had traveled through the states as part of
a theatrical troup in the years before beginning his career as a detective,
thus acquiring his knowledge of stage acting and the use of makeup and
disguise in particular, and of America itself in general. There is certainly
no question that Holmes held the United States in very high esteem.
Of the most widely-read Holmesian authors, three in particular stand
out, first and foremost being Baring-Gould, author of several chronological
studies of the canon, including a two-volume set, The Annotated Sherlock
Holmes. Among his many fine works, he wrote the definitive biography,
Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, A Life of the World's First Consulting
Detective, and contributed an article to Sports Illustrated
Magazine, May 27, 1963, "Sherlock Holmes, Sportsman." Baring-Gould revealed
Holmes to be an exceptional natural athlete with immense endurance, an
excellent boxer and swordsman, a crack shot, and a sound judge of horseflesh.
Nicholas Meyer, an outstanding novelist, screenwriter and film
director (including two of the Star Trek films), even after the
anathematic The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, has given us two splendid
accounts more in fitting with the traditional portrait: The West End Horror,
in which Holmes encounters George Bernard Shaw while investigating a bubonic
plague outbreak in London, and The Canary Trainer, in which Holmes goes
after the Phantom of the Opera.
The premier Holmesian author in recent years, however, has been
Michael Hardwick, a giant in English period fiction as well as the Holmes
saga, and a man who appeared to have a deep affinity for Dr. Watson. This
affinity enabled him to project the doctor's character better than any other
writer, past or present, after Doyle himself.
Hardwick dramatized many of Doyle's stories for television and the
stage. He adopted The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes from screenplay
to novel, and he is the only man yet to write (or "edit") biographies of all
three members of the triumpherate: Holmes (Sherlock Holmes: My Life and
Crimes), Watson (The Private Life of Dr. Watson), and Doyle's
relationship to Holmes (The Man Who Was Sherlock Holmes, co-authored
with wife Mollie). He was the first since Christopher Morley to receive from
the Baker Street Irregulars The Sign of the Four, one of the most prestigious
awards any Sherlockian can receive. He and Mollie, a successful mystery writer
in her own right, wrote companion works to the canon, as well as novelizations
of such TV series as Upstairs, Downstairs and The Duchess of Duke
Street, and such movies as The Man Who Would Be King and The
Four Musketeers. Hardwick, who died on March 4, 1991, wrote two
outstanding full-length Holmes patisches: Revenge of the Hound and
Prisoner of the Devil, the latter of which sent Holmes into the midst of
the internationally scandalous Dreyfus affair. Prisoner of the Devil is
considered by many Sherlockians to be the greatest Holmes mystery outside of
the canon. However, executors of the Conan Doyle estate forbade Hardwick
permission to write another Holmes novel, declaring they would rather that
readers read Doyle’s original stories instead. Considering Hardwick’s
faithfulness to the original, Holmesians around the world viewed this action
as both ungracious and ungrateful.
Of course, seeing and hearing Holmes and Watson is always thrilling,
and many actors have brought Doyle's creation to life on stage and screen
since the great American actor William Gillette (right) first portrayed Holmes
on the American stage in 1899. Gillette became permanently identified with the
role, as were Eille Norwood, Arthur Wontner and Basil Rathbone; however, like
Wontner, and unlike Rathbone, Gillette did not overly mind. Though he
sometimes tired of Holmes, he played the detective in the only movie he ever
made, Sherlock Holmes in 1916, and on stage periodically for the rest
of his life. In terms of personality, stage presence, and appearance, coupled
with tremendous acting ability, Gillette remains the definitive Holmes of all
Radio, whose golden age was the 1930s and 40s, was a fertile field for
Holmes mysteries. Gillette was the first to play Holmes on radio, doing the
first broadcast in a 35-program series on WEAF-NBC on October 20, 1930;
Richard Gordon finished out this series and did several more. Rathbone,
Wontner, Orson Welles, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Sir John Gielgud also
portrayed Holmes on radio before, during and after the Second World War.
