Monday, September 15, 2014

Our Enduring Fascination with Sherlock Holmes

I was sitting around the other night, smoking cocaine and playing my violin and, finally, after those got boring, watching Benedict Cumberbatch portraying the great detective Sherlock Holmes on my computer. Few fictional characters have managed to exert such a hold on the public imagination as the eccentric detective. Well more than a century later, we have Holmes’s progeny running around all over the TV screen, descendants as different in their quirks as Monk and House, but who still share the monomaniacal desire to solve the puzzle of man, for “the proper study of man is man,” as Holmes himself says in A Study in Scarlet. From just before the turn of the 20th century until past the turn of the 21st the great Holmes has loomed large in the imagination. Why?

Great fictional characters are supposed to be both timeless and universal. Holmes has been translated into every language on earth, practically, and has been portrayed by everyone from Christopher Plummer to Basil Rathbone, even Robert Downey Jr., Holmes’s brother Mycroft has had his own movie (Mel Brooks’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother).

It is inarguable that the man with the deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass has endured (even his customary accoutrements have displayed a staying power in the public imagination). So why has his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, been condemned to the status of second-rate writer, a scribbler of sensational tales, a genre writer, a boys’ adventure writer (a condemnation Jack London and Joseph Conrad get sometimes, too), someone who transformed the Victorian Penny Dreadful , which as literature was surely dreadful, into mass literature as literarily tasty as cotton candy, and about as nourishing?

And so, the two-headed question I ask in this piece—why has Holmes endured, and does Doyle deserve more credit for the creation of the famous detective? Indeed, if the reason he has endured is because Holmes is excellent literature, then Doyle does indeed deserve that credit.

Part of the backlash, I am sure, comes from the very fact of Holmes’s popularity. Stephen King has suffered from the same treatment—to a critical elite, anyone that popular can’t be good, which is a kind of oblique swipe at the average Joe, who would rather read a ripping good yarn than some postmodern meditation, or rather rumination, about the life of the mind, in a self-reflective stream of consciousness that contemplates literature more than it is literature.

Everyone loves plot, mystery, murder and puzzles, action, mayhem, intrigue, and danger. So why is it
seen as an over-indulgence to indulge in these things at all? Does real literature have to be character-driven and, for that matter, are not Holmes and Watson fully realized characters? They are not cardboard or two dimensional, not to me. And not to an adoring public. Holmes’s utter uniqueness, and Watson’s capable Everyman, are drawn vividly enough to have stayed popular down all the ladder of years.

Ironically, although Holmes is drawn with depth, it is his shallowness that is so fully depicted. As Watson says in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes has no knowledge of Philosophy, Literature, Astronomy or Politics (apparently the curriculum for a learned man in those days, a gentleman), but has an immense knowledge of sensational literature, Anatomy, chemistry, and knows “every detail of every horror perpetrated in this century.”

Watson exists as the Everyman, a good and capable and ordinary fellow, but one who is damaged by war and sickness and loneliness, and who sits by the proverbial fire with Holmes in their little outpost just beyond the community of man. Holmes can’t make himself part of that community, or does not care to, and Watson no longer knows how to.

And so we have our two heroes, each one perfectly suited to the other, down to the not inconsiderable detail that Watson plays Boswell to Holmes’s Johnson. We can be fascinated along with Watson at the sheer megalomania of the man, and long for Watson to achieve the real affection from him that Watson hopelessly yearns for (even after getting married, Watson is forever dropping by to see Holmes and getting happily tangled up in another case).

If Holmes were around today, he would be diagnosed as anti-social, or at least asocial, possibly as autistic, and Watson as having PTSD and depression. Holmes forms no other close ties than with Watson, and Watson tells the reader he has no one in London. When the plot is not thickening, when the game is not afoot, Watson morosely examines what he considers his failed life, and Holmes seeks solace in the violin and cocaine. It is the thrill of the hunt that brings these two disaffected souls back to life.

Doyle lived in a time of great upheaval. In his lifetime he witnessed industrialization and urbanization, the rise of modernism in the arts, jazz, the Great War, the criminalization of drugs and homosexuality, the rise of the Police Force, the Union Movement, the passage of Queen Victoria into history, the gradual destruction of the peerage’s control of England and, on the Continent, political violence and the explosion of printed material in the form of periodicals, newspapers and books.

It was an exciting but frightening time, and Doyle manages to play on people’s fears about change. Xenophobia, the city as a place filled with barbaric, godless foreigners, and also as a place of conmen and organized crime, prostitution, swarthy anarchists, grifters and hucksters and flim-flam men, pimps, opium dens and, most frightening of all, secret societies—all these are portrayed as great threats to the good old British Gentleman’s Code that had supposedly built the empire. Man was no longer connected to the land, he was a wage slave, women turned to prostitution to survive in the metropolis, no one’s word was good anymore, and the city was a place of anomie, of alienation, of danger and despair. Like Chandler’s Los Angeles, London is a night-time place even in the day, physically and morally polluted, and the danger is all the more frightening for lurking in that darkness.

The city is a place of deception, of disguise, of the excesses of civilization, of man as far away from the Garden as one could possibly get. It is no coincidence that Doyle has Holmes continually wearing disguises, for in the city there is always something malevolent lurking under a thin and cheap veneer of goodness.

And who is there to save us from all this, who will keep the Empire safe for patriots and gentlemen, but Sherlock Holmes? Holmes is, luckily for us, on the side of good, although that is not his motivation for solving crimes. It is ego and the need to solve puzzles that drives him. One shudders to think what Holmes would become had he turned his mind to crime, but we have our dear Watson to save us from that. He and Holmes are saved from themselves by one another, and they live a life of grim fairy tale adventure in the evil city, always equal to the Moriarty’s of the world, and we live vicariously through them and are glad to not be them.

If some of Doyle’s characters are less than fully realized, that can’t be said about the duo. And what author is above using stock characters? The storytelling power of the buddy tale is not lost on Doyle, either, as he follows in a lineage that includes King Arthur and Lancelot, Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, and many more.

If Doyle is heavy on plot, if his villains are one-dimensional, if he is sentimental, so what? Aristotle himself privileged plot over character, and Doyle knew that character was best revealed in action, through plot. And he knew both what scares us and thrills us (anyone who has ever ridden a rollercoaster knows how closely related these two things are). So what if his prose was purple? Someone said that the purpose of literature is to entertain and instruct. Well, Doyle goes heavy on the entertainment, and light on the educating. Again, so what? There is literature in a well-articulated vision, in the skillful rendering of the famous friendship, in the believable eccentricity of Holmes. If the plots are somewhat outlandish, if Holmes deductions are far-fetched and fanciful, I don’t mind. If Middlemarch and Proust are heavy literary nourishment, weighty and serious, some of what is called literature is just self-important and starchy, not real sustenance. While Holmes is lighter fare, it has an appeal and an art all its own, and Doyle, in creating timeless characters we still love, is a genuine literary talent.

Mike Welch


  1. Great points about Sherlock and Conan Doyle. Add Colombo, CSI, Matlock, and Quincy to the list of descendants for Doyle's greatest creation. Holmes made the scientific method cool at a time where Medicine and Psychotherapy were still built on superstition and Classical Age philosophy. Any character with this strong and enduring a legacy should be praised.

  2. Oh, for indulging in vicarious thrills with someone who is (or would be) "diagnosed." It doesn't get old, does it? As for the critical elite (love that term), a pox on them. It's a lot more fun down here with the masses. Live long and prosper, Sherlock!