Note: This post was originally published on Some Photoblog in October 2020. However, I deleted it after I grew unsatisfied with the pictures. I took some new ones and I hereby, with some minor changes, republish the post.
No spoilers ahead, except for The Final Problem, which I think is safe to say everyone knows anyway.
The game’s afoot!
If you’ve ever visited Some Photoblog, or ever talked to me at all, you know I’m all about Agatha Christie. But I have much love for Sherlock Holmes too.
Sherlock Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), a writer and by profession a medical doctor, born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Now, I feel kind of bad because I always try to promote lesser known works by authors (e.g. Agatha Christie’s books without Poirot or Marple that are not And Then There Were None and non-Anne of Green Gables works by LM Montgomery) but this time around I’m going for the most obvious choice. It’s also a well-known fact that the author ended up hating his most famous creation and had wished his other writings received similar attention. (Sorry, Sir Arthur!) I have read other works by him; a couple of Professor Challenger books and a short story collection Tales of Terror and Mystery and the guy does deserve to be known for his non-Sherlock writings–he was quite prolific and wrote sci-fi, historical fiction, non-fiction. I remember a few years ago a commenter on ACD’s official Facebook page post said “I didn’t know he wrote stories other than Sherlock Holmes” and I thought, how stupid can you get? Please.
Anyway… today, I’m basic.
Sherlock Holmes is without a doubt the most popular fictional detective in the world and this is unlikely to change, in our lifetimes or perhaps ever. What is it that makes him so appealing, more than a century after his first appearance?
I don’t know the answer. He just is. An eccentric character, with brilliant mind, skilled in detection, what’s not to love? (He was also a cocaine user, but this was legal at the time.) Mystery is a popular genre, people love their detectives. And Sherlock Holmes is a classic. I think there is certain appeal in Victorian and Edwardian era London as well.
Sherlock Holmes first came to life in the 1887 novel A Study in Scarlet. Altogether he features in four novels (the other three being The Sign of Four, The Hound of Baskervilles and The Valley of Fear) and 56 short stories, majority of them written by his sidekick Dr John Watson. The character of Sherlock is inspired by Dr Joseph Bell (1837-1911), a surgeon and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, for whom ACD served as a clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Dr Bell used observation to carry out a diagnosis and was a pioneer of what we now call forensic science. He also served as a personal surgeon to Queen Victoria when she visited Scotland.
“My friend and colleague, Dr Watson.”
I am lost without my Boswell.Sherlock Holmes about Dr Watson
The quote is a reference to James Boswell, who was a biographer of the writer Samuel Johnson.
The lifelong partnership–however you want to interpret it–was born in A Study in Scarlet. Dr Watson is introduced to Sherlock Holmes by an old acquaintance Stamford as someone to potentially share a place with, as he’s in a precarious financial situation. Stamford knows Sherlock from the hospital, where he, Stamford, works as a dresser and Sherlock likes to dabble with chemicals at the lab.
“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.Watson, The Study in Scarlet
Sherlock already knows of a suitable lodgings to rent, 221b Baker Street. The next day they meet and go view the place, Watson decides it’s suitable, and they move in.
Everyone, raise a glass for Mr Stamford, without whom this iconic duo would never have existed.
Watson at first has no clue about Sherlock’s profession and for some reason is afraid to ask. Because he really has nothing else to do, he studies his flatmate and even makes a list of his skills and abilities. I made a graphic of this list, which I posted on my Tumblr where it enjoyed some popularity. This is it:
Watson is also shocked at Sherlock’s total ignorance of the Solar System. Of course, now it seems funny, because you’re thinking, haha he’s obsessed. He admits as such right there, in the text. He has nothing else to occupy his mind, has no close friends and his health is not in the best condition. This is what made me come up with a theory–I think meeting Sherlock Holmes saved Dr Watson’s life. Hear me out.