Television also brought Holmes to the air with Alan Wheatley
portraying Holmes for the BBC in 1951, and Ronald Howard, son of actor Leslie
Howard, portraying Holmes in 39 programs from 1953 to 1954. Rathbone played
Holmes in one episode of the 1953 CBS Suspense series, and remains
today the only actor to play Holmes on stage, radio, film, television and
phonograph records. Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing portrayed Holmes in
further BBC productions in the 1960s, and Jeremy Brett on PBS eventually
became the modern world’s most popular and authentic modern Holmes. Several
made for TV movies have also appeared in recent years.
Stage productions have flourished during and after Gillette's
lifetime, but new wrinkles have been introduced from time to time. In 1953
Margaret Dale and Richard Arnell produced a ballet, The Great Detective,
which did not go over well in spite of Kenneth Macmillan doing double duty as
both Holmes and Professor Moriarty; and in 1965 the musical Baker Street,
starring Fritz Weaver as a singing Holmes, debuted at the Broadway Theatre in
New York City.
They Might Be Giants, about an American judge who imagines he
is Sherlock Holmes, first appeared as a play at the Theatre Royal in
Stratford, London, in 1961, and later as a 1971 film starring George C. Scott;
neither did particularly well.
Gillette's original play, Sherlock Holmes, which he wrote
himself, has had a remarkable life of its own. It was the basis of both
Gillette's 1916 venture into film and John Barrymore's portrayal of Holmes in
1922's like-titled Sherlock Holmes, the most elaborately-staged Holmes
film up to that time. In 1974 the Royal Shakespeare Company revived it with
enormous success in London, Washington and New York with the role of Holmes
filled by John Wood in London and John Neville and Leonard Nimoy in the United
States. It was revived again in Williamstown in the 1980s with Frank Langella
(right) in the starring role, and was even taped and broadcast by Home Box
Office. This great success would appear to render Basil Rathbone’s pessimistic
views untenable, and it has been suggested that he was merely disgruntled over
the failure of his own ill-fated play, Sherlock Holmes, which was
written by his wife and ran in Boston but survived for only three performances
on Broadway in 1953 before closing down.
Nimoy, also known as Mr. Spock in the Star Trek television and
film series, is not the only member of the Enterprise crew to have a
connection with the detective. William Shatner (aka, Captain Kirk) portrayed
Stapleton in the 1972 television production of The Hound of the
Baskervilles, starring Stewart Granger as Holmes.
Jeremy Brett also portrayed Holmes on stage in the play The Secret
of Sherlock Holmes, which he commissioned from Jeremy Paul, who later
wrote some of the Granada scripts. He performed in London and the provinces
during a break from filming the Granada series and discussed bringing the play
to the United States, though he never did.
Of course, it is in the movie theaters that we have really relished
Holmes, and there have been many great actors who portrayed the detective on
film. The first Holmes film ever made, Sherlock Holmes Baffled in 1900,
was a 49-second short made for viewing in a peep-show machine. The robed
figure comes to find a burglar, who (through trick photography) disappears and
leaves Holmes baffled. It was an inauspicious beginning for the Holmes film
saga, but in 1906 a more serious effort, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,
or Held for a Ransom, appeared in the United States. Films soon
appeared in America and Europe. Holmes films have been shown on movie and
television screens all around the world ever since. The Nordisk film company
in Denmark produced no fewer than 11 Holmes films between 1908 and 1911 alone.
Holmes’ Greatest Challenge
Sherlock Holmes’ greatest challenge may be his role in the oncoming
21st century. In this fast-paced electronic age of space exploration (both
real and fictional), world-wide computerization, and an ever-growing global
community, and with the over-indulgence in sex and action in modern films, it
would seem that Holmes and Watson would be as archaic and as antiquated as the gasogene, the gas lamp, and the horse-drawn buggy.
But are they?
