s there a character in 19th-century prose fiction who remains more familiar to the general public than Sherlock Holmes? While Captain Ahab, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Count Dracula, Huckleberry Finn, Jekyll and Hyde, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Uncle Tom are still widely known by name, most of them are well on the way to becoming symbolic figures who are better known as concepts (and as TV and movie characters) than as creations of literary art. Yet the world’s first private consulting detective lives on, not only as embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller on television but on paper as well. When last I looked, the paperback edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes ranked No. 5,650 in sales on Amazon, a more than respectable figure for two fat volumes of novels and short stories originally published between 1887 and 1921 by an author whose other books are forgotten.
The most important element of the appeal of the Holmes stories is the personality of their principal character, closely followed by his relationship with his amanuensis.
A Holmes fan not comprehensively familiar with the canon would be hard-pressed, for instance, to spot this passage from Vincent Starrett’s “The Unique ‘Hamlet,'” written in 1920, as a fake:
“Affluent, yes,” said Holmes with a mischievous twinkle, “but not exactly a banker, Watson. Notice the sagging pockets, despite the excellence of his clothing, and the rather exaggerated madness of his eye. He is a collector, or I am very much mistaken.”
What may in the end be most interesting about The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes, though, is the mere fact of its existence. Other fictional characters, prominent among them Ian Fleming’s James Bond, have been recycled by later writers, but Holmes’s posthumous life (so to speak) outstrips that of any of his competitors. Indeed, there are by now far more ersatz Holmes stories than original ones. And while it is amusing to see how the likes of Ring Lardner and P.G. Wodehouse went about resuscitating him, anyone who picks up Penzler’s book, fascinating as it is, will more than likely be inspired to return to “The Red-Headed League” or The Sign of the Four instead of digging deeper among the lesser apocrypha.
What keeps Sherlock Holmes alive? As is customarily the case with serial literature, the most important element of the appeal of the Holmes stories is the personality of their principal character, closely followed by his relationship with his amanuensis. Saturnine, sardonic, and inexplicably indifferent to women, rational to a fault yet afflicted by an ennui so profound that he must resort to cocaine in order to dispel it, Holmes is the very model of an English eccentric, exotic everywhere but in his native land.
To have created him was a considerable feat of the romantic imagination. To have paired him with Dr. Watson, the retired army surgeon who narrates all but a handful of the stories, was a stroke of something not unlike genius. It is Watson’s phlegmatic good humor that roots the fantastic adventures of Holmes and his clients in the quotidian world of Victorian London, thereby making them as quintessentially British as H.M.S. Pinafore, Barchester Towers, or hot buttered crumpets and jam. What makes the stories rereadable long after we have their plots by heart is the byplay of the two men, as well as Doyle’s charming descriptions of life in the Baker Street flat that they share:
But with me there is a limit, and 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 jack-knife into the very centre of his wooden mantelpiece, then I begin to give myself virtuous airs.
Yet there is more to the Holmes stories than charm. I suspect that most modern-day readers first encounter them, as I did, in childhood. They were not written for children, however, and to read them today is to see at once that they are direct reflections of the contemporary response to such shocking crimes as the “Jack the Ripper” murders, which took place in 1888, two years after Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes story.
Conan Doyle is not known ever to have commented on Jack the Ripper. Still, he would have read about the murderer’s widely reported activities, just as he was well aware of the sordid poverty of East London, which is portrayed in “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” whose title character operates out of an East End opium den located in “a vile alley…between a slop-shop and a gin-shop.” Indeed, some of the most modern-sounding passages in the Holmes stories are their grisly descriptions of crime scenes, which foreshadow the blood-soaked police-procedural TV series of today.
This points to another source of Holmes’s perennial appeal, which is that he is, in common with most other fictional detectives of the 19th and early-20th centuries, a fundamentally reassuring presence, one whose phenomenal crime-solving abilities remind us that the encroaching disorder of the world around us need not be irresistible. Small wonder, then, that the Holmes stories were so successfully filmed in Hollywood during World War II, with Basil Rathbone’s Holmes transformed into a hunter of Nazi spies.