So, as we know from Watson’s narrative, he qualified as medical doctor, joined the army and served in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, where he was wounded during the Battle of Maiwand. His injury healed, but then he contracted enteric fever (which a quick Google search informs me is the same as typhoid fever). Afterwards, his health was so poor, he was discharged and sent back to England to recuperate. Having no living relatives in England, he arrived in London and booked himself a room in a hotel. His description of the capital city is amusing: “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained”. (You wouldn’t think it of him, but our doctor does have some good burns.) His army pension was eleven shillings and sixpence a day (another quick Google search informs me this should have been quite a comfortable income). He describes this period of his life as a “meaningless existence” and confesses to spending too much money. Hence the aforementioned precarious financial situation. He realised that he needed to change his lifestyle and having just made the decision to look for cheaper living, he bumped into Stamford.
What I wonder about–what was he spending his money on? Drinking? Women? Gambling? It was at a bar where he came across Stamford, so draw your own conclusions. (Also in The Sign of Four, we learn that Watson had an older brother with a drink problem.) Stamford comments that Watson is very thin and very brown (suntan from Afghanistan, presumably). It’s not unreasonable to conclude that he suffered from PTSD. And the “meaningless existence”–could that be… depression? When he moved in with Sherlock, he got his life and finances in order and his mind was revived from idleness by this intriguing new friend of his. Then, when Sherlock finally reveals to Watson what his profession is–a consulting detective–he invites him to come along to view a dead body. The rest is history.
Watson is at first sceptical of Sherlock’s science of deduction, but soon learns that yes, it really does work. It seems to me that Sherlock, whether intentionally or not, pulled Watson back into life. BBC Sherlock series pretty much plays it that way.
In the next book, The Sign of Four, a new client named Miss Mary Morstan enters the scene and she and Watson fall in love and get married. It was an extremely short courtship, but it seems to have worked out for them. ACD needed to marry off Watson, so he married him off. *shrug* Sherlock remained in Baker Street, as Watson says in A Scandal in Bohemia, “buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug, and the fierce energy of his own keen nature”. In other words, he missed his friend. (The Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey Jr showcase this well.)
Screenshot of Sherlock Holmes, The Definitive Audio Collection from my Audible app. The complete works, all for one single credit, (a marvellous deal!), read by Stephen Fry, who played Mycroft in the sequel to the above mentioned Guy Ritchie film, Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows. Speaking of which:
“All men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience.”Sherlock on his brother Mycroft, from The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
Sherlock Holmes has a brother called Mycroft, seven years his senior. We first meet him in the story The Greek Interpreter; he also features in one of my personal favourites, The Bruce-Partington Plans. Mycroft possesses even greater ability for deduction and observation than his younger brother, except he can’t be bothered to do any actual detective work out in the field. No ambition and no energy. (I can relate.) He rarely ventures beyond his circle of home, workplace and the Diogenes Club. In The Bruce-Partington Plans Sherlock nearly falls off a chair when he receives telegram from Mycroft informing him of his upcoming visit to Baker Street. It must be something really serious to drag his brother away from his usual territory!
Mycroft’s skills enabled him to create his own position in the Government. He makes himself indispensable. That’s why Sherlock says Mycroft is the Government itself. But my favourite part about the older Holmes is the Diogenes Club. A gentlemen’s club set up for those who hate company, whether due to shyness or misanthropy, but who still like comfortable chairs and newspapers. Talking is not permitted, except for Stranger’s Room and three offences will get you expelled from the club. Mycroft was one of the founding members.
We don’t know what Mycroft’s politics is. From Sherlock’s description, he certainly can make any regime work for him, but I like to think he was at least somewhat progressive. There is nothing in the canon to say he wasn’t.
According to Sherlock, both of them may have inherited their talents from their grandmother, a sister to French artist Vernet. Vernet was a real artist that really existed, in fact there were three of them: grandfather, father and son:
- Claude-Joseph Vernet (1714-1789)
- Antoine Charles Horace Vernet, known as Carle Vernet (1758-1836)
- Émile Jean-Horace Vernet, known as Horace Vernet (1789-1863)
ACD doesn’t specify which one of them it was, but based on the timeline, the youngest one is the most likely one. Horace Vernet mostly painted battle scenes and enjoyed patronage from, among others, King Louis-Philippe. He also took photographs by daguerreotype process, the first publicly available photography technique.
Check out his self-portrait:
It looks very Sherlock Holmes, doesn’t it?