Rest assured that ~ globalization and James Bond notwithstanding ~ the
detective and his Boswell are both alive and well. No matter how
technologically advanced we are, no matter how ecumenical and fast-paced
society becomes, there will always be room in people's hearts for Sherlock
Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Even before his creator's death, Holmes’ name had spread to every
corner of the globe. The canon has been translated into more than 60 languages
in nearly 1900 books and phamplets. There have been, since Doyle's death in
1930, thousands of writings about the writings, nearly 700 additional
mysteries and parodies, and more than 120 plays, ranking Holmes among the top
five most written-about characters of all time. And, according to the 1996
Guiness Book of World Records, Holmes is the most portrayed character on
film, with no fewer than 75 actors appearing as Holmes in 211 movies since his
peep machine debut in 1900. Furthermore, as Ron Haydock noted in The
History of Sherlock Holmes in Stage, Films, T.V. & Radio Since 1899
(Number 1, 1975), One of the all time great mystery classics, and easily the
most celebrated of all the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Hound of the
Baskervilles...claims the distinction of being filmed more times than any
other work of any other kind by any other writer. The actors starring in these
films have been Alwin Neuss, Bruno Guttner, Eilee Norwood, Basil Rathbone,
Carylyle Blackwell, Robert Rendell, Eugene Burge, Peter Cushing, Stewart
Granger, Ferdinand Bonn, and Jeremy Brett.
In addition, there have been, according to Sherlockian Peter Blau of
Washington, D.C., and as of the summer of 1996, no fewer than 691 Sherlock
Holmes societies around the world, formed for the purpose of studying,
discussing and theorizing upon the sacred writings; 413 of these are still
active, the total count changing as new societies are formed and old ones
cease. The names of these societies have been as charming as the stories they
come from, the most famous being the Baker Street Irregulars in New York City,
founded by Christopher Morley in 1934 and still going strong.
Others have included, to name just a few listed in various lists:
||The Bootmakers of
Toronto, the Dancing Men of Providence, the Boulevard Assassins in Paris,
the Creeping Men of Cleveland, the Greek Interpreters of East Lansing, and
the Noble Bachelors (and Concubines) in Missouri;
League, the Dead-Headed League, and the Black-Headed League;
Hounds, the Speckled Band in Boston, the 221Bees in Belgium, the Dog in
the Night-time in Seattle, the Mongooses of Henry Wood, the Lion's Mane of
Grand Rapids, the Giant Rats of Sumatra in Memphis, and the Silver Blazers
Perceivers of Oklahoma and the Messengers from Porlock in Tulsa;
Partington Planners in Los Angeles, the Blanched Soldiers of the Pentagon,
and the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers in Pittsburgh;
Mixture of Ann Arbor, the Trichonopoly Ashes, and the Agony Column of
Treasurers, and the Ballarat Bushrangers;
Bird Watchers, the Lehigh Valley of Fear, and the Criterion Bar
Neglected Patients, and Watson's Erroneous Deductions;
||The Five Orange
Pips in Poughkeepsie, and the Pips of Orange County;
Scholars, the Retired Colonels, and the Napoleons of Crime;
||The Scion of the
four, the Sacred Six, and the Seventeen Steps;
Persians, and the Unanswered Correspondents;
Society of Japan, the Actas de Baker Street (now Circulo Holmes) in
Barcelona, and the Von Herder Airguns, Ltd in Germany.
Many have criticized these people for
fanatically clinging to an illusion of false reality and living in a dream
world. They appear, as did Walter de la Mare's Jim Jay, to have "got stuck
fast in yesterday." But Harry S. Truman, the only United States president
after FDR to be enrolled in the Baker Street Irregulars (as an honorary
member), may have hit upon a major reason for Holmes' popularity when he wrote
in 1945 to Edgar W. Smith, "Far from finding you, as you suggest, 'strange and
deluded creatures,' I commend your good sense in seeking escape from this
troubled world into the happier and calmer world of Baker Street."