Nor have the residents of 221B Baker Street come close to wearing out their welcome. In addition to an endless string of further film adaptations, two hit TV series—the BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary—have transplanted Holmes and Watson to present-day London and New York, altering them as needed to accommodate the pop-culture obsessions of our own time (and, in the case of Elementary, turning Watson into a sexy Asian woman). The popularity of these adaptations demonstrates the archetypical aspect of Conan Doyle’s original characters, whose idiosyncrasies remain recognizable no matter how radical the change in setting. Whether Holmes stimulates his psyche with a 7-percent solution of injectable cocaine or the trendier nicotine patches favored in Sherlock, he remains the same chilly-souled master of ratiocination that he was in the days of Queen Victoria.
It is, however, one thing to create a permanently memorable character and another to write fiction of permanent interest about him. That the Holmes stories have remained readable is self-evident, but this is not proof of their literary merit, about which their author harbored no illusions:
The best literary work is that which leaves the reader better for having read it. Now, nobody can possibly be the better—in the high sense in which I mean it—for reading Sherlock Holmes, although he may have passed a pleasant hour in doing so.
Conan Doyle’s own objection to the stories, and to detective stories in general, was that “they only call for the use of a certain portion of one’s imaginative faculty, the invention of a plot, without giving any scope for character drawing.” In fact, though, this objection comes close to inverting the truth about Sherlock Holmes. To be sure, the puzzles that he solves are clever enough, but their cleverness exhausts itself on first reading. It is Holmes the character that fascinates us—and it is his failure to develop other than superficially that is the principal weakness of the stories, above all when they are read in bulk.
Anyone who returns to the Holmes stories in adulthood after having put them aside for half a lifetime, as I recently did in writing this essay, will be forcibly struck by this weakness. For the Holmes and Watson of A Study in Scarlet, it turns out, are already fully developed as personalities. While we learn a certain number of new things about them in the tales that follow, they do not grow, nor does their relationship alter in any significant way. Similarly, they remain fixed in time and thus never grapple with the complicating problems of modernity (except in “His Last Bow,” a 1917 story that shows us Holmes and Watson on the eve of World War I).
While this perpetual sameness is generally taken to be part of the charm of the Holmes stories, readers who expect more out of literature than mental comfort food are more likely to find that it palls quickly. Conan Doyle certainly did. One of the most noteworthy features of the stories is the sharp decline that sets in after the publication in 1892 of the first collection, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The excellence of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), the third and best of the four Holmes novels, suggests that he may have felt constricted by the short-story format, in which he was rarely able in later years to do more than reshuffle his own clichés (“It was pleasant to Dr. Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures”). Whatever the reason, he was unable to maintain the quality of the series, and one suspects that the underlying problem was that he was not interested enough in Holmes and Watson themselves.
In addition, though, Conan Doyle had to contend with the larger limitation of melodrama, which is its narrowly restrictive subject matter. An intelligently written mystery story or crime novel may use the conventions of genre fiction to explore other aspects of modern life, but in the end, somebody always gets killed, just as a popular song, no matter how good it may be, is always three minutes long. In saying this, it is not my purpose to demean pop culture: I believe, for instance, that most of the best movies made in America in the 20th century were crime dramas, Westerns, and screwball comedies. But there is more to life than murder and wisecracks, just as there is more to love than what can be said within the compass of a 32-bar ballad.
Taken one by one, the best of the Holmes stories contrive up to a point to circumvent this limitation. Yet I find it impossible to imagine, as F.R. Leavis said of the novels of Thomas Peacock, that they will have “a permanent life as light reading—indefinitely rereadable—for minds with mature interests.” Christopher Morley came closer to the point when he described them as a “great encyclopedia of romance,” and to praise them in that way is to leave no doubt of where they fall short. When a great poet uses the conventions of romantic literature to plumb the infinite complexities of human nature, the result is The Tempest. When a talented commercial writer does so, the result is “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”
Yes, Sherlock lives on—and on. Very likely he will continue to do so for decades more to come, if only in the form of the small-screen anti-heroes who have introduced him to a new generation of non-readers who prefer TV to books. But his survival proves only that Conan Doyle knew better than any other popular writer of his generation how to tell his customers what they wanted to hear. That doesn’t make the Holmes stories classic—merely memorable.
1 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 816 pp.