Aside from this, Sherlock never mentions any other family. He says his ancestors were country squires, but offers no further details. In The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, after Sherlock returns from the dead, Watson moves back with him to Baker Street and sells his practice to a young doctor named Verner. Years later he finds out that this Verner was a distant relation of Sherlock and it was really Sherlock who provided the money for the practice, which was sold at the highest price. Verner, Vernet, sounds very similar, also R and T are next to each other on the keyboard. Most likely a coincidence, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
“The Best and Finest Man I Have Ever Known”
So, Sherlock believed his talent for observation and deduction came from his artist great uncle. “Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms”, he says in The Greek Interpreter. Sherlock is the logical, scientific type. He also plays the violin and is fond of music. I think we can safely say that in the mind of our great detective, science and art combine.
Watson’s list of Sherlock’s skills is not entirely accurate for the rest of the series. In The Sign of Four, for example, Watson notes that “[Holmes] spoke on a quick succession of subjects,—on miracle-plays, on medieval pottery, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the war-ships of the future,—handling each as though he had made a special study of it.” Yet none of those subjects are mentioned on the list in A Study in Scarlet. Quite the opposite–any facts he considers irrelevant must be forgotten at once, as to not clutter his mind. When ACD came up with the character of Sherlock Holmes, he couldn’t have known he would still write about him decades later (he didn’t even want to!). With time, he developed his character more, realising that, when you work as a detective, no knowledge is useless. This can be easily explained by Watson not knowing Sherlock that well in their early days yet. There is also another inconsistency. Watson’s wound was in the shoulder in A Study in Scarlet, but in The Sign of Four, he tells us it’s in the leg. Not that it matters much, in any case he could have sustained more than one injury in the war. BBC Sherlock got round it by making Watson’s leg pain psychosomatic–quite clever, I think.
This is a popular outline of Sherlock’s profile (drawn my myself), thanks to illustrations by Sidney Paget. It is Paget that gave Sherlock the iconic deerstalker hat, never mentioned in the actual writing. Paget’s illustrations accompanied ACD’s Sherlock stories in The Strand Magazine, where they were published. (Random fact: Agatha Christie also published her Poirot short stories in this magazine.) ACD himself requested Paget to continue illustrating in The Strand when he resurrected Sherlock. Sidney Paget definitely deserves some credit for contributing to the famous detective’s image.
The Birth of a Fandom
ACD killed off Sherlock in 1893 in The Final Problem, hoping this would help him concentrate on the more serious fiction and non-fiction he wanted to work on. Sherlock faces his ultimate antagonist, Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime. Interestingly, Moriarty is also a man of science, a mathematical genius. During their last showdown at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, they both plunge to their deaths.
The reaction of fans to this move was like nothing else ever experienced before. Angry letters poured into ACD’s mailbox, people wore black armbands, The Strand Magazine suffered 20,000 cancellations. These days you’d shrug your shoulder, just another Tuesday in the fandom. But then, it was new. ACD eventually brought the beloved sleuth back; he needed the money and people wanted their Sherlock. Luckily the way he wrote Sherlock’s end enabled him to explain it away with “actually he didn’t fall into his death, only Moriarty did” and “he quickly realised that faking his death would help him break Moriarty’s criminal network and protect his dear Watson”. ACD though killed another character, Mrs Mary Watson, off page, so that he could reinstate Watson back into 221b Baker Street. (It’s kinda shitty if you think about it, but I understand why it had to be that way, besides, readers likely didn’t care about her. Apart from all the other qualities of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series with Jeremy Brett, I like that their Watson remained unmarried and Mary Morstan exited at the end of The Sign of Four episode.)
And so the adventures continued.
Sherlockians, or Holmesians if you want, were the first modern fandom. (Ahhh, fandoms, yes, fandoms, that’s a discussion I’d rather not have today.)
Aside from the books written by ACD, Sherlock appears in numerous books by other authors. This is called pastiche. Most of ACD’s works are in public domain now, which means you can get them free as eBooks. Project Gutenberg is the best place for this.
I truly hope that if Sir Arthur can see from beyond how loved the character he grew to hate is, and how much Sherlock Holmes means to people, he is not too angry. After all, Sherlock, and all the related adaptations and pastiches, bring many of us joy and in the end, that is what really matters.
My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.The Adventure of the of the Blue Carbuncle