There are Sherlock Holmes games, shirts, neckties, cards, towels, lamp
shades, and other memorabilia offered through catalogues. There are several
journals devoted to studying Holmes and anything associated with him, the best
of them being those published by the Baker Street Irregulars and the Sherlock
Holmes Society of London. There are comic books telling various tales of his
exploits; and he has been featured in comic strips, advertisements, posters
and billboards. Pubs, taverns and restaurants from London to Los Angeles bear
Many famous Sherlockiana collectors and writers have amassed huge
libraries containing thousands of books, periodicals, and collectibles, and
many of them are donating their collections to the University of Minnesota,
which is planning a Sherlock Holmes Center to house them all. The Internet
hosts a massive and still-growing list of Holmes entries, including an
electronic mailing list called The Hounds of the Internet, a news group
reached by dialing alt.fan.holmes, and a dozen or more Sherlockian home pages
on the World Wide Web. And the British Library in London, the Colorado State
University Library, the San Francisco Public Library, the Metropolitan Toronto
Library, and the U.S. Library of Congress also have large numbers of Holmes
books. Card catalogues are usually accessible on-line. Among private
collectors, the late John Bennett Shaw of Santa Fe, New Mexico, owned the
largest private collection in the world, which he bequeathed to the University
But it gets wilder than that. As far back as 1931 Arthur Wontner, the
premier screen Holmes until Rathbone, wrote, "there are parts of the world
today where Conan Doyle's fictitious rival to Scotland Yard is not only
believed to be an authentic personality, but is actually held to be alive."
Vincent Starrett described Holmes two years later as "a figure of incredible
popularity, who exists in history more surely than the warriors and statesmen
in whose time he lived and had his being. An illusion so real, as Father
[later Monsignor] Ronald Knox has happily suggested, that one might some day
look about for him in Heaven, forgetting that he was only a character in a
The detective and his Boswell are believed to be there yet, two men
who never lived at an address that never existed. To this day, several hundred
letters a month to Holmes are received and answered by the staff of the Abbey
National Bank on Baker Street, of which 221 is one of its office numbers.
These letters include Christmas cards (one comes every year from Watson),
birthday cards, wedding invitations, speaking requests, and ~ of course ~
mysteries to investigate. Holmes has been asked to resolve Watergate, the
energy crisis, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. Some letters convey
news of the whereabouts of Professor Moriarty, who appears to be seen almost
as often as Elvis. Some even notify Holmes that he may be eligible to win
millions of dollars in the next lottery drawing.
The $64,000 Question
Finally, the question which remains is: Why such keen interest, such
fanatical devotion to this irascible character from people in all walks of
life, on every continent, in every era?
For one thing, there is in the Holmes-Watson portrait a sense of
personal realism, a basic human quality, lacking in other sagas. Neither Dupin
nor Lecoq were anywhere near so human, and James Bond, Matt Helm (played by
Dean Martin in a series of 1960s films), and other television and film secret
agents are almost one-dimensional, like cardboard cutouts. Holmes and Watson
are intensely life-like, with all-too-human limitations and weaknesses.
Holmes' asocial personality may certainly be abnormal, but it is perfectly
realistic. And Watson ~ solid, honest, conventional ~ is in tune with his
emotions and their expression: he not only reacts variably to Holmes's moods
and outbursts, but on more than one occasion he leaves the singular romance of
Baker Street for the greater romance of marriage.
Holmes was distinctive, even eccentric, asocial, manic-depressive, and
friendless except for Watson. In the beginning Watson had listed various
points about Holmes: He lacked any knowledge of literature, philosophy,
astronomy, and politics. His knowledge of botany was variable, with a sound
knowledge of poisons. His knowledge of geology was practical but limited; he
knew at a glance different soils and their locations. His knowledge of
chemistry was profound, his knowledge of anatomy was accurate but
unsystematic, and his knowledge of sensational literature was immense,
knowing, as he did, "every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century."
Holmes played the violin well. He was an expert single-stick player, boxer,
and swordsman. And he had "a good practical knowledge of British law."
Holmes was given to indoor target practice and self-inflicted
injections of cocaine at a time when such casual recreational use was far more
acceptable, and the drugs far more easily obtained over any pharmaceutical
counter, than today. He was a man whose mind he likened to a racing engine,
tearing itself to pieces when not connected with the work for which it was
built. His was a genius constantly in need of feeding.
Jeremy Brett observed, "He is complex. He loves music ~ he plays the
violin very well ~ he enjoys a joke, he is vain, maybe a little conceited. He
likes to be praised. He can be bitchy when he assesses other great detectives.
On a difficult case he may build up considerable tension within himself, which
explodes in a genial bit of theatricality when the problem is solved."
Basil Rathbone spent years playing the role of Holmes and wrote that
"toward the end of my life with him I came to the conclusion...that there was
nothing lovable about Holmes. He himself seemed capable of transcending the
weakness of mere mortals such as myself...understanding us perhaps, accepting
us and even pitying us, but only and purely objectively. It would be
impossible for such a man to know loneliness or love or sorrow because he was
completely sufficient unto himself. His perpetual seeming assumption of
infallibility; his interminable success; (could he not fail just once and
prove himself a human being like the rest of us!) his ego that seemed at times
to verge on the superman complex, while his 'Elementary, my dear Watson,' with
its seeming condescension for the pupil by the master must have been a very
trying experience at times for even so devoted a friend as was Dr. Watson.
"One was jealous of Holmes of course... Jealous of his mastery in all
things, both material and mystical...he was a sort of god in his way, seated
on some Anglo-Saxon Olympus of his own design and making! Yes, there was no
question about it, he had given me an acute inferiority complex!"
Holmes obviously craved center-stage. When Watson had published an
account of their first case together, A Study In Scarlet, Holmes was
disappointed. "Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science," he said, "and
should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted
to tinge it with romanticism, which produces the same effect as if you worked
a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid..." And
Watson was miffed at Holmes' blatant self-preoccupation.
He was certainly a housekeeper's nightmare, and those less inclined to
the conventional will find in him a kinsman. As Watson wrote in The
Musgrave Ritual: "When I find a man who keeps his cigars in the
coal-scuttle, his tobacco in the toe-end of a Persian slipper, and his
unanswered correspondence transfixed by a jackknife into the very centre of
his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs."
He was a sophisticated gastronome who appreciated good food and fine
wine. He was also quite fashion-conscious, going about properly and
meticulously dressed at all times. One of his trademarks, the deerstalker cap,
was actually a hunting cap, as its name implies, and was strictly country
apparel. Thus, he wore it (or, rather, is pictured wearing it by Paget,
for it is not mentioned in the canon) only on cases which took him to the
country. In town, he wore a top hat and tails, a bowler, or some other
The deerstalker cap, of course, as well as the Inverness cape and the
curved pipe, were all made famous by William Gillette when he donned them for
his performances as Holmes on stage. The cap and cape were subsequently
introduced into the legend by Sidney Paget.
Holmes had an exceptional ear for music, owned and played a
Stradivarius, and was, in Watson's words, "not only a very capable performer,
but a composer of no ordinary merit." He often attended concerts given by
famous violinists of the era, and he favored German music over others. The
Stradivarius, of course, was very often used in meditative moods, during which
times he simply scraped the bow across the strings, the instrument draped
across his knees, producing sounds that reflected his thoughts but wore
savagely on Watson's nerves. When he played good music, even difficult music,
"with vigor and virtuosity" as one writer called it, he used no sheet music,
playing strictly by ear.
While Holmes smoked cigarettes and a very rare cigar, he most often
smoked a pipe. His favorite was a clay pipe, which he smoked at home and
preferred as the companion of his ruminative moods. He smoked the cherrywood
when in a disputatious mood, and always had his briars. Interestingly, Holmes
was never pictured smoking the calabash pipe, even though this pipe was known
in England by the end of the 19th century. Whether he smoked one or not, they
also would have been too cumbersome and fragile to carry about, since the
gourd which makes up so much of its shape is rather easily crushed. It has
been claimed repeatedly that Gillette (smoking at right) had discovered that
it is easier to speak with a bent briar clenched between his teeth than with a
straight pipe, and that he began using it on stage for that reason. It, and
the calabash, have been identified with Holmes ever since.
However, Al Shaw's excellent treatment of the history of curved pipes
in the 19th century (TPSE, Winter-Spring 1994) makes it clear that
curved briars were very much available to Holmes and that he did not
necessarily smoke only straight pipes, as Paget made it seem. Whether he did
or not is mere speculation, but it is as difficult to speak clearly with a
bent pipe clamped between one's teeth as it is with a straight pipe, so one
must question the veracity of this claim.
Whatever his reason, Gillette’s choice of pipes left a lasting
impression. Danish actor Alwin Neuss smoked a bent meerschaum in Den
Stjaalne Million-Obligation in 1908, and Norwood, Brook, Wontner and
Rathbone smoked bent briars in their films. The true calabash pipe, a more
colorful instrument made from a gourd and sporting a meerschaum bowl, was
smoked by Rathbone, and it appeared briefly (according to John Hall’s 140
Different Varieties, A review of tobacco in the Canon, published by the
Northern Musgraves Sherlock Holmes Society in England) in 1965's A Study in
Terror, and again in 1970's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes
starring Robert Stephens. It has appeared in nearly all Holmes films ever
since with the notable exception of the Granada series, in which Jeremy Brett
returned to the clay, the straight briar and the church warden.
While Holmes remains the epitome of the pipe-smoker, as such he was
both uncouth and careless. Alan Smith analyzed his smoking habits in The
Compleat Smoker (Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring 1991): Holmes kept his cigars in a
coal scuttle (the conventional Watson kept his own cigars in a humidor) and
his pipe tobacco in the toe-end of a Persian slipper. At the end of each smoke
he would knock the plugs and dottle out onto the mantlepiece to dry overnight
and, the next day, would gather them up, pack them into a pipe, and light up.
He abused his pipes by lighting them with burning coals from the fireplace and
by chain-smoking the same pipe for hours; and Watson's description of his
favored clay pipe ~ "old and oily clay" and "his black clay pipe" ~ shows he
rarely, if ever, cleaned it, preferring to smoke it into what Smith referred
to as "foul, black oblivion."
Holmes's tobacco was no exotic mixture. He smoked black "shag," an
ignoble tobacco blended from the strongest and worst kind of leaf, and smoked
only by the poorer classes of society. By keeping it in his Persian slipper,
or in pouches over the mantle, he kept it perpetually dry, which caused it to
smoke faster and hotter than normal. And since he rarely, if ever, cleaned his
pipes, the resulting smoke was sour and offensive to those around him. "You
have not, I hope, learned to despise my pipe and my lamentable tobacco," he
once said to Watson. It is worth noting, however, that smoking shag not only
helped him think (it certainly would have kept him awake), it enabled him to
blend in with the lower classes when he was in disguise and in need of
information. Watson smoked "Ships," which would have been Shippers Tobak
Special from Holland. He also smoked an Arcadia mixture which Holmes sampled
at least once that we know of.
Finally, pipes were important to Holmes in sizing up a man: "Pipes are
occasionally of extraordinary interest," he said in "The Yellow Face."
"Nothing has more individuality save, perhaps, watches and bootlaces."
Holmes, the Man
Much has been made of Holmes's attitude toward women. That he
distrusted them is certain: "Women are never to be entirely trusted ~ not the
best of them." Yet he often gave them their due: "I have seen too much not to
know that the impression of a woman may be more valuable than the conclusion
of an analytical reasoner." He denied hating women, yet was uncomfortable with
displays of feminine affection, and once told Watson, "Love is an emotional
thing, and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true, cold reason which I
place above all things." Is there more outright withdrawal here, however, than
He claimed to be unromantic, this man who was swept into rhapsody by
the music of Mendelssohn and Wagner, and who, in the midst of a sinister
investigation, waxed poetic over a rose. With great gentleness but a firm
will, he reminded the horribly scarred veiled lodger that her life was not her
Misogynistic? Not quite; but emotionally crippled, to be sure.
Misogyny is a psychopathic emotional condition in which the misogynist has an
irrational hatred and fear of women (or, in the case of women sufferers,
called misandrists, a pathological hatred of men). To a great degree (except
for the pathological hatred), this fits Holmes. This condition is additionally
characterized by explosive tirades, manipulation, a lack of integrity, and
emotional and sometimes physical abuse, of which Holmes, however the
dramatist, was not guilty. It is also characterized by a genuine dearth of
empathy and conscience, qualities Holmes did not lack. Misogynists are abusive
for the sole purpose of control: if a wife (or husband) can be controlled, the
abuser cannot be hurt. Holmes certainly tried to maintain control, and can it
always be said that his purposes were more altruistic than the mere avoidance
of being hurt?
Another label that could be applied to Holmes is that of the
misanthrope, one who hates or mistrusts all people, male and female.
Holmes certainly had a wide circle of acquaintences and associates but
discouraged friendships, having only one real friend, Watson, although
Reginald Musgrave had been an earlier chum. His correspondence was limited
and, being manic-depressive, he was often reclusive and sullen. Yet, when the
mania took over from the depression, he was lively, friendly and active. Yet
he was still the loner except for his Boswell.
Psychological studies of Holmes and Doyle could occupy volumes. He may
have been to some degree misanthropic, and one can distrust women without
truly hating them; in fact, perhaps the main reason why Holmes was not totally
misogynistic was because Doyle himself was not. Sir Arthur idolized women;
and, as alike and yet different though they were, he could hardly have his
detective truly hate the fair sex.
With Watson, of course, there was a comfortable distance: two
Victorian gentlemen, sharing the truest of friendships ~ the depth and nature
of which would not be understood in today's fast-paced and transient society ~
as well as lodgings and adventures, but never their innermost secrets. After
all, how long had they lived together before either knew that his
fellow-lodger had a brother?
Thus, we see that he could be very amiable and warm, compassionate and
just, and morally upright. As Carr astutely pointed out, "We can scarcely dip
into the stories anywhere without finding Holmes telling us how unemotional he
is, and in the next moment behaving more chivalrously ~ especially towards
women ~ than Watson himself."
He let mercy overrule legal considerations: "I suppose that I am
commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This
fellow will not go wrong again." And, "Once or twice in my career I feel that
I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had
done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks
with the law of England than with my own conscience."
Small wonder that Watson called him "the best and the wisest man whom
I have ever known." And A. E. Murch described him as being "the most
convincing, the most brilliant, the most congenial and well-loved of all
detectives of fiction."
The Legend Is Us
This is the man we cannot resist. Higham wrote that "after only a few
years, the Sherlock Holmes stories had assumed the status of fairy tales ~
magical, improbable, buoyed up by an imagination as inexhaustible as that of
Hans Christian Andersen or the brothers Grimm... The people of an increasingly
scientific age yearned for fantasy, for magic, and for wild adventure."
Christopher Morley added: "The whole Sherlock Holmes saga is a
triumphant illustration of art's supremacy over life... It is not that we take
our blessed Sherlock too seriously... Holmes is pure anesthesia." Never was
this more evident than in the case of Jeremy Brett. When Brett’s wife,
American television producer Joan Wilson, died from cancer in 1985, Brett
dealt with his grief by absorbing himself in his new role as Holmes. I turned
to Holmes, immersed myself, Brett later admitted. It seemed to keep me going
But there is more to Sherlock Holmes than mere anesthesia. The
atmosphere itself beckons. One of the finest Sherlockians of all time was
Edgar W. Smith, vice president of the General Motors Corporation. Smith wrote,
"We love the times in which he lived, of course, the half-remembered,
half-forgotten times of smug Victorian illusion, of gas-lit comfort and
contentment, of perfect dignity and grace...
"And we love the place in which the Master moved and had his being:
the England of those times, fat with the fruits of her achievements, but
strong and daring still with the spirit of imperial adventure... It was a
stout and pleasant land full of the flavor of the age; and it is small wonder
that we who claim it in our thoughts should look to Baker Street as its
We yearn for what now seems to have been a simpler world beneath the
civilizing rays of Victoria's scepter, before the Titanic sank in 1912 and,
with it, our unbridled faith in our own technology; and before the Great War
swept away that world forever, leaving in its wake political, economic and
military chaos that has only increased in the decades since. It is no wonder
that we wish all the more for the quiet Victorian serenity of Baker Street.
But there is something else in the adventure that fascinates us as
this tall, lean figure, candle in hand, shakes Watson awake in the early hours
of the morning. "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!" Our hearts beat
faster as we join Holmes afoot, and perhaps here is where the bond really
begins. As Stefan Kanfer wrote in Time, "Doyle's genius was in creating
a person not so different from ourselves ~ and then splitting him in half. One
part is a fallible, well-meaning soul who works at a job. The other is the
person we would aspire to be: morally correct, financially independent and
underweight. One feels; the other knows. One is real; the other ideal. Many
labels adhere to this classic combination: ego and superego, desire and
conscience, Watson and Holmes."
And Edgar Smith continued "Not only there and then, but here and now,
he stands before us as a symbol...of all that we are not, but ever would be...
We see him as the fine expression of our urge to trample evil and to set
aright the wrongs with which the world is plagued. He is Galahad and Socrates,
bringing high adventure to our dull existences and calm, judicial logic to our
biased minds. He is the success of all our failures; the bold escape from our
Holmes is, Smith argued, "the personification of something in us that
we have lost, or never had. For it is not Sherlock Holmes who sits in Baker
Street, comfortable, competent and self-assured; it is ourselves who are
there, full of a tremendous capacity for wisdom, complacent in the presence of
our humble Watson, conscious of a warm well-being and a timeless, imperishable
content. The easy chair in the room is drawn up to the hearthstone of our very
hearts ~ it is our tobacco in the Persian slipper, and our
violin lying so carelessly across the knees ~ it is we who hear the
pounding on the stairs and the knock upon the door. The swirling fog without
and the acrid smoke within bite deep indeed, for we taste them even now. And
the time and place and all the great events are near and dear to us not
because our memories call them forth in pure nostalgia, but because they are a
part of us today.
"That is the Sherlock Holmes we love ~ the Holmes implicit and eternal
* * * * * * *
Holmes retired in 1903 to keep bees on the Sussex Downs and to write
his two masterpieces, The Practical Handbook of Bee Culture with some
Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen, which Holmes referred to
as the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days, and The Whole Art of
Detection, on which he expected his lasting fame to deservedly rest,
rather than on those romanticized tales by Watson. Down through the years new
cases have appeared, some mentioned in the canon but never published, others
heretofore unheard of, each one "discovered" either in some old attic trunk or
in that battered old tin dispatch box at Cox & Company, with "John H. Watson,
M.D." printed on the lid.
For myself, I never cease searching for a new Holmes mystery to dive
into. Devouring each as I find it, I am always downcast once the adventure
ends. Like so many others, and probably for all the reasons cited above, I am
loathe to leave that little romantic chamber of the heart, that nostalgic
country of the mind, where the game is afoot and the deductions are elementary
and the evil Moriarty is up to no good.
And where it is always, forever, 1895.
© 2006 Henry Zecher